Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White were once allies in the fight for school choice, as well as unified in leading the New Orleans Public Schools to be the largest charter school district in America. But a once-great partnership spiraled downward to the point where the two men could barely tolerate one another. Meetings of the state board of education became proxy wars where the governor’s appointees vigorously opposed White’s every advance and policy maneuver. The issue? The initiative to establish national educational standards known as Common Core.
Initially, Jindal supported the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as did a majority of the nation’s governors, thinking it provided an opportunity to strengthen academic standards for the state in the ongoing quest for what education reformers reference as “standards based reform.” Jindal reversed course when public pressure mounted against the initiative. John White, one of the nation’s most prominent education reform leaders and strongest supporters of Common Core, prepared for a fight.
The impasse between Jindal and White grew vicious and personal. Routine board meetings lasted for hours as parents would testify against Common Core by exposing embarrassing examples of questions taken from Common Core-aligned tests. Their impassioned pleas to free children from the tyranny of government sponsored standards was catnip for the news media.
Chas Roemer, then president of the board (once a Jindal ally as well) refused to comply with Jindal’s demands, and the state legislature got involved in the fight. Jindal remained undaunted in his pursuit to rid the state of Common Core. The governor brought a lawsuit against President Obama and the United States Department of Education. After months of legal wrangling, the state of Louisiana dropped the case against President Obama over Common Core after Jindal left office. The entire saga left a residue of distrust between parents, teachers, school leaders, and politicians.
Louisiana was not alone in its Common Core saga. As Federalist Managing Editor Joy Pullmann reveals in the book, The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids, the year 2013 began a wave of Common Core repeal bills in state legislatures that swelled to more than seven hundred across the nation. Common Core grabbed attention in the 2016 presidential campaign resulting in candidates being forced to take a stand for or against the initiative. As a political issue, Common Core is here to stay.
Common Core – A ‘Close’ Read
Most parents do not realize that lurking behind their child’s school is a vast bureaucratic infrastructure governed by cadres of consultants, curriculum publishers, standardized test developers, and non-profit entities. Pullmann looks under the hood of the education establishment and exposes the tentacles of the education specialists who wrote the Common Core standards – many of whom have little or no actual teaching experience. Pullmann’s thesis: Common Core is the crowning achievement of a decades long attempt by various education professionals to standardize and nationalize education to the point that a national curriculum is finally in place, though it is carefully disguised as a state-based and voluntary program.
Beginning with what Common Core actually is – a 640-page set of blueprints for K-12 math and English curriculum and tests – she states that a federal power grab for control of the curriculum has taken place resulting in “cumbersome process requirements wrapped in obscure jargon.” Citing research from Terrance Moore (a leading Common Core opponent) Pullmann states that “Common Core is as big a change in education as Obamacare is in health care.” For Pullmann, the travesty is not simply that Common Core exists, but “unlike Obamacare it needed no votes in Congress to become national policy.”
Part investigative report and part denunciation, Pullmann’s research looks to the administration and funding for the Common Core bureaucracy. An administrative triumvirate surfaces between the National Governor’s Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve – a non-profit education reform organization that runs “one of the two national Common Core test organizations, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).” Funded by the Bill Gates Foundation and federal grants and staffed with many Gates Foundation employees, Common Core got its start as a follow-up of sorts to President Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000: Educate America Act. It was then that national education goals first surfaced in force among American educators.
To fully understand Common Core, one must understand the history of education reform over the past three decades. Pullmann traces how Clinton era reforms were ultimately submerged by President George W. Bush’s regulations in his signature education reform initiative – No Child Left Behind. By removing federal sanctions for schools that did not achieve certain academic test scores, the Obama Administration provided its own version of education reform with a program called Race to the Top.
Pullmann shows how various federal “grant inducements” forced states to write their state education plans with Common Core at the heart of their work so they would be eligible to receive millions of dollars in federal funds. Surfacing a paper by Joanne Weiss (Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Chief of Staff) openly admitting to forcing “alignment among the top three education leaders in each participating state – the governor, the chief state school officer, and the president of the state board of education,” Pullmann closes the loop on the “federal muscle” exerting control over local schools.
High Standards – Bad?
For the uninitiated, high academic standards for each local school across America would seem to be a laudable goal. Pullmann would agree, but who decides the definition of an acceptable standard and how that decision is determined is where she believes the federal largesse steps into an unconstitutional role. Regardless of what various education experts might assess in their research, certain academic standards will remain the norm for parents in math and English.
When parents began to discover the content, methodology, and pedagogy employed in Common Core, a widespread revolt commenced. The Common Core “standards” were unacceptable for many parents. Pullmann explains that the process of determining the academic standards is unfairly weighted to an intrusive role by the United States Department of Education:
It’s flat-out illegal for the federal government to have anything to do with curriculum. Federal agencies have historically avoided the explicit legal prohibition by paying other people to write curriculum. So the feds aren’t doing it themselves, but these projects are definitely carried out under federal auspices and authority; they rely on federal funds; and their shape is influenced by federal officials. They are federal products in all but name, though Common Core supporters have clutched at technicalities to cover their rears.
Education in America is a $600 billion industry. There are more than 13,500 school districts with a K-12 student population of more than 50 million. Historically, because of the sheer size of the education system in the United States, the academic curriculum for each local school or district has been relegated to local communities where accountability remained a local matter. This was the way teaching and learning was managed given the enormous student population of the United States.
Over time, however, Pullmann clearly shows how this arrangement has changed, and how Common Core was the final step for a federalized curriculum that has, if statistics are correct, failed. Academic progress is not accelerating. In fact, Pullmann shows just the opposite is taking place.
The Forward Standard
Her antidote to the crisis is a classical education supported by policies founded on time-tested academic standards that bear little resemblance to the standards of Common Core. For her, Ridgeview Classical School in Fort Collins, Colorado is one of the most promising models of education available to students today. Ridgeview is a public charter school staffed with teachers who teach a classical curriculum. Students will learn “phonics, traditional math and science, Latin, and the Western and American heritage.” U.S. News and World Report “consistently ranks Ridgeview’s high school among the best in the nation.”
Ridgeview opposed Common Core. For now, that is acceptable, but when the state of Colorado begins to evaluate the academic progress of the school based on the metrics of Common Core, there could be a problem. “Judging Ridgeview by Common Core metrics puts the school at an unfair disadvantage because its model is so deliberately different,” Pullmann writes. This begs the question: How will schools like Ridgeview be evaluated by a state board of education? Answering that question sets the stage for the ongoing education wars.
Just how “local” is a local school? Who decides what a local school will teach? Should there be a slate of acceptable academic standards all students should learn? What methods should be employed to teach those standards? Wading into education reform waters is dangerous if for no other reason than the vast amount of money and power associated with and connected to the local classroom.
Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, recently stated: “Here inside the beltway, in states, and in districts, there’s a contingent of folks who just don’t want to use academic data in any way to track kids or rate schools. They don’t want the pressure that comes with an indicator where you have a clear outcome – where there are actually people who scored zero and people who scored 100.” If true, what purpose does the local school serve to its students, to parents, and to the taxpayers who fund it? If academic standards are not primary and foundational to a school, then why does the school exist in the first place?
The great danger in debates about academic standards is that they can easily devolve into an education without standards by teachers without accountability in schools without purpose. Toward this end, Pullmann’s book is a welcome exposé.