WASHINGTON — Viewed from Washington, which often is the last to learn about important developments, opposition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative still seems as small as the biblical cloud that ariseth out of the sea, no larger than a man’s hand. Soon, however, this education policy will fill a significant portion of the political sky.
The Common Core represents the ideas of several national organizations (of governors and school officials) about what and how children should learn. It is the thin end of an enormous wedge. It is designed to advance in primary and secondary education the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity.
Understandably, proponents of the Common Core want its nature and purpose to remain as cloudy as possible for as long as possible. Hence they say it is a “state-led,” “voluntary” initiative to merely guide education with “standards” that are neither written nor approved nor mandated by Washington, which would never, ever “prescribe” a national curriculum. Proponents talk warily when describing it because a candid characterization would reveal yet another Obama administration indifference to legality.
The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the original federal intrusion into this state and local responsibility, said “nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” schools’ curriculums.
The 1970 General Education Provisions Act stipulates that “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any” federal agency or official “to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials by any” school system. The 1979 law creating the Department of Education forbids it from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” or “program of instruction” of any school system. The ESEA as amended says no Education Department funds “may be used ... to endorse, approve, or sanction any curriculum designed to be used in” grades K-12.
Nevertheless, what begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials. Washington already is encouraging the alignment of the GED, SAT and ACT tests with the Common Core. By a feedback loop, these tests will beget more curriculum conformity. All of this will take a toll on parental empowerment, and none of this will escape the politicization of learning like that already rampant in higher education.
Leave aside the abundant, fierce, often learned and frequently convincing criticisms of the writing, literature and mathematics standards. Even satisfactory national standards must extinguish federalism’s creativity: At any time, it is more likely there will be half a dozen innovative governors than one creative federal education bureaucracy. And the mistakes made by top-down federal reforms are continental mistakes.
The Obama administration has purchased states’ obedience by partially conditioning waivers from onerous federal regulations (from No Child Left Behind) and receipt of federal largess ($4.35 billion in Race to the Top money from the 2009 stimulus) on the states’ embrace of the Common Core. Although 45 states and the District of Columbia have struck this bargain, most with little debate, some are reconsidering and more will do so as opposition mounts. Many proponents seem to deem it beneath their dignity to engage opponents’ arguments, preferring to caricature them as political primitives and to dismiss them with flippancies such as this from Bill Gates: “It’s ludicrous to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different.”
What is ludicrous is Common Core proponents disdaining concerns related to this fact: Fifty years of increasing Washington inputs into K-12 education has coincided with disappointing cognitive outputs from schools. Is it eccentric that it is imprudent to apply to K-12 education the federal touch that has given us HealthCare.gov?
The rise of opposition to the Common Core illustrates three healthy aspects of today’s politics. First, new communication skills and technologies enable energized minorities to force new topics onto the political agenda. Second, this uprising of local communities against state capitals, the nation’s capital and various muscular organizations (e.g., the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, teachers unions, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) demonstrates that although the public agenda is malleable, a sturdy portion of the public is not.
Third, political dishonesty has swift, radiating and condign consequences. Opposition to the Common Core is surging because Washington, hoping to mollify opponents, is saying, in effect: “If you like your local control of education, you can keep it. Period.”
To which a burgeoning movement is responding: “No. Period.”
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.