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What Would the Founders Say About Common Core?

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Zachary Karabell, writing for Time magazine, claims "One of America's favorite pastimes is to play the 'what would the Founding Fathers say' game. Just pick an issue du jour, and ask the question." Most players tend to be on the political right, including the Federalist Society which frequently hosts "original intent" Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas at its soirees.

Conservative author Larry Scheikart, a regular guest on Fox News, is a leading practitioner of the game. In his book What Would the Founders Say, A Patriot's Answer to America's Most Pressing Problems, Scheikart argues they really opposed separation of church and state, a federal role in education and health care, environmental protection, gun control, bank and business regulation, and deficit spending and supported the entire contemporary right-wing agenda.

In general, I don't like to play the "what-would" game. The Founding Fathers did not agree on all that much and we do not know what they would believe if they were transported to an altogether different era. There was no public school system for them to disparage in 1787, and a number of them, including Madison, were slaveholders.

I also don't like most of the right-wing game players. The Scheikart book was highly praised by Glenn Beck and one right-wing website called him Beck's favorite historian. However, a recent essay on James Madison and the Common Core by Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative, free market, Pioneer Institute, really tickled my fancy because it was grounded in solid knowledge of Madison and what I consider a clear understanding of the Federalist papers.

Stergios writes a blog, Rock the Schoolhouse, that appears on a site sponsored by the Boston Globe. I don't think Jim and I would agree on very much -- he tends to be a pretty traditional libertarian leaning conservative. According to its website, Pioneer Institute promotes "public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government." But his recent blog questioning the common core standards and challenging the credibility of the people who are promoting it was brilliant and funny at the same time. Bravo Jim!

Stergios framed the blog as a congratulatory letter to David Coleman, the newly appointed head of the College Board, but column was really designed to skewer him. Coleman is a major promoter of the Common Core Standards and appeared in a video championing the standards that was produced by the Council of Chief States School Officers and the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, both major recipients of Gates Foundation largess. According to the New York Times, Coleman spent the last year "barnstorming the nation, speaking to thousands of teachers to explain and promote the standards." His reward will be an annual compensation package from the College Board of nearly $750,000.

Coleman is a strong proponent of using "informational texts" rather than fiction to develop the critical ability of students and higher levels of literacy, which is one of the things that made the Stergios piece so biting. Coleman narrated the promotional video in an effort to demonstrate the power of the common core standards. Unfortunately for the case, he ended up highlighting perhaps their greatest weakness -- they promote skills at the expense of content knowledge, which is virtually ignored.

As an example of the power of the Common Core, Coleman proposed a close and careful reading of Federalist #51, written by James Madison during debate over adoption of the new federal constitution "to teach students and teachers about carefully reading primary sources like Madison's work and how to understand concepts like 'faction' as the authors themselves understood these terms." The problem is that while Madison does mention factions in Federalist # 51, the document is principally about checks and balances and the separation of powers in the new nation. Coleman does not appear to have even read the title of Federalist #51, The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments, very carefully before making the video. Factions, what we now call political parties, are actually the major topic in Federalist #10 which was also written by Madison.

The best-known passage from Federalist # 51 is:

In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others . . . But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.

Stergios concluded his essay by asking Coleman "to reflect on you and your peers lack of even the most basic understanding of our Founding principles" before you and your colleagues try to set "national standards, curricula, and testing for America's 50 million schoolchildren." Stergios probably also should have asked Colman to resign from both the College Board and the campaign to promote the common core standards. After all, teachers should know something before they profess to teach it.