American Lemmings: Common Core and the Race to Conformity

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I always believed that I had a great education. I had so many teachers and mentors who challenged me to be curious about the world. It worked. Throughout my lifetime I have lived and worked in over a dozen countries and republics across the globe – all the while continuing on a quest to learn more about culture, art, history and business. I feed that voracious hunger to learn even today. The education system of my youth was one where mathematics was vital, great literature was mind-expanding and critical thinking in everything was emphasized. School was about school and rigor was key. Being a teacher was a highly prized occupation and I continue to have the highest level of respect for them. I did not have very much by way of technology in the classroom, much less have a strong dependency upon it. If you were to learn about my high school graduating class, it would read like a Who’s Who of strong family men & women, tradespeople, educators, entrepreneurs, business professionals, civic leaders and all manner of artisans. We are as diverse as we are successful.

Today the education system, and the standards driving it, have changed so drastically that most students, parents and teachers can’t even recognize it. The Common Core curriculum movement is an attempt to centralize and standardize what children will learn across the country. Common Core standards define what every child should learn from grade to grade, and include teacher evaluations designed to ensure school compliance.

Sounds great, right? Not really. From a big-picture perspective, Common Core is a clear instance of Washington grossly overstepping its boundaries. In America, individual states have educational sovereignty. State school boards of education are elected or appointed to determine each state’s education policy. Common Core is an attempt to eliminate state sovereignty by ceding authority over educational decisions to the federal government.

Despite what its proponents would have us believe, Common Core standards are not an independent creation of the states wholly untied to the federal government. Originally, the whole idea got off the ground with several private organizations and state groups like the Gates Foundation, the College Board, the International Baccalaureate Organization, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and others. While this doesn’t on its face sound like a federal government program, make no mistake. States are given an offer they can hardly refuse in exchange for adopting the Common Core standards. In its first term, the Obama administration announced a federal incentive program called “Race to the Top.” States that wanted to compete for the funds had to agree to adopt Common Core standards in teaching and testing, and to date, 46 states have done so. The millions of dollars given to states have proven too difficult a temptation for the states to refuse.

So why is Common Core such a bad idea? After all, it has been marketed as the answer to America’s struggle to compete internationally. How? By raising standards and thus producing students who are capable of meeting the demands of an ever-changing global marketplace – but by who’s definition and at what cost?

Math standards are particularly weak in the Common Core.  According to research from WashingtonPolicy.org, they do not meet the standards recommended by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel or those of our international competitors.

In particular, certain portions of Algebra and Geometry required by four-year colleges are omitted.  Algebra I is moved from 8th grade to 9th grade, making it very difficult and unlikely that a school will be able to move a student through Calculus by 12th grade, as is required by selective colleges.  As a few other examples, the Common Core eliminates decimals, percents, conversions between fractions and least common denominators and de-emphasizes division and algebraic manipulations.

Dr. James Milgram of Stanford University, who was the only mathematician on the Common Core Validation Committee, referred to the math program “as almost a joke to think students [under Common Core] would be ready for math at a university.”

The Common Core’s English Language Arts has been described as skill sets, not a coherent and demanding English curriculum that will prepare a student for a four-year college.  Rather, the Common Core seems to best prepare a student for a non-selective community college.  Common Core has a requirement of 70% informational text to 30% literature, which English teachers say will not allow them to develop a proper college preparatory literature course.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas served on the Validation Committee but refused to sign off on the ELA portion citing “poor quality, empty skill sets, the de-emphasis on literature, and low reading levels, such as 8th grade levels for 12th grade students.”

Common Core has changed the landscape to the point where teachers are turned into technicians, parents are ill-equipped to understand how to support their school-aged children with their school work, and students are conditioned to learn select skills in order to conform to standardized tests like so many lemmings. That might sound a bit harsh, but consider this: In the modern vernacular, a lemming is member of a crowd with no originality or voice of their own. One who speaks or repeats only what he has been told. Common Core turns out students designed to fit a particular mold defined by business conglomerates, industrialists and labor leaders. Common Core, in my view, feels like the dumbing down of the American educational system and I’m very concerned that the tide has turned from feeding curiosities to conditioning for exams. I’m not alone in this. Here’s what Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, recently had to say about Common Core:

“I am against Common Core because I don’t believe all paths are “common” or that they all lead to the same summit. I believe that some paths lead to danger and death and some lead to safety and salvation and as an educator I believe it is my obligation to help my students and my culture distinguish between one and the other. I am against Common Core because I believe that it is antithetical to the history of liberal education and I, therefore, refuse to celebrate a mindless march of lemmings careening over a cliff of commonality.”

Teachers should be encouraged to be innovative instead of compliant. Parents should have more say in the direction of their child’s education. Students should become explorers instead of lemmings. The future depends on the direction taken. Stop this destructive initiative’s race to conformity.