I really shouldn’t have to write this anymore, because the basic facts should keep anyone from saying that state adoption of the Common Core was “absolutely voluntary.” Yet Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has made just this proclamation...again. And this time, he has done so right after having written that “the feds blundered into the middle of [Common Core] with ‘incentives’ that turned it into a sort of national piñata.”
I’ll say, “incentives”! At the low point of the “Great Recession,” Washington told states that to fully compete for hundreds-of-millions of Race to the Top dollars – money that state citizens had no choice but to send to DC – states, among other things, had to adopt the Common Core. Later, the feds told states that if they wanted a waiver from the irrational, punishing, No Child Left Behind Act, they had but two standards choices: either adopt the Core, or have a state university system certify state standards “college- and career-ready.” And this came after most states had already promised to adopt the Core for RTTT.
There’s simply no way to call Core adoption “absolutely” voluntary, unless you think bribing someone with money you took from them, or giving them just two ways to stop your throttling them, is absolute voluntarism.
Making matters worse, after boldly denying reality about the Core, Finn continues the cheap-shot, debate-destroying tactic of demonizing Core opponents. He writes that those who oppose the Core are primarily:
interest groups that really don’t want to change how they’ve always done things, whether or not such change would be good for kids or the country. I have in mind textbook publishers, test-makers, teacher unions, and political opportunists of every sort, lately and most prominently of the “tea party” persuasion, who will do and say anything to take down Obama and everything he’s for.
No doubt people have numerous motives for supporting or opposing the Core, and I wouldn’t presume to say I know what they are. I will, though, say I have no reason to suspect Finn and Fordham have anything but the best interest of the nation at heart.
If only they would accord the same presumption to tea party types! Or, at the very least, provide some evidence that tea partiers only oppose the Core because they are obsessed with bringing down President Obama. But Finn offers not a speck of evidence, ironically at the same time the general impression is that tea party types are far too willing to sacrifice political success for principle. And what are tea party principles? Some are quite time-honored, among them that the federal government should not interfere in education, and that education should be controlled by parents.
And let’s be careful who we say is obsessed with taking Obama down over the Core. Fordham has quite prominently blamed the Obama administration (go to the 6:45 mark) for Washington’s “absolutely voluntary” coercion. This despite the fact that the creators of the Core called for federal coercion in 2008, before there was either an official Common Core or Obama Administration, then called for it again after officially launching the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Apparently, the sign that you want what’s “good for kids or the country” is you attack the President to advance the Core. Oppose the Core, in contrast, and it’s self-evident you actually just despise Mr. Obama.
At this point, Core supporters really need to stop insulting both the tea party and the public’s intelligence. Instead, maybe they should try engaging in factual, reasoned debate.
Not long ago I thought the Common Core couldn't be stopped, or really even slowed down.
A couple of days ago Florida governor Rick Scott declared that he wanted to reexamine state implementation of the Core and withdraw from the PARCC assessment consortium, one of two national groups the federal government funded to create Core-aligned tests. Though hardly a complete withdrawal from the Core, the move is huge. Why? Because arguably the biggest, most influential backer of the Common Core is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and his own state, and a governor of his own party, bucked him. Florida is also, well, a pretty big state. Not surprisingly, now two more GOP governors -- Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin -- are signaling desires to unbuckle their states from the Core.
What happened that caused this suddenly powerful -- and at least to me, unexpected -- revolt? It is almost certainly that the Core is now reaching the district and school level, and parents and citizens are becoming fully aware of standards most of their states adopted lightning fast in 2010 to get federal Race to the Top money. They're becoming aware, and either don't like what they see in the standards, or don't like federal imposition. They may also be getting increasingly sick of being told that the federal government wasn't a driving force behind Core adoption when it absolutely was, and being called ignorant or unhinged for pointing out reality.
