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Common Core Betrays the Civil Rights Movement

(Image: Student erases via Shutterstock)

Given the power of its symbolism, many individuals and entities have attempted to appropriate the legacy of the civil rights movement for their own purposes. In 2010, for instance, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck led a march on Washington to restore what he professed was the distorted history of the movement. While Beck’s tenuous appeal to the movement’s heritage might be dismissed, the danger of misappropriation of its core values of justice and equality are greater when the person or group doing the usurping can legitimately lay a claim to that legacy.

This has become clear recently with a campaign to promote the Common Core State Standards by the National Urban League, which played an important if less visible role during the civil rights movement. Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, has declared that the Common Core will “help bridge the achievement gap by leveling the playing field so that all students, regardless of race, geography or income, have an equal shot at gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century global economy.” This fall, the National Urban League has partnered with Radio One to deliver this message on multiple media platforms.

We agree that education should empower young men and women, of whatever race or background, to succeed in college and careers. Our contention, however, is that the Common Core’s promise does not correspond to its reality. More strongly, we contend that the Common Core betrays the civil rights legacy more than advances it.

In his recent book on the origin and consequences of No Child Left Behind, the political scientist Jesse H. Rhodes explains why civil rights activists support the idea of national education standards. For years, activists demanded that black children have the same opportunities as white children, including science and history courses, music and theater programs, and qualified teachers running small classes. The equity movement failed, however, to produce measurable results and overcome conservative opposition.

The idea of educational standards, however, unites civil rights and business groups convinced that all Americans need a quality education. That is why both the National Urban League and the US Chamber of Commerce support the Common Core. The excellence movement, as it is called, may succeed where the equity movement didn’t.

Yet good intentions do not always translate into effective policies. The National Urban League, whose mission “is to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights,” is on shaky ground with the Common Core. We can identify at least three reasons why the Common Core is already harming a generation of young African-Americans.

First and foremost, Common Core testing has branded a large percentage of black youth as failures. In New York, only 19.3 percent of black students demonstrated proficiency on state math tests and 17.6 percent demonstrated proficiency on state English language arts tests. Do these numbers light a fire under educators to do a better job? Maybe. But they also mean that the educational system is signaling to many black children that they have no future in higher education or the modern workforce.

Second, the Common Core focuses attention on math and English test prep above all other academic or extracurricular pursuits. The Race to the Top program incentivized states to adopt the Common Core as well as a testing regime that punishes teachers or schools with low student test scores. In New York City, the Success Academy charter schools excel on the Common Core tests. How? According to one administrator, by turning children into “little test-taking machines.” It goes without saying that many wealthy parents would never accept such an education for their children; in practice, the Common Core widens rather than narrows the opportunity gap.

Finally, the Common Core dedicates limited resources to textbook and testing companies rather than teachers and children. The Race to the Top program awarded $330 million to two Common Core testing consortia: PARCC and SBAC. Schools, in turn, must purchase aligned-curricula as well as the technology to run the online Common Core tests. Meanwhile, financially strapped school districts are cutting art and music programs that stimulate brain development and teach skills such as cooperation and perseverance. This is a tragedy for all students, including African-American ones.

We share the National Urban League’s ambition to prepare black youth to succeed in the 21st century global economy but disagree that the Common Core is the way to make that happen. So far, the Common Core is draining educational budgets, narrowing the curriculum and turning students into little test-taking machines. This is no way to advance the civil rights legacy. Instead, we should recommit to the principle that all children, of whatever race or background, can attain the same kind of education only available, right now, to the children of privilege.