The Con Comes Full Circle

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he was signing an executive order “eliminating the Common Core and the vestiges of Common Core” in the Florida public school systems. This has been a conservative rallying point for nearly a decade. They hate the Common Core. Why? Let DeSantis explain:

“You would have situations where the parents did not like some of the curriculum, I mean they had trouble even doing basic math to help their kids… With Common Core a lot of people just didn’t feel like anyone was listening to them, and I think that’s a big, big problem.”

You see, people are confused by their kids homework. They are being taught different ways to read or do math than they were taught. And no one asked them. Of course, this is all silly. People have fought over varied approaches like phonics and whole language since the dawn of formal education. And they have little to do with the Common Core (seriously). And you were asked. This is what you have a state board of education for. They employ highly qualified staff and consult a bevy of educators and education scholars when constructing the curriculum. Being confused and angry that you were not personally consulted is like being upset that the American Medical Association doesn’t call you about how to treat breast cancer or vaccinate your kids. All of this is distracting from the real story here, which is that conservative educational policy reformers are angry with something they created. And it was all by design.

The conservative con job on educational policy has come full circle!

To understand what I mean by this you need to know a little bit about the fights over what is taught in our public schools. In the late 1990s and early 2000s conservatives argued that the public schools were wasting our tax dollars and failing to educated our children properly. Much of this grew out of shoddy scholarship and partisan publishing on the declining knowledge of young people about important subjects. Latin and Greek were on the decline! Ignore that they had been