Case in point for calling opponents misinformed, alas, is Jeb Bush, who just last week said that Common Core resistance "is political," and implied that anyone against the Core is "comfortable with mediocrity." He also suggested once again that the Core is fully voluntary for states, implying that opponents are either misinformed or lying when they fear "a national takeover." Of course, there are numerous reasons to oppose the Core that are all about what's best for kids.
At this point I don't want to write another word about Common Core supporters' cheap rhetorical tactics. Unfortunately, a new op-ed by Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation demands it. And this after AEI's Rick Hess took Core defenders to task for their excesses, then kindly offered some helpful advice on how to at least have an honest conversation. Why didn't the Fordham folks listen to Rick? Coulda saved me a lot of trouble.
Anyway, four things particularly stick out in Fordham's piece, published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, though many others are dubious:
- The piece starts off by, essentially, smearing all opponents of the Core as carpet-bagging liars. The very first line reads: "For some time now, outside groups have been vigorously spreading misinformation about the Common Core state standards." The goal here is, presumably, to declare opponents devious right off the bat, and compound that by asserting that they are all icky non-Wisconsinites. Never mind that Finn and Petrilli, to my knowledge, aren't from the Badger State, and have definitely lived in the Washington, DC, area for years.
- A major complaint of Core supporters is that critics blame things like data-mining and curricular control on the Core which aren't, technically, in it. They are intimately connected through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, which intentionally place the Core in broader pushes for evaluation, data collection, etc., but no, they aren't actually in the Core. It is apparently fine, though, to proclaim that the Core by itself "demands accountability, high standards and testing," as Finn and Petrilli do. The difference, of course, is that Finn and Petrilli favor the Common Core, and the Common Core is great!
- Finn and Petrilli offer a tiny, non-concession concession to people who have decried the massive federal coercion that drove Core adoption, noting that "many conservatives are justifiably angry about the inappropriate role the Obama administration has played in promoting and taking credit for these standards." But the thing is, Obama didn't just promote and take credit for the Common Core. He implemented concrete federal policies that essentially told states that if they didn't adopt Common Core they couldn't get part of a $4.35 billion pot of money, and it would be harder to get out of the absurd demands of No Child Left Behind. If Finn and Petrilli want to be forthright, they need to actually write the words "Race to the Top" and "waivers," and explain exactly what they did. But they don't even mention them!
- Finally, it is simply wrong to suggest that the Obama administration went all lone wolf on Core supporters. Why? Because, as I have discussed repeatedly, the report Benchmarking for Success, from the groups that created Common Core, came out in 2008 -- before there was an Obama administration -- and called on the federal government to "incentivize" adoption of common standards. In other words, they wanted the Feds to twist arms all along!
I hate it when Common Core supporters -- from Wisconsin, DC, or anywhere else -- misinform the public. Especially when their first move is to drop the deceiver card on their opponents.
If someone pushed you into a wall, would you turn around -- after you regained consciousness, of course -- and say, "it's fine. I totally smashed my face voluntarily"? No, you wouldn't, but it seems Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, would. After all, he just wrote the following about how state adoption of Common Core national curriculum standards has been "totally voluntary":
This was—and remains—totally voluntary, but decisions grew more complicated when the Obama administration started pushing states toward such adoptions by jawboning, hectoring, and luring them with dollars and regulatory waivers.
Doesn't sound truly voluntary at all, does it? And let's not forget, taxpayers -- who live in states -- had no choice about sending their dollars to Washington in the first place.
Wait. I take that back. It was totally voluntary. They'd just go to jail if they refused to pay up.
Last week I posted video from an American Enterprise Institute conference featuring supporters of national curriculum standards—the Common Core—dismissing concerns that implementing the standards might cost lots of taxpayer arms and legs, and laughingly brushing aside concerns that the Common Core might lead to federal control of school curricula. The latter emanated largely from Chester "Checker" Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, whose organization is a leading national standards supporter.
