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One Size Does Not Fit All: Fighting the Common Core Curriculum

Corporate interests are pushing Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in an attempt to privatize public elementary and secondary schools throughout the United States and impose a one-size-fits-all curriculum on classrooms throughout the country. But parents, teachers and students are fighting back.

Common Core State Standards. (Image: amerigus / Flickr)

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Nearly 60 years ago, long before Common Core State Standards (CCSS) became part of the political lexicon, conservative economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) wowed right-wing libertarians with his notion of social transformation. The key, he explained, involved privatizing public education. “Our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured,” he wrote.” Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system – i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools.”

It took decades, but the seeds sown by Friedman in 1955 have slowly taken root. The result is common core state standards, a system that imposes a rigid curriculum on school districts throughout the country and ties teachers’ job security and pay raises to student achievement. The question is whether these roots will take, or will ultimately be upended by CCSS opponents.

Unlike most initiatives, people on both the progressive and Tea Party ends of the political spectrum hate Common Core. So do countless people whose politics fall somewhere in the middle. What virtually everyone concedes, however, is that education is a high-stakes enterprise. Indeed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 50 million children were enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in the fall of 2013. The budget? A whopping $591 billion.

But where did the idea for Common Core come from, and what exactly does it mean for students and educators?

The genesis of Common Core – earlier attempts at educational standardization like George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind effort were abandoned by the Obama administration – harkens back to a 2009 meeting between the National Governor’s Association, The Council of State School Officers and an 18-year-old group called ACHIEVE Inc. Although ostensibly a nonprofit, ACHIEVE is supported by some of the world’s largest corporations: Chevron, Cisco Systems, ExxonMobil, IBM, Intel, General Electric, JP Morgan Chase and Travelers’ Insurance, among them. Its board is made up of both Democratic and Republican governors and business bigwigs from the aforementioned companies.

Their argument in support of Common Core – and the federal Race to the Top money that requires states to impose Common Core’s rigid English and math tests at designated intervals throughout the academic year – is that periodic assessments will guarantee that students are intellectually competent by the time they finish high school and are ready to enter the workforce, a university or the military.

They’ve also expressed indignation over the corporate profiteering that standardized tests and test prep promote.

Although this sounds good, Common Core rests on the assumption that today’s students lack intellectual rigor because of shoddy, dumbed-down instruction. This argument is predicated on an international test that evaluated students from 34 countries. Indeed, US results were startlingly low: American students placed 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading. This, coupled with the studies showing that nearly one-third of entering college students need remedial instruction, has pushed school administrators, the media and the business world into panic mode. The focus of blame, not surprisingly, is teachers, men and women who allegedly refuse to impose measurable outcomes on the children and teens in their charge. For their part, teachers have offered a consistent rebuttal: Class size is too large; instructional materials are in short supply, and students often enter classrooms with limited English proficiency and a host of social problems ranging from living on the streets, to hunger, to parental joblessness – but their lament – and teacher strikes in Chicago and elsewhere – have gone unheeded. Instead, mainstream media have consistently projected teachers as a unified cadre, unconcerned that their students are graduating without being able to read or do basic calculations. This smear campaign has been effective: By painting teachers as overpaid and lazy, critics of public education have made it seem reasonable to demand a workforce that is harder-working and more goal-oriented.

Gates Money Fans the Flames of CCSS

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been at the helm of this effort and has poured more than $160 million into getting Common Core off the ground. It has also forged a tight public – private partnership between the feds, the Gates Foundation, and Pearson international booksellers. Thanks to Gates, a K-12 curriculum that is tightly aligned to CCSS has been created and is being marketed to schools throughout the country.

That said, it is worth noting that although the goal is standardization, states are phasing in Common Core fairly slowly.

In fact, despite the fact that the final standards for testing were set in 2010 and were accepted by 45 states – Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia initially refused to participate – some states have done little to introduce the program. Still, the idea of uniform standards has garnered widespread support; in addition to the Chamber of Commerce and the business world, the American Federation of Teachers, the College Board, the National Education Association, the National PTA and the US Army have championed the assessment strategy. Since its launch, however, Indiana, Louisiana and Tennessee have taken a second look and have either rescinded their support or delayed implementation of the testing. In addition, a groundswell of opposition has emerged at the grassroots, and parents, students and teachers have begun fighting the one-size-fits-all ethos at the heart of Common Core. They’ve also expressed indignation over the corporate profiteering that standardized tests and test prep promote.

According to Seattle teacher-activist Jesse Hagopian, “Common Core is an effort to say that every state in the nation will have the same standards. This means that you can sell one set of products – curriculum, test prep materials or textbooks geared to Common Core. The prize is the test itself. Pearson landed many of the contracts and sells a multitude of products that go with the CCSS program. This has turned teachers into technicians rather than people who empower students. People who support the idea of Common Core think education is about eliminating wrong answers. It’s not. Education is about teaching students how to tackle the problems they’ll face in life.”

