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Common core: Don't do it

  • By Matt Walsh
  • | 5:47 p.m. August 29, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Common Core Standards. Put them in the same tin can as Obamacare.

It's another attempt, albeit less blatant, to federalize, centralize and nationalize an essential part of American society. And it's another attempt that is blowing up.

Grassroots Americans, thankfully, are seeing where Common Core will lead, and they're organizing to kill it.

When Florida lawmakers gather in 2014, “Common Core Standards” are destined to be at the core of the Legislature's heated debates. Opposition is spreading in Florida — and nationwide — like a Western wild fire.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, meanwhile, appears to be attempting to squelch, or at least control, the fires with this week's education summit in Clearwater. He convened 36 political, education and business influencers to discuss Common Core education standards; the tests that will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests; school grading systems; and teacher evaluations. Talk about a tinder box of educational issues.

The summit, however, which was in session as this was being written, isn't likely to put out the Common Core fire. The controversy is on the verge of raging here and nationwide — just shy of the scale of the Obamacare opposition.

Nowhere does this issue appear to be more heated than among conservatives — the moderate and neoconservatives on one side and the libertarians on the other. Common Core advocates include the two chief architects of the standards and their founding organizations, the National Governors Association, whose majority consists of Republican governors, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education.

On the other side is a fast-growing list of strident opponents. On the national scene, Florida's junior U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio; radio talk-show host Glenn Beck; and syndicated columnist and FOX News commentator Michelle Malkin top the list.

Also often quoted against Common Core standards are Stanford University Professor James Milgram, a mathematician who withdrew from a panel creating the math standards; and Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts public-policy institute that hired teams of experts to evaluate how Common Core would compare to Massachusetts' successful standards. The results were not positive.

Beyond these opponents, scores of grassroots' parents groups are mobilizing in states that have adopted the Common Core Standards. lists 34 states with formal organizations dedicated to stopping the adoption of Common Core Standards. Florida is among them.

The Florida Parents against Common Core and Floridians against Common Core are encouraging parents in all 67 school districts to persuade their legislators either to put implementation on pause or withdraw the Common Core Standards altogether. The Legislature set the standards to go into effect in 2014.

Up to this point, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, a former school superintendent in the Panhandle, and Speaker Will Weatherford have supported Common Core. But they have reservations about one aspect: Gaetz recently told the Miami Herald that he and Weatherford want to withdraw Florida from a consortium of states developing new exams to measure students on the Common Core Standards. They have reservations about the consortium's data security and whether Florida's schools have the technology to administer the tests.

But among Florida's legislators, so far only one, Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, has come out against Florida's implementation of Common Core. Pilon said on his Facebook page education standards are a local issue, not a national one. Courageously, Pilon wrote: “My vote is going to be get rid of it.” He's right.

What are the standards?
What are the Common Core standards? Good luck understanding them. For now they are focused on math and language arts (See box below).

The idea is to create a national set of standards that sets the bar for America's school systems so our students have benchmarks by which to be measured against the rest of the world.

The genesis for common, national education standards began in the modern era with President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. His administration proposed creation of voluntary, national standards and assessments. They went nowhere; critics snuffed them. President Bill Clinton tried to create national tests; he failed, too.

Then came George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which was to bring all students to proficiency in math and reading by 2014. This law left the states in charge, but predictably, standards varied across state lines, with many states setting a low proficiency bar.

This spawned new life into the national standards movement, attracting yet another Bush, Florida's former governor and a longtime advocate of school accountability, standards, choice and competition. But to avoid the appearance of having the standards emanate from the federal government, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers said they would create math and reading standards benchmarked to international standards. Thus began the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2009.

It quickly gained momentum. Florida lawmakers adopted a bill in 2010 to shift Florida's public schools away from its existing curriculum standards and the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests to teach and assess students in line with the Common Core Standards.

But like the Obamacare bill in Washington, which virtually no congressional member read, few, if any Florida lawmakers, read the fine print and details of the Common Core Standards.

About the same time, President Obama leached on to the movement and made $4 billion in education grants available to states in his “Race to the Top” program. One of the criteria for obtaining the money: Adopt the Common Core Standards.

To the dismay of some Common Core supporters, Obama's entry onto the scene injected politics into the movement, creating the perception of more top-down, Washington intrusion into local, public education. But the Common Core proponents pressed on.

In a matter of two years, 45 states adopted the Common Core Standards.

Now, three years later, with parents seeing the meaning of Common Core in their children's classrooms, parents are protesting. And legislatures are finding out from respected Common Core critics what they didn't read in the bills they passed. For example:
Professor Milgram, who resigned from the math panel, to a Texas legislative committee: “There are a number of extremely serious failings in Core Standards that make it premature for any state with serious hopes for improving the quality of the mathematical education of their children to adopt them ...
“... By the end of fifth grade the material being covered in arithmetic and algebra in Core Standards is more than a year behind the early grade expectations in most high-achieving countries. By the end of seventh grade, Core Standards are roughly two years behind.”

