Sunday, November 22, 2015

What's wrong with Common Core?

Like Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the EPA’s regulatory assault on energy production, Obama’s anti-suburban moves, American policy in the Middle East and other fundamental transformations, Common Core is so big and sprawling a change that it’s often tough to see it whole. That problem has just been solved by Drilling through the Core, a book that’s bound to become the go to handbook of the Common Core’s opponents.

Drilling through the Core is a collection of essays by the most informed and prominent critics of the Common Core, including Sandra Stotsky, Ze’ev Wurman, William Evers, and R. James Milgram. It includes a wonderful treatment of the Founders’ views on the study of history by James Madison biographer Ralph Ketcham.

But what sets the book apart is the 80 page introduction by Peter Wood. Calmly and with crystal clarity, Wood explains and connects nearly every aspect of the battle. It’s all here, from the most basic explanation of what Common Core is, to the history, the major arguments for and against, and so much more. The controversies over both the English and math standards are explained; the major players in the public battle are identified; the battle over Gates Foundation’s role is anatomized; the roles of the tests and the testing consortia are reviewed; concerns over data-mining and privacy are laid out; the dumbing-down effect on the college curriculum is explained; as is the role of the Obama administration and the teachers unions.

I found the sections on “big data” particularly helpful. I confess that despite my considerable interest in Common Core, I hadn’t much followed the data-mining issue. Boy was that a mistake. It strikes me that the potential for abuse of personal data is substantially greater in the case of Common Core than in the matter of national security surveillance. With Common Core we are talking about databases capable of tracking every American individual from kindergarten through adulthood, and tremendous potential for the sharing of data with not only government but private groups (balanced against assurances of privacy that seem decidedly weak and unreliable).

There are those who have declared an interest, not only in tracking information like students’ addresses, economic status, race, immigration and disciplinary records, free lunch status, religious affiliation, parents’ political affiliation, as well as every test you’ve ever taken, special education status, and other academic data, but even positively creepy indicators like facial expressions, eye tracking, and “smile intensity scores.” Furious parental opposition has already blocked some of this nonsense in some places. But there is still a very real possibility that Common Core will usher in cradle-to-grave dossiers on every American. At a minimum, we ought to be debating this issue. I doubt that most of the millennials exercised by NSA surveillance have even heard about Common Core data-mining.

Part of the problem here is the sheer range and complexity of an innovation like Common Core. Yet the rushed secrecy in which Common Core was adopted has also limited the number of people, to this day, who truly understand what is at stake. The extent to which the math standards have been dumbed down; the degree to which all the Common Core standards were adopted without being properly tested or evaluated; the sense in which the standards amount to an immensely expensive unfunded mandate on states—all of this and more has been disguised by the secretive and very arguably illegal and unconstitutional manner in which the standards were adopted.

Wood also does an excellent job of explaining how the supposed flexibility of the standards will soon be effectively eliminated as the newly-designed tests kick in. As with Obamacare, the most controlling aspects of Common Core have been conveniently delayed until several years after adoption.

In short, if you want to understand how common core works—including all that the creators of Common Core would prefer that you not understand—Drilling through the Core is the book for you. After taking in Wood’s invaluable introduction, you can pick and choose from among the topical articles that interest you most.

For making up your mind about this still-poorly understood issue, or for taking part in the battle, Drilling through the Core is essential reading.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached

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