Directly after the Senate narrowly confirmed Betsy DeVos as education secretary last week, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway spoke with Jake Tapper on CNN.
DeVos “will get on with the business of executing on the president’s vision for education,” Conway said. “He’s made very clear all throughout the campaign and as president he wants to repeal Common Core, he doesn’t think that federal standards are better than local and parental control…And that children should not be restricted in terms of education opportunities just by their ZIP code, just by where they live. We’ve got to look at homeschooling, and charter schools, and school choice and other alternatives for certain students.”
Tapper immediately moved on to foreign affairs, but Conway’s statement is singular for clearly reiterating a campaign promise many grassroots Common Core opponents worried President Trump would forget. It was also followed by the usual round of denunciations in the education and other press about how it’s obviously impossible for President Trump to do anything about Common Core because the federal mechanisms that pushed it on states have expired.
Cue the Chorus of Naysayers
Michael Cohen, whose organization, Achieve, helped create and impose Common Core on the nation, told USA Today that “most schools’ standards, testing and accountability systems will be unaffected by the change in administration. And Trump’s vow to end so-called Common Core testing may well ring hollow, since states must decide whether to keep or drop the tests. ‘Whether (DeVos) likes the Common Core or doesn’t like the Common Core — and I’ve heard both — it doesn’t matter,’ he said.”
What a convenient narrative for him: Aw, guys, you can’t do anything about Common Core. Check and mate! Yet I’m not sure why anyone listens to these people since under Cohen’s leadership Achieve completely botched its management of one of the federally funded national Common Core tests it netted through philanthrocronyism. We’re talking folks who got $170 million from taxpayers to produce tests the states involved have dropped like a hot rock, reducing them to selling bits of the tests in a shame-faced fire sale to stave off dissolution. What a fine track record of credible expertise! Only in Washington.
The Los Angeles Times’ Joy Resmovitz also insisted Trump can’t fulfill his promise: “While it’s true that the Obama administration did promote participation, the Common Core is not a federal initiative — so it’s not something Trump can repeal. In fact, language in a new federal education law explicitly bars the Education secretary from influencing standards. Even if Trump does pressure states to drop Common Core —perhaps by tweeting — schools in California probably wouldn’t change course.”
Even leading Republicans have reinforced Cohen’s insistence that DeVos can’t fulfill Trump’s repeated campaign pledge because, as Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander insists every time he gets the chance, Congress already “repealed the federal Common Core mandate.” That guy oughta be a lawyer, the way he carefully parses words to give an impression that is opposite the full reality.
We’re Sick of Your Weaponized Language
Lawmakers, media, and bureaucrat types benefit themselves at the public’s expense by speaking very precisely yet falsely like this, in what Robert Mariani has called “autistic literalism” and my colleague Mollie Hemingway calls “hyperliteralism.” In discussing press freakouts over and constant misreading of President Trump, Mollie quotes Brad Todd: “voters take Donald Trump seriously but not literally, while journalists take him literally, but not seriously.”
So, let’s read Donald Trump’s promise to repeal Common Core, not in the ruling class’s legalistic hyperliteralism that attempts to definitionally neuter their opponents, but on Donald Trump terms, on the American public’s terms: seriously, but not literally. Common Core is not merely one federal mandate. It embodies the culmination of the federal education system itself. It is marbled throughout state and federal education policy in myriad programs, mandates, funding streams, and, most of all, the ineffective progressive-education “thoughtworld” it entrenches in its testing and curriculum dictates.
As I detail in full footnoted glory in my book out soon, Common Core’s own founding documents specifically invite federal involvement. Its success as a national program is directly attributable to federal involvement in education, period. Common Core’s creators and funders worked hand-in-glove with the Obama administration, right down to transferring personnel and regular alignment phone calls, to impose it upon the nation and link it to every major federal and state education policy (data collection, teacher preparation and certification, school rating systems, curriculum, testing). The new law replacing No Child Left Behind codifies the federal government as the ultimate review board for state testing and curriculum policies, a Clinton-era policy that made Common Core possible.
So, as usual, the conventional political wisdom is wrong. President Trump can indeed fulfill his promise to repeal Common Core. The mechanisms that led to its creation and force-fed it to states remain intact, and need to be dismantled. At the heart of those mechanisms lies the U.S. Department of Education itself.
The Common Core Death Star
If we take President Trump’s promise as a broad statement of intent that Americans should not have to continue suffering under the prolonged and bipartisan mismanagement of the nation’s schools force-fed through the U.S. Department of Education, we already know that to genuinely repeal Common Core requires drastically reducing, if not eliminating, federal involvement in education. Without the U.S. Department of Education, there would be no Common Core.
That sounds like a dramatic statement, but even Common Core supporters (like Barack Obama!) have said as much. Common Core is a train; USDOE is the railroad. Indeed, if you trace the history of American education, as I have, you find that departments of education are the prime movers of every Common Core-like push to yoke schools to curriculum fads and ideologies that experience proves ineffective every single time.
