Do We Need a Common Core?

05/07/2012 05:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013
  • Nicholas Tampio Associate Professor of Political Science, Fordham University

A few years ago, my wife and I walked into a kindergarten classroom
where the teacher and a Japanese mother were teaching the kids to fold
origami birds. We were impressed to see the children learning about
another culture, concentrating for a sustained period of time,
developing fine motor skills, and smiling. We bought a house in that
school district. This past year my son started kindergarten and, by a
marvelous coincidence, was assigned to that teacher. We were delighted
as our son planted acorns and watched them grow, studied and
replicated the paintings of famous artists, and wrote and drew in

In February, my son's class was selected to pilot a reading program
designed to satisfy the Common Core criteria. The teacher started
dedicating two hours a day to packaged lesson plans. Rather than
giving the students free work choice, in which they build with blocks
or paint, the students must sit on the floor while the teacher
lectures at them. Rather than tailoring the curriculum to each child,
she hands students books from a narrow, predetermined list. Parent
volunteers now have a smaller role to play in the classroom, and the
school district is about to cut funding for kindergarten aides.

The class, in short, has gone from one where teachers, aides, parents,
and students work hard to create a rewarding educational experience,
to one where the teachers and students use materials designed by a
major publishing house.

Many of the aims of the Common Core are admirable. A functioning
democracy needs literate citizens. Every young person in our country
should be able to read a newspaper, use a computer, do basic math, and
so forth. We should be able to evaluate teachers and reward the good
ones. The Bush administration (No Child Left Behind) and Obama
administration (Race to the Top) have employed language that seems
hard to resist.

But we should challenge the drive to uniformity expressed by such programs.

First, we ought to appreciate the reasoning behind America's
historical commitment to local control over school districts.
America's founders were nervous about the dangers inherent to a strong
national government. James Madison, in Federalist #10, provided a
brilliant argument for why power ought to be divided between branches
and layers of government. Sometimes there may be enlightened statesmen
or policymakers at the helm. In many cases, however, politicians and
bureaucrats will be motivated by self- and group-interest. Thus the
Constitution ensures that no group can easily assemble great power
and, at the same time, that virtually all groups will be able to
exercise some power. Public policy will result from endless
compromises and negotiations. This framework frustrates efforts to get
things done quickly, but it also thwarts efforts by the majority in
one policy arena to oppress the minority.

With regards to education, a strong federal policy can help in some
instances. But a powerful faction committed to the Common Core can
also do mischief. A theme in the Common Core literature is a
commitment to the "same goals for all students." Is this a worthy
objective? As noted above, all democratic citizens should have certain
minimal skills. But the Common Core runs from kindergarten to twelfth
grade, thus teaching more than simple reading or math. Who decides
what those same goals should be? Academics from the East Coast?
Educators from the Midwest or South? Businessmen or women with no
experience teaching? Liberals? Conservatives? Virtually every
constituency will be objectionable to someone else in America.
Reasonable people disagree on the goals of education. Rather than try
to enforce one pedagogical orthodoxy, we ought to appreciate Madison's
insight that America is big enough for many types of social

A second reason to oppose the Common Core is more practical. According
to a website extolling the initiative, "Consistent standards will
provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where
they live." The Common Core claims to provide appropriate benchmarks to all students
everywhere. Is this in fact the case?

Not for many parents in our school district who are angry that an
inspired kindergarten curriculum has been replaced with a banal one.
Our son started kindergarten loving to read and talking with the
teacher. Now, he dreads the hours he spends listening to prepackaged
materials and taking standardized tests. Many of the parents at our
elementary school worry that a working system has been broken. Surely
there is a way to help underperforming schools raise their standards
without us lowering ours.

Is our school an exception? I don't think so. One reason is provided
by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. According to
Tocqueville, America's political culture thrives when people
participate on every level of government and society. By doing things
for ourselves -- such as teachers organizing the curriculum or parents
assisting with lesson plans -- we become invested and feel satisfaction
in the educational and political process. The Common Core mandates
that scripts be handed to teachers and students, thereby draining
initiative out of the classroom.

Our son used to skip on his way up the entrance to school. This habit
stopped shortly after he started the program designed to satisfy the
Common Core criteria. We, like many parents around the country, have
begun to realize that the rhetoric of the Common Core does not match
our children's experience of it -- and cannot.