Yesterday news came out that made clear just how serious—and unfunny—concerns about a federal takeover are. According to Education Week, the U.S. Department of Education will start a "technical review process" for the Department-selected consortia creating the national tests to go with the standards. And what will that review look at? Not compliance with accounting standards or something administrative, but test "item design and validation." That means, most likely (in-depth information from the Department was off-line as of this writing) reviewing the specific questions that will go on the tests. And what is tested, of course, ultimately dictates what is taught, at least if the test results are to have any concrete impact, ranging from whether students advance to the next grade, to whether schools gain or lose funding. Since the ultimate point of uniform standards is to have essentially uniform accountability from state to state, they will have to have some concrete impact, rendering this a clear next step in a major Federal incursion into curricula.
Now, maybe Finn wasn't aware of any of this last week when he blew me off with knee-slapping zingers about the U.N. taking over the Common Core, but I doubt it: according to Education Week, one of Fordham's employees, Kathleen Porter-Magee, will be on the federal review team, as will frequent Fordham collaborator William Schmidt of Michigan State University. So either Finn is an extremely hands-off manager, or as he summoned his inner Don Rickles last week he knew very well that federal tentacles were inching even deeper into America's schools.
Ha, ha, America. Joke's on you.
With the Common Core -- national curricular standards in English and math -- having been adopted by 45 states, it seems Core supporters' heads might be getting a bit big. Or, at least, they are starting to more openly express their feelings that Core opponents are very small. Like "little people" who pay taxes small.
The reputed Leona Helmsley quote is, actually, highly apropos for the view expressed by Mitchell Chester, education commissioner for the state of Massachusetts, at a recent AEI conference on implementation and governance of the Common Core. At the end of a session in which, alas, there was a fair amount of contempt expressed for supposedly conspiracy-theorizing Core opponents, Chester gratuitously threw in a small diatribe excoriating anyone who would object to the Core based on its cost. Keep in mind, reasonable estimates of the cost of fully bringing on Common Core hit as high as $16 billion.
Start at the 1:10:00 mark to hear Chester say, essentially, if it will help kids, people simply have no "right" to object to the Common Core based on costs:
Chester may, indeed, think that only the little people pay taxes, or at least only very small people would care how tax dollars are spent if spending is supposed to help "the children." Of course, that's much easier to feel when you are using other people's hard-earned money. It's far less painful to act like any decent person would be above worrying about something as pedestrian as cost when you are not the one getting hit with the $16 billion bill.
Alas, this was not the only contempt expressed by Core supporters at the conference. Playing on comments made in Mitchell Chester's panel suggesting that Core opponents were weaving ridiculous conspiracy theories, such as the United Nations using the Core to take over the country, in the subsequent panel Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, responded to my fears that the federal government would take responsibility for enforcing the Core by flippantly saying the U.N. or OECD would do it. Start at the 36:10 mark to catch my comments and Finn's dismissive, evasive response:
That's right, forget Race to the Top, NCLB waivers, federally selected and funded tests -- oh, and the Obama Administration's NCLB reauthorization proposal, which put national standards at its accountability core -- and stop with all the "federal control" falderal! Heck, even forget Finn's own writing on this!
Common Core opponents, you are very small people. But even you deserve much more openness and seriousness than some Common Core supporters appear willing to give you. After all, your money -- and your children -- are wrapped up in this, too.
Two years ago Fordham Institute President Chester Finn called people like me, who saw the move toward national curriculum standards as a huge lurch toward federal control, "paranoid." Well it looks like he might be catching a little of the paranoia, too. Or, at least, while still calling Common Core adoption "voluntary," he recognizes that the Obama Administration keeps on proving that the paranoiacs aren't really all that crazy:
Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.
Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.
There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.
Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.
(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)
The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.
This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.
What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.
It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.
When what someone predicted actually occurs, it's a lot harder to assume him delusional. It's more accurate to call him "right." And on national standards, even supporters are starting realize that Common Core opponents have been right all along.