Sarah Jean Seman

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the September issue of Townhall Magazine. 

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was supposedly developed with one goal in mind: to strengthen the United States’ global competitive advantage by rigorously educating the next generation.

It is unquestioned that Americans are falling behind their foreign counterparts in academics. U.S. students tested below average in math and only nudged in close to average in reading and science when compared to 34 other developed countries, according to the 2012 Program for International Students Assessment.

“To maintain America’s competitive edge, we need all of our students to be prepared and ready to compete with students from around the world,” then-Vermont Gov. and National Governors Association vice chair Jim Douglas (D) said at the announcement of Common Core in 2009.

Unfortunately, this visionary overhaul has burgeoned into a federal government power grab. In its current capacity, the standards may end up hurting our already failing education system and overlooking our children’s unique needs and the diversity of the country at large.

WHAT IS COMMON CORE?

The Common Core lobbying push began in 2006, when NGA chair and then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano
(D) launched her Innovation America campaign. Napolitano’s goal was to “give governors

the tools they need to improve math and sci- ence education, better align postsecondary education systems with state economies, and develop regional innovation strategies.”

An ensuing task force composed of the NGA, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the progressive educational group Achieve Inc. produced a 2008 report titled “Benchmark- ing Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World Class Education.” The writers urged state leaders to “upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.”

This same advisory group proceeded to jointly develop the standards known today as Common Core State Standards.

The testing rubric sets K-12 grade-specific goals for English, language arts, and math. In theory, these standards would en- sure that students in every state are reaching the same academic level. At the same time, teachers still have the freedom to craft lessons at will, as long as they include the material needed for students to pass the national benchmark. Regardless of where a family relocates, or what school system they transfer into, a student should be able to enter the academic setting with confidence that they can keep up Microsoft guru Bill Gates eventually became one of Common Core’s biggest champions after activists sold him on the idea in 2008. Gates then heavily funded the organizations that pushed the Common Core standards and those same organizations are now set to use Microsoft products for their digital learning programs.

“I want to explain why Common Core is among the most important education ideas in years,” Gates wrote in a February 12, 2014 USA Today op-ed.

“The standards are just that: standards, similar to those that have guided teachers in all states for years, except these standards are inspired by a simple and powerful idea: Every American student should leave high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and in the job market.”

Initially, 45 states agreed to join the initiative in 2009. And in many respects, the program started off on the correct foot. It did not take long, however, for states to recognize the product’s false packaging and the potentially detrimental effects it would bring to their state.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

“If you look at the history of Common Core, how it came to be, the pressure and the incentive that were put on states to adopt it, I think it’s easy to conclude that this was federally driven,” Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation, tells Townhall.

Follow the money and you will find that the federal government is the biggest backer of Common Core.

“From the get-go, there were $4.35 billion dollars in Race to the Top grants offered up to states that adopted the standards,” Burke says.

President Obama’s 2009 law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, funded $4.35 billion to the competitive grant program, Race to the Top. This program offered monetary incentives (which for all intents and purposes can be referred to as a bribe) to implement educational reform.

According to the program’s executive summary, one of the criteria for reform just so happens to be using a “common set of high-quality standards” that have been adopted by a “significant number of states.” The only standard that fulfills these criteria is Common Core.

In addition to the Race to the Top carrot, Obama also used a draconian No Child Left Behind stick to whack any states that dared to defy his Common Core commandment. Burke explains:

“There is a looming deadline in No Child Left Behind that states are facing in the 2014-15 school year. No Child Left Behind says that every child has to be proficient in reading and math, and that’s a wonderful goal, but states are nowhere near meeting that goal, and there are a cascade of sanctions that will fall down on states if they come up short.”

“So the Obama administration,” Burke continues, “comes along and says, ‘we’ll waive that requirement from you, and we’ll ostensibly provide you relief from No Child Left Behind, but again, if and only if you agree to adopt common standards and other reforms that the White House prefers.’”

The current administration’s ideology of progressive reform is at the heart of the federal entanglement, Burke explains.

“For conservatives, that’s at odds, both with the tenets of federalism and the extremely limited role, if any, that the federal government is supposed to play in education policy, and it’s at odds just with the practical nature of education financing.”

Having a strong nationalized education system is not even indicative of improved academic performance. For example, Canada, which landed more than 20 places ahead of the United States on the PISA scale, does not even have a centralized education department. Tax money for public education is administered via provinces and territories that work together with local school boards to decide on implementation. Creating yet another federally monitored program can only indefinitely confirm one fact: a large sum of taxpayer money will be consumed.

