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Uncommon pushback

With a rebellion growing, Common Core no longer looks inevitable

Uncommon pushback

SKEPTICAL: Stacey Jacobson-Francis works on math homework with her 6-year-old daughter Luci (left). Stacey said her daughter’s homework requires her to know four different ways to add. “That is way too much to ask of a first-grader. She can’t remember them all, and I don’t know them all, so we just do the best that we can,” she said. (Associated Press)

Kelly Wilkinson/The Indianapolis Star/AP

Below, signs are raised during a rally against Common Core at the Indiana Statehouse.

Some 45 states have adopted Common Core, a national education standard designed to replace state standards. Game, set, match? Not exactly. An odd coalition of opponents, including conservative Republican governors and liberal teachers unions, is pushing back.

Governors like Mike Pence (Indiana), Nikki Haley (South Carolina), and Mary Fallin (Oklahoma) have successfully urged their legislatures to pull their states out of earlier Common Core commitments made by state education boards. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to take his state out of the national standards as well, provoking a conflict with Education Superintendent John White. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants his state legislature to pull out.

Other states are calling for delays and second looks, or are abandoning national testing consortiums. Opponents object to the nationalization of education through Common Core. Ohio Gov. John Kasich says, “I share the concern about loss of local control.” Teachers unions, for different reasons, don’t like their salaries tied to likely poor student performance on Common Core tests. 

Many are skeptical about the latest educational “revolution,” since every other one over the past several decades has failed. But the heat on this one is unusual—especially since the consensus for Common Core is deeply woven into the educational establishment, from the Obama administration down to curriculum textbook publishers. In Indiana some Common Core critics think the state’s new standards are too close to Common Core, despite a new name.

Behind the scenes, as state after state was considering Common Core, the Gates Foundation (funded by Microsoft’s Bill Gates) was spending well more than $200 million to promote the Common Core idea. Gates gave grants to liberal and conservative education groups, teachers unions, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Then the Obama administration tied the standards to massive federal aid. The result has been an overwhelming financial push for Common Core.

The Gates money also gave Common Core a smooth sail through the checks and balances that usually apply to educational innovation. Sarah Reckhow, an education policy researcher at Michigan State, said, “Usually there’s a pilot test—something is tried on a small scale, outside researchers see if it works, and then it’s promoted on a broader scale. That didn’t happen with Common Core.”

The actual standards also are not written with the eloquence or simplicity of the Declaration of Independence or Gettysburg Address. They are filled with educational jargon, as in this elementary-school example: “They must also be able to determine or clarify the meaning of grade-appropriate words encountered through listening, reading, and media use; come to appreciate that words have nonliteral meanings, shadings of meaning, and relationships to other words; and expand their vocabulary in the course of studying content.”

The core standards also have provoked controversy over whether they really raise the bar for students. Some states like Indiana already had stronger standards.

Sandra Stotsky, a retired and respected University of Arkansas professor, has objected to the emphasis on informational reading in place of classic literature. Other critics think the standards emphasize an abstract approach to math theory in early grades, when students need to be learning multiplication tables. Frustrated parents call it “fuzzy math.” Homeschoolers worry that Common Core ideas will creep into college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT. Others express concern about national and state databases of student records.

More controversy emerges once students actually take a test. In New York last spring parents and teachers protested new tests. “I’m not against tough standards,” said teacher Ralph Ratto, a union official. “I’m against these standards. They have not been tested and have not been researched.”

New York had a grassroots revolt against an untested set of tests. Some critics wanted New York to pull out of Common Core; but instead the state legislature compromised, staying in Common Core but not tying teacher salaries to test results. In other states, though, conservative governors are listening to activist opponents and pulling out even before students start the tests.

For parents seeking a way out of this controversy, classical schools offer one alternative. These schools don’t worry about new tests or new theories of teaching math or English. They offer Latin in elementary school. They read classics such as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in early elementary years, and The Pilgrim’s Progress in junior high.

“Classical education has worked well for thousands of years,” says Andrew Hart, who heads The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis. The school has a 50-50 black-white racial balance and a mix of wealthy and low-income families. Students score well above average on state tests, but standardized tests don’t drive the curriculum or classroom instruction.

One of the leading critics of Common Core has been Terrence Moore, who starts classical schools and has taught history at Hillsdale College. Moore was pulled into the Common Core debate by Indiana opponents and wrote a 263-page book, The Story-Killers.

“The Common Core and the textbook editors are replacing the classic stories with postmodern tales of cynicism and ennui,” he writes. “Both the human mind and soul long for greatness, for stories that are good and beautiful and true. If we allow our stories to die, our love of the good and the beautiful and the true will die with them.” 

For other parents homeschooling offers another way out of the Common Core confusion, and some homeschoolers adopt aspects of classical education. Some parents have another concern, that Common Core is not a neutral attempt to assess academic skills but will open the door to tests that demand conformity to a left-wing or politically correct political agenda.

A couple of years ago Common Core looked inevitable, like the sunrise. Now grassroots opponents are stopping it right and left. The small libertarian-leaning Pioneer Institute in Boston has offered a constant stream of opposition research. Other states are pulling out of testing consortiums. If states go their own way on testing, the common will drop out of any core.

A practical result might be state-controlled education after all. Some states could still try Common Core and its tests, and other states may discover something better. The competition between the states should prove better than a Common Core monopoly on standards and testing.

Russ Pulliam

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.


  • Filius_Dei
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    Great write-up! Sourcing this.

  • Because I Think
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    Dear SFC11,       Political Football?  You honestly believe the only reason "conservatives" object to the Common Core initiative is because Obama is associated with it?  You don't understand us.  We don't pick a team and then root for it, we evaluate ideas in light of history and then form an opinion on them.  Even so, if we appear to be more critical in our evaluation when ideas originate from individuals we know to be self serving, devious, dishonest, and generally disdaining of those principles we feel are most significant to our nation's well being, is it not understandable?     I don't thing any conseratives supported No Child Left Behind because the wanted more centralized control of education.  I think any support that President Bush received from conservatives for his initiative resulted from a desire to see some accountability.  Conservatives understood that "politians" were dolling out education funds in order to buy politcal power.  There was no concern for whether the funds actually produced improvements.  Accountability can produce competition.  Competition decentralizes power.  Common Core, by definition, centralizes power.    

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    Ronald Reagan pushed for standards, George W Bush made it law, and not a peep from conservatives, of which I am socially and fiscally.  But when president Obama endorses the idea it suddenly becomes a panacea?  Political football at its finest.

  • FreedomInTejas's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    Texas (as a state) rejected Common Core Standards. However, curriculum developed to align with Common Core has made its way into Texas classrooms, including via just about any education-related organization receiving funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and/or Microsoft.  Junior Achievement and its Career Success program (developed by Accenture) is Exhibit A:"JA programs correlate to state social studies, English, and math standards, and to Common Core State Standards. Junior Achievement gratefully acknowledges Accenture for its dedication to the development and implementation of JA Career Success."

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    "...if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages."  --  Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning, 1947 Professor Terrence Moore has much more to say:  "The Common Core is clearly hostile to Christianity, to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, to traditional ideas of manhood and womanhood, to marriage and the family, to the idea of America's unique example in the world, to any lesson about life and liberty that could be taught to us by a "dead white man."...Common Core ignores, chops up, misunderstands, trivializes, distorts, and spoils our greatest stories.   They have done so through a combination of incompetence and false ideology.   The editors of the textbooks are clearly trying to discredit our traditional stories through snarky and politically biased commentary whose clear design is to "blow out the moral lights" of the Great American Story."

  • MamaC
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    In Oklahoma there was also a huge grassroots movement opposing Common Core. The state legislature listened and overwhelming passed legislation to revert to previous standards. Fallin, who formerly supported Common Core, saw which way the wind was blowing and signed the bill. No one was certain until it happened that she would sign it. She was definitely not the one urging the legislature to take action.

  • nevertheless's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    Would World magazine consider compiling a chart outlining the 50 states relative engagement with Common Core, outlining the various responses and outcomes in those states? The narrative above is very informative but charts and graphs may be a way of conveying the overall picture at a glance Thanks!

  • RogerErdvig
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    There is a third alternative to the Common Core, which you failed to mention. Many fine private Christian schools have opted not to adopt the Common Core, and thus provide parents with another choice for how and where to educate their children.

  • jteague764
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:35 pm

    "Usually there's a pilot test--something is tried on a small scale, outside researchers see if it works, and then it's promoted on a broader scale. That didn't happen with Common Core."  Strongest argument against the rush to implement.  Next is that the curriculum rushed into publication is poor and sometimes biased to the left-wing or politically correct.  Reading selections are limited and slanted in opinions offered as "choices".  Education is a state function.  Return it back to the states.