Glenn Garvin: Dropouts from Common Core


Policy-wonk fights are usually pretty boring, at least to outside-the-Beltway folks with actual lives. But battle over control of school curriculums often have surprising sex appeal — sometimes literally.

My all-time favorite came in 1970, when the National Science Foundation, sensing that the nation’s fifth-graders needed their horizons broadened, set up a model social-studies course for them.

Multicultural before its time, the course included a unit on the tribal customs of the Netsiltik Eskimos of Canada, which turned out to include wife-swapping, incest, cannibalism, beastiality and infanticide. That generated a bunch of headlines like the Boston Globe’s IS ESKIMO SEX LIFE A SCHOOL SUBJECT? and pretty quickly the kids were back to doing long division and fractions.

The war over Common Core, the Obama administration’s extralegal attempt to turn itself into a national school board, hasn’t been quite so saucily headline-friendly. But it is heating up nonetheless — and the Common Core forces are taking some heavy casualties.

Massachusetts, long the poster child for progressive kindergarten-through-12th-grade education, late last month rejected the tests based on Common Core and announced it will devise its own.

Technically, at least for now, Massachusetts remains part of Common Core, but there’s an old saying among educators: What you test is what you get. If their students aren’t tested on Common Core orthodoxies, local school boards and teachers are free to go their own way, and many of them will. (Especially the teachers: Initially big supporters of Common Core, they’ve turned against it in droves now that they’ve seen it close up.)

Massachusetts isn’t the first state to turn chilly on Common Core. After being promised a pot of federal gold for signing on, 46 states and the District of Columbia adopted Common Core in 2010-11. But over the past 18 months, three have withdrawn and several others are thinking seriously about jumping ship.

That may not sound like much if you’re unaware how difficult leaving Common Core is. In a long, insightful paper tracing the history of Common Core for the Boston-based think-tank Pioneer Institute, former U.S. assistant education secretary Williamson Evers compared federal rules on withdrawal from Common Core to those old Roach Motel ads: You can check in, but you can never check out.

States are leaving anyway, not because of any Eskimo-sex-type scandals, but because they’ve realized that the one-size-fits-all premise underlying Common Core is false. It ignores local differences — it is flat-out nuts to think that the schools in Berkeley, California, should be identical to the ones in Tupelo, Mississippi — and they stifle innovation.

For instance: Common Core dictates that algebra be introduced in the 9th grade, which is the way most school districts (including the one where I grew up) have been doing it for years. But several states, including California and Massachusetts, have been experimenting with offering algebra in the 8th grade, and there’s some evidence it gets more kids interested in math. Yet under Common Core, they’ll have to stop, because — well, because Washington says so.

That’s a bad idea — so bad that at least three different federal laws, including the 1979 statute that set up the U.S. Education Department, explicitly prohibit the federal government from directing, supervising or controlling local school curriculums. The Obama administration got around that by offering states $75 billion in stimulus money if they “voluntarily” accepted Common Core standards. In the middle of the Great recession, that was about as voluntary as the one signed by the poor fellow in The Godfather who woke up to find a horse’s head in his bed.

Because Common Core will affect everything from textbooks to testing software to teacher training and development materials — practically every teacher in America undergoes some kind of training or professional instruction every year — it puts billions of dollars of government spending up for grabs by politically savvy corporations.

About 90 percent of that money will have been raised by local taxes. Yet the people who pay them (and whose children are the ones at stake here) had nothing to say about Common Core. Everything about the program is stunningly undemocratic.

It was set up not through legislation, where it would have been debated by elected officials, but through a web of federal regulations written by power-mad bureaucrats and greedy education-industry lobbyists. Your money, your kids, but their rules. And people thought a little Eskimo wife-swapping was obscene!