The United States already spends more than $11,000 on each student, per year, with few tangible benefits for the cost. At the same time the Slovak Republic (spending what amounts to $5,000 per student) has managed to score similarly to U.S. students academically, PISA found.

Aware of the nation’s growing anti-Washington sentiments, the standards were relentlessly marketed as voluntary and state-led. It was this very phrasing that lured lawmakers to agree to the scheme.

ALL STRINGS ATTACHED

Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Turner (R) witnessed this selling point firsthand. Though not yet in the legislature at the time, Turner recalls the time when lawmakers agreed to the Common Core initiative:

“From what I understand everybody thought it was going to be this new era of education accountability and that we were going to have these minimum standards and that they are, quote on quote ‘locally derived.’ That is where Oklahoma, at the time and still, is ranked low compared to other states when it comes to a lot of different education standards. I’m sure a lot of lawmakers voted ‘yes,’ because they figured anything was better than what we had at the time.”

Oklahoma’s education ranking came in at only 43, when compared to other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit public policy organization. Despite having one of the poorest education rankings in the nation, lawmakers were quick to turn on Common Core when they learned more about it.

“The moment people began to see how many actual strings were involved, that’s when everything hit the fan,” Turner states. “The huge amount of outcry, you know, parents, teachers, community activists; they’re infuriated about the Common Core standards because it has completely robbed them of the ability to have any influence at all. And it’s completely re- written, not just the school curriculum, but it has also redone how teachers are evaluated, how we’re teaching to a test.” Common Core requires states to implement assessment tests using either the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Additionally, David Coleman, one of the standard’s lead writers, has more recently become president of College Board, the organization responsible for the SAT. Coleman proceeded to alter the SAT to align with Common Core. This means states, or even home-schooled students who remain out of the broad system, may find the test caters to students who have been raised on the standards.

ANGERING THE LEFT AND RIGHT

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about this new stratagem. The California Teachers Association, for example, spoke out on their website against linking student achievement to testing and highlighted the hypocrisy the Obama administration has shown in backing this technique for learning assessment.

“During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama contended that teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests and that students deserve to learn in an individualized manner. ... The narrow content focus encourages teaching to the test, which artificially inflates test scores while simultaneously narrowing the curriculum taught in the classroom.”

Many education wonks have found the new curriculum only debatably superior to the previous standards of some states. Massachusetts, for instance, one of the nation’s strongest academic achievers, will undoubtedly be worse off with the adoption of Common Core.

The new standards in math, English, and language arts are also not making any significant gains toward international standards. A study conducted by the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that Common Core is failing to live up to its promise.

“The Common Core’s shift in emphasis to higher-level thinking skills is not consistent with curricular standards in countries that currently outshine the U.S. in international assessments,” a summary of the study on UPenn’s website notes. “[P]laces like Finland, Japan, and Singapore don’t put nearly as much emphasis on higher-order skills as does the Common Core.”

STATES WANT OUT

Indiana became the first state to repeal the new testing standards and many states have since followed suit.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), originally a supporter of Common Core, quickly relinquished his views and rejected the standards when he became better acquainted with them.

“Let’s face it: centralized planning didn’t work in Russia, it’s not working with our health care system and it won’t work in education,” Jindal stated in May. “Education is best left to local control.”

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) also signed a bill to shirk the Common Core standards with overwhelming support from the state legislature (78-18).

“I have to give a lot of credit to colleagues, who, at the original time thought [Common Core] was a great idea,” Turner says. “It’s fantastic to see them come around and see what the actual fruit of their implementation is. They began to realize that where federal government giveth, federal government taketh and control.”

Common Core was supposed to bring accountability and education standards to make our kids brighter, but it did neither, Turner explains.

“It is nothing more than a failed experiment that has cost significant resources, both in man-power and in dollars, only to put us on a one-size fits all agenda. We should have been looking at home-grown standards that takes into consideration each community’s goals.”

The end product does not encourage innovation or skill- setup, it instills in children the school’s need to produce widgets, which fit into a common machine, Turner remarked.

Oklahoma, like the other states that have or are in the midst of rejecting Common Core, is working to create its own set of standards that will be unique to the children, the people, and the local economy.

The very name “Common Core” goes against the heart of America’s rich and diverse population, where each person is valued for their individualism and rare skill set.

“Our kids aren’t ‘common,’” Heritage’s Burke points out, “they are incredibly unique and we want to move towards an education system that is individualized and personalized.” • 


Sarah Jean Seman

Sarah Jean Seman is a Townhall Web Editor. Follow Sarah Jean Seman on Twitter @sarah_jean_

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography