THE BLOG
08/18/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

Common Core and Media Spin

Legitimate questions are buried beneath the noise

There are legitimate reasons to oppose Common Core, America's latest effort at education reform. You might be concerned that the standards leave no room for student exploration and creativity. You could follow the money and question the substantial profits promised to the publishers of Common Core resources. You may feel that Common Core intentionally sets schools up to fail, leading to a privatized, for-profit educational system and the end of public schools. These are valid concerns that deserve serious public debate.

But those are not the conversations we are having. Instead, frightened parents are asking whether tests will use posture sensing chairs, eye scans, and other spyware technology to measure a student's emotional response to questions. Parents have been told that Common Core is a massive surveillance program designed to collect and sell personal information about students. Parents have read false reports about schools teaching third graders about sexual self-gratification.

Pretty scary stuff.

Fortunately, none of it is true.

Pro Tip: When researching a topic, read the original sources before accepting the word of potentially biased news reports, commentaries, and guest speakers.

Actual facts about Common Core are available on the Common Core website. Information about how Common Core is being implemented may be found on the Department of Education websites of the 43 states that have adopted it. Those who oppose Common Core rarely include links to these rather obvious primary sources which could be used to support or refute their arguments. Instead, they link to websites that support their point of view, creating a kind of self-affirming loop of misinformation. Never doubt the power of the media echo chamber.

Facts about Common Core

The purpose of Common Core is to provide the English Literacy and Math skills necessary to compete in a 21st Century global market. This is not a hypothetical problem. American students placed 27th in math skills, 17th in reading, and 20th in scientific knowledge among students from the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These results have significant economic and even national security implications.

Common Core addresses Math and English Language Arts. All of the Common Core standards for other subjects relate back to either Math or English. Common Core standards for history, for example, are more accurately described as standards for language arts as taught within the context of a history class. History standards emphasize being able to use and cite sources correctly, determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, and related skills. The history standards also include "distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text," which may explain why some opinion writers are so opposed to idea of Common Core. Science standards reflect this same emphasis on math and language arts. All teachers are now expected to emphasize the quality of student writing, their ability to use reference materials, and other language arts skills.

What about sex ed?

Common Core does not address sex education or the broader topic of health education. While it is true that some school districts in some states have approved class materials that discuss sex in frank and, some would say, inappropriate terms, these materials are not part of Common Core. It is unclear how sex ed came to be included in discussions of Common Core, but it has. In reality, decisions about school curriculum and book choices are made at the state and local levels. The National Sexuality Education Standards (NSES) that are used by many states and local school districts as a guideline for sex ed "do not address any specific health content areas, including content for sexuality education." Neither does NSES list specific books or other content for classroom use. Schools are free to choose or to develop their own materials, including materials for abstinence education. There are no Common Core requirements in this area.

American schools have a long history of local control. Common Core does not change that. In most states, local school boards tend to take community standards into account when they are considering purchasing books or other classroom materials. Like all elected officials, school board members are accountable to voters. If local citizens oppose the policies of their school districts, then they may choose to elect board members whose values are more consistent with those of the local community.

What about spying and personal information?

Parents are understandably worried about keeping their children's personal information private. There are laws that prevent the federal government from collecting personally identifiable information about students, including Social Security numbers and other identifiers. These laws existed before Common Core and have not been changed. Allegations that Common Core is being used for data mining are not correct.

It is true that schools use tests to collect information about students. This data is used to address gaps in student achievement and for other education purposes. For example, information about race and gender of students helps to ensure that all students are learning. If a specific group of students demonstrates consistent problems with a certain part of a test, then schools and policy makers need to know that so they can address the problem.

Common Core testing is not designed to collect biometric data, including any data that might be collected from cameras, chairs, computer equipment, or other devices. That particular red herring apparently originated when The Blaze reported on a draft version of a report on developing "grit, tenacity, and perseverance" in students. Given the financial realities of public education, schools are struggling to purchase enough computers for students to take take the required tests within the allotted time. Setting aside the obvious legal and ethical concerns about privacy, the use of any such advanced surveillance would simply be financially impossible. Many teachers don't even have whiteboards in their classrooms. As one teacher said, "We're not all that technologically advanced. I am still using a soft rock (chalk) to scrape out marks on a harder rock (the slate chalkboard)."

The Obamacare of Education

Many on the Right are comparing Common Core to Obamacare. To Conservatives, both programs are examples of government overreach, even though much of Common Core was modeled on existing state education standards and is not a federal mandate. Both programs supposedly represent government interference in the private sector, even though Common Core has been championed by none other than Bill Gates, an icon of private sector entrepreneurship, and is being pushed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Like the Affordable Care Act, Common Core is supported by President Obama. This political fact means that most Conservatives will oppose it. The notable exception is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Not surprisingly, Jeb Bush has received significant criticism from his fellow Conservatives for his position, including charges of financial connections between Jeb Bush and Pearson Publishing, the publisher of many Common Core materials.

Like Obamacare, many feel that the rollout of Common Core has been poorly implemented. As was the case with Obamacare, those who oppose Common Core have done a better job of getting their message heard than have those who support it.

Like Obamacare, Common Core promotes a public service. Conservatives prefer "market based solutions" in which education is privatized and for profit, much like their model for healthcare. The problem with that model is that it contributes to a growing gap in education between those who can afford it and those who can't. Economic inequality is exacerbated by educational inequality.

The Noise Drowns Out The Serious Questions

There are some serious questions about Common Core. Will the emphasis on testing actually prevent students from learning? How do we address the emotional stress on students and parents? There are probably many more thoughtful questions that could be asked. Unfortunately, these questions and any answers that they may produce are buried beneath conspiracy theories, partisan rants, and crass commercial opportunism.

Once again, serious consumers of information must do their homework.

Bob Seay is the Editor of NewsPrism.com