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Nicholas Tampio

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Do We Need a Common Core?

Posted: 05/07/2012 6:14 pm

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 journals.

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 experiment.

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.