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Common Core Curriculum -- Who's on Board? Who's Not?

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"What is it, precisely, that we expect all educated citizens to have learned? What explicit knowledge, skills, and understanding of content will help define the day-to-day work of teaching and learning?" -- A call for common content

What brings liberal policy wonks and teacher union leaders together with corporate reformers and right-wing think tankers -- Linda Darling-Hammond and Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Randi Weingarten and Chester Finn, Kati Haycock and Pedro Noguera, all in common cause? The only thing that possibly could is the latest attempt at a common core curriculum. This broad but not-too-deep coalition is now represented as a list of signers on a statement drawn up by the Shanker Institute, the AFT's think tank.

There is something alluring about the notion of a national curriculum. Most of us hate the idea that a child gets anything less than an enriched, challenging curriculum because he or she happens to live in Mississippi instead of Minnesota. Darling-Hammond and Noguera have been out front in exposing long-standing inequities in the content and quality of instruction offered to African-American and Latino children. CUNY professor Jean Anyon has uncovered big differences in what's offered to children in working-class schools, middle-class schools, and what Anyon calls "affluent professional schools." No one would admit that such practices are acceptable, yet all of us know they exist.

The current CCC push has been propelled in part by the Obama administration's current emphasis on global competition, placing more of a burden on schools to help reverse the declining position of the U.S. in the struggle for hegemony. U.S. schools have, in recent years, lagged well behind countries like Finland, South Korea and China on internationally compared standardized tests. In his last State of the Union speech, Obama called recognition of this lag our "Sputnik moment," an allusion to education reforms instituted following the Soviet launch of the first space satellite in 1957.

U.S. school reformers have expressed admiration for Finland's educational system, including its common national standards -- often ignoring other factors like their strong, tuition-free teacher preparation programs, strong professional stature of teachers, fully unionized teaching force, or their national health care program. Ironically, Finland, which holds down the number-one spot on international rankings, consciously de-emphasizes standardization and testing, giving ample freedom to teachers when it comes to the most important decisions about teaching and learning.

But for these and many other reasons, a diverse group of politicians, educators, civil rights advocates and corporate reformers have once again coalesced around the common-core idea and the functionalist ideal that there is or ought to be a common culture, expressed through the school curriculum, tying together the whole country's education system. It's proponents argue that the common core curriculum is also a way to better measure how state systems compare with one another.

Absent from the signers' list is national standards nemesis Deborah Meier, co-author of Will Standards Save Public Education?. Also among the missing are many of the sharpest critics of high-stakes standardized testing practices associated with past and current administrations. Diane Ravitch's is among those conspicuously absent. Ravitch, a longtime proponent of national standards, has become an outspoken critic of many top-down reform initiatives emanating from Sec. Arne Duncan's D.O.E. and from the powerhouse philanthropic foundations.

Except for Finn, I don't find any of the big charter school management or pro-voucher organizations represented. I assume that since since they consider themselves immune from any pressure to change what and how they teach, many of them probably couldn't care less. But there are also many progressives who value local autonomy and who don't trust education policies made far from the classroom, nor those policies that are subject to easily changeable political winds. Others are concerned that national standards and curriculum battles are a diversion from real issues of poverty and inequality. What good is a national core curriculum when some schools have the resources to implement it and others do not?

The framers of Common Core, including the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, purposefully left things vague and voluntary -- and that's good. But lurking behind the scenes of course is Arne Duncan's test-and-punish, Race To The Top, federal funding reform strategy. Also watching are the omnipresent giant textbook and test publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson. Voluntary is never really voluntary these days, is it? And how can you have a national curriculum without national, high-stakes, standardized testing?

I haven't seen anything like this since the bipartisan coalition that formed behind NCLB during the early days of the Bush era. But there are so many conditions and escape routes written into the CCC statement -- obviously as an inducement to get some of the big-name skeptics on all sides to dip their toes into the CCC pool -- it's as if they're already anticipating annulment or divorce. It's similar to the way No Child is being watered down and even renamed in current attempts to garner bipartisan support for its re-authorization.

I suspect that several of the progressive signers who might otherwise be critical of top-down reform initiatives want to make sure that they are at the table when the process of prescribing begins.