The reason is a basic function of political science: concentrating power increases the incentives for special-interest capture. In other words, the more they can get out of controlling a certain agency (i.e., the more power it has), the more special interests will work to do it. A corollary is the political problem of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits: The few who benefit from niche political power will work doggedly to attain it, while the public at large has many other interests and are not immediately aware of the personal effects of a growing power monopoly in a particular sector until it has metastasized, perhaps beyond repair.
What do monopolies do? Hike costs and slash quality. Because they are protected from competition, an ideological monopoly is free to inflict bad ideas on the people it affects. Not at all surprisingly, then, researchers on Left and Right have found that government and university departments of education generally prevent rather than foster education. The education industry is full of highly credentialed people who despite years of research and blue-ribbon panels demonstrating the efficacy of time-proven teaching methods and curricula (for example), continually insist on doing, if not the opposite, then at least as much of the opposite as they can get away with.
This has been going on since, well, since the U.S. Department of Education became a thing. In fact, the history of American education shows that the department has from its inception trafficked in terrible ideas and sought to expand its own power at the expense of Americans, in myriad ways from taxing our time through stupid regulations to requiring us to pay for these stupid regulations and through making us and our kids dumber because monopoly education breeds ignorance, and ignorance is an existential crisis for a constitutional republic. If you doubt that, you haven’t been paying attention.
How About a Few Midrange Missiles, First?
Okay. So to truly nuke Common Core would indeed require nuking the federal agency that fostered and inflicted it upon the nation. On the campaign trail, Trump didn’t hesitate to say USDOE should get deep-sixed, and cited Common Core as a reason why.
Of course that requires an act of Congress, and like many other big ideas from Trump, the smart set says it’s pure folly, and Republicans listen to those self-credentialed charlatans. Well, maybe after a few more months of administrative state sabotage they will be a little more amenable. When that happens, some legislative assistant should get this book recently out from Vicki Alger, which she spent years researching, and use its template for eliminating the department.
In the meantime, something will have to happen with that hunk of junk. A few ideas.
- DeVos needs to dispense with the Jeb Bush set beginning to populate her department in the early new hires and hire some smart people (yes, lawyer up) who get these realities of federal education policy and are not charmed by the managerial progressive Republican’s dreams of running the administrative state more efficiently.
- Pre-empt the inevitable sabotage attempts within her department by a) doing a department audit b) hiring smart c) announcing that all emails from all department employees will be placed, sans personal information, in a publicly accessible database (h/t Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute) d) use the Office of Budget and Management review of her department as a guidebook for beginning to clean house and expose waste, fraud, and abuse before her employees do it in ways that make her look bad.
- Do the opposite of what people like Achieve’s Cohen tell the press they want to see happen. For example, he notes that this spring states will be coming to USDOE to have it approve their testing regimes in minute detail. The technical details of these reviews are one of the unseen linchpins pinning states into Common Core. DeVos can and should use that process to stop USDOE from putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Common Core-style education. Stop using tests to data-mine kids’ curriculum knowledge, and stop rating tests more highly for more closely conforming to Common Core. Etc. Unsucker the tentacles.
- As Jane Robbins says, “make it clear to states that the feds won’t penalize them in any way if they replace Common Core with good standards.”
- Keep the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) from being re-aligned with Common Core, and forbid its governing board from incorporating intrusive questions about mindsets and school climate, which is illegal but being considered.
- Use the upcoming re-up of the Higher Education Act to end all federal involvement with teacher preparation in any respect. The research shows we don’t know a hill of beans about what makes a good teacher, and that teacher credentialing is a big waste of time that merely reinforces progressive-style education (e.g., Common Core). So no agency has the knowledge to pretend otherwise, least of all the federal government. That should be entirely remanded to the states. It appears Chairman Alexander agrees, so good.
- During the Higher Education Act reauthorization, get the feds out of college accreditation entirely. The process does not prevent students from getting an increasingly poor “higher” education, as the continued spiral up of costs and down of outcomes shows. Accreditation should be left entirely to the private sector.
- Scrub federal teacher professional development, curriculum, and other grants and end all funding to programs that support Common Core. Redirect it while it still exists to the few legitimate, research-based organizations such as Core Knowledge.
- Pull all federal funding from Common Core creating and sustaining institutions such as to the two national, federally funded Common Core tests (SBAC and PARCC), Achieve, the American Institutes for Research, College Board, National Governors Association, Chief Council of State School Officers, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers.
I’ve got seven more ideas here. These are all rear-guard measures that can only ameliorate the effects of Common Core, not repeal it or prevent the next iteration of nationalized education from consuming the last vestiges of self-government in education. The real hydra is the U.S. Department of Education, which has outposts in every state called state departments of education (their biggest job in most states is handling compliance with federal regulations). Eight congressmen have introduced a bill to do that. Get it some hearings.
If Trump and DeVos take down that hydra, they will indeed fulfill a major and worthy campaign promise, with the added ego boost of doing something even President Reagan couldn’t. Warning from history: It was sabotage from within the department that strangled Reagan’s same promise. His key mistake? Appointing for education secretary a man who had testified in favor of creating the department a few years before but during the presidential vetting process promised Reagan he supported eliminating it.