Equally insidious, Hagopian adds, is the antiunion bent of CCSS proponents. “Teachers unions are the last stronghold of organized labor in the US,” he continues. “Testing is all about eliminating seniority. Tying a teacher’s job security to the outcome of test results – results that will vary from year to year depending on the students – is simply wrong.”

Louisiana teacher-activist Mercedes Schneider agrees with Hagopian and notes that the two testing consortia that oversee Common Core – the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness in College and Careers (PARCC), and Smarter Balanced – are funded by multimillion dollar grants from the Department of Education. PARCC, however, is managed by ACHIEVE, the corporate-sponsored group that advocated for CCSS. Both entities, says Schneider, “are tied to Pearson.” In fact, in January 2012, Smarter Balanced and PARCC awarded a contract to Pearson – for an undisclosed amount of money – to develop a technology readiness program billed as helping states “make the transition to Common Core State Standards.”

The intertwined relationships form a huge tangled knot for parents, teachers and students to unravel.

“Right now, Pearson charges $29.50 per test, per child,” Schneider continues. “This can bankrupt school systems; it can amount to fiscal rape. I fear CCSS supporters will use this as a pretext for privatization, with private enterprise coming in to ‘save’ school systems that have no money.”

Students, of course, stand to be the biggest losers in this equation. “Common Core assumes that you learn in a straight line,” Schneider adds. “But real learning is messy. It’s not an easy process. And by the way, schools and teachers have always had standards, but we recognized that not all students learn the same way or benefit from forced sameness.” An individualized approach that deals with the actual student – a recent immigrant, for example, or someone in the throes of family dysfunction, addiction, or homelessness – is imperative in keeping each student engaged, something the CCSS completely ignores.

But those not bogged down by Common Core are fighting for schools that teach critical thinking and promote creativity.

Brooklyn, NY, parent and former teacher Rachel Leinweber calls the CCSS approach “a one-way highway into education.” Although her 11-year-old son seems unfazed by the tests, she notes that CCSS “force teachers to level something that can’t be leveled. Learning should always be about exploration and discovery. But now, even art and music classes are geared to assessment – which has ruined art, theater and music for many kids.”

Social and emotional learning also suffer when standardization is imposed, says Washington Post education blogger Marion Brady. Brady taught for 41 years, beginning in 1952, and concludes that “every important concept, idea, and characteristic of human experience manifests itself in schools. There is a richness of the here-and-now in schoolhouses, but when the focus is exclusively on standardization and testing, neither students nor teachers even notice what’s there.”

Resistance to CCSS is Growing Fast

But those not bogged down by Common Core do notice – and are fighting for schools that teach critical thinking and promote creativity. While right-wingers like Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck have assailed CCSS as “a stealthy testing racket” and socialist conspiracy, for the most part conservatives who oppose Common Core are motivated by a desire to curtail the excessive testing their kids are subjected to. Some progressives see this as an opening for coalition work; others are dubious.

Mark Naison, a founder of the Badass Teachers Association, a national alliance of approximately 50,000 educators, says that he began working with conservative pro-education folks in March and April 2013. “They resented decisions coming from Albany and Washington, which they felt were undermining their children’s public school experience,” he wrote in an email. “It was out of this, working with people who were conservative but pro-public education, that we decided to create BATS as a non-partisan activist organization to defend teachers and public education from attacks. We reasoned that if the attacks on public education were coming from both Democrats and Republicans, our resistance had to be at least as inclusive.” Although Naison explains that some people are leery of the liaison, he believes that it is a mistake to “paint people in the Tea Party with too broad a brush when it comes to their views about public education.”

Not everyone is convinced. Amy Mizialko, teaching and learning coordinator of the Milwaukee Teacher’s Association, tells Truthout that several months back, she attempted to forge common ground with conservatives using social media. “I tried for several months to connect with rightwing Republicans and Tea Party members who oppose Common Core. When their stances around race, English-only instruction, women’s issues and the separation of church and state started to emerge, I realized that the common ground was so narrow I couldn’t continue.”

Resistance to Common Core, however, is burgeoning from left, right and center, and opponents have seen a massive increase in the number of parents who are refusing to subject their sons and daughters to the tests. In April, for example, more than 30,000 New York kids opted-out of the English Language Arts exam, a number that is expected to grow and inspire revolt throughout the country.

Seattle teacher-activist Jesse Hagopian is cheered by the resistance and says that “opposition to standardized testing has never been higher.” At the same time, he argues that overturning CCSS and ending the drive to privatize public education will require a bold civil rights movement. “We need to put forward a vision of what education can and should be,” he said. “This starts with adequate funding for schools and reducing inequality more generally so that parents can earn a decent wage, can have time to spend with their families, and can send their kids to school well-fed and nurtured.”

Many groups are working to end Common Core State Standards and education they feel fails to respect local challenges and realities. Among them are:

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