Stergios of the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute: After commissioning experts to evaluate the Common Core Standards, “Finding that Common Core is inferior to the previous Massachusetts standards, likely violates three federal statutes and will prove to be a $16 billion unfunded mandate, we have chosen to oppose the national standards.”

After learning what's really in the standards, the legislatures in Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania each voted this year to stop their implementation.

But the criticism that comes most vocally from grassroots parents groups points specifically to this major objection: They see Common Core Standards as yet another effort to cast a federal, centralized, nationalized net over everyone in education — one size fits all. This in spite of its proponents saying states will still be in charge of their education destinies. Gov. Bush reiterated that in the National Review Aug. 19, saying, among other things, states' working together to solve a shared problem is not a violation of federalism” (see above).

Still, Neal McCluskey, associate director of the CATO Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, University of Arkansas Professor Sandra Stotsky, a former member of a Common Core validation panel, and Hoover Institution fellow Williamson Evers, a former assistant secretary of education from 2007 to 2009, collaborated in July to write an anti-Common Core op-ed column in the New York Daily News. Citing five reasons why opposition is becoming so strident, they wrote, as their fifth reason:
“Making standards uniform across the country reduces the benefits of competition between states and districts, which vie to attract residents and businesses. That stifles laboratories of democracy. Most troubling of all, the Common Core will cripple individual choice, which is highly concerning because all children are unique and need different things.”

High cover of central power
While many of the standards are suspect, the red-hot core of the issue is exactly that: centralized, common standards and testing for all.

In theory, it sounds like a good idea, to have standards and benchmarks by which you can measure your child, his school and his school district against his peers locally, at state levels, nationally and internationally. Everyone likes to see how he stacks up.

But as always, the devil is in the details and execution. Lenore Ealy stated it succinctly in her essay in May for the Foundation for Economic Education: “The core fact of the Common Core, though, is that it's a relentless and coordinated push by philanthropic and bureaucratic experts to shift authority and responsibility from local citizens and independent school districts to the far-removed high cover of central authorities.”

It's fine if the National Governor's Association wants to promulgate its version of the best standards and benchmarks to produce world-ready adults in our schools. But it's wrong for the federal government to get involved, especially with its typical bribery system — “You want more money? Then do this.”

What's more, you also can say it's fine for state legislatures to embrace the NGA's standards. But it's not fine to do so without vetting them at the local level before codifying them. Which is precisely what most of the 45 legislatures did when they embraced the Common Core Standards — little to zero vetting. Who, for instance, in our Legislature knew in 2010, or for that matter in your local school district, that two esteemed members of the Common Core Standards quit because of the “dumbing down” they witnessed in the writing of the standards? Knowing that would have sent alarm bells.

Imagine free-market schools
Rep. Pilon of Sarasota is right. Florida, in particular the 2014 Legislature, should either put a “pause” on implementing the Common Core Standards or, preferably, rescind them altogether. Educating our youth should be as far removed from the “state,” or centralized bodies as possible. The word itself should be alarming — “Common Core.” Common as in ordinary, as in communal, centralized. Which inevitaby leads to mediocrity at best.

In the greater picture, you can't fault Govs. Bush and Scott on their views of what's needed for better schools. They are right. As Bush put it: “A system that does not set high standards, transparently measure progress and hold schools and educators responsible for results will fail.” What's more, he says: “We should recognize (teachers) and reward them as individual professionals. That will happen if we eliminate tenure and evaluate and pay teachers based on their performance...”

He also cited competition. “The reason there has been little innovation in public education is there has been little competition. We are confronted with opposition from unions and bureaucracies because they fear the loss of jobs and bloated pensions. We need an education marketplace that gives families a myriad of options. The presence of a competitor forces improvement.”

On this, he was not emphatic enough. When you analyze everything about public education, the fact the “state” controls every aspect of education is undeniably the biggest inhibitor to better schools in America.

In his testimony to the Pennsylvania Legislature, CATO's McCluskey noted:
“A review of hundreds of studies by Andrew Coulson (director of CATO's Center for Education Freedom) reveals that it isn't greater centralization of schooling that seems to produce better outcomes, but greater movement toward free-market education. This is what treats students as the unique individuals that they are, and fosters crucial competition, innovation and specialization. Out of 150 statistical comparisons, market-like delivery of education outperformed government monopoly delivery by a ratio of 15-to-1.6.”

Just imagine. Just imagine if, tomorrow, Florida's public school system were eliminated. And that every tax dollar that flowed into public education was left in the hands of Floridians. What would parents do?

The free-market would take over. Innovation, choices and quality in education would skyrocket. There would be options galore and at every price level. Consumers, not bureaucrats and lawmakers, would rule. And the schools that produced the best results would flourish; those that didn't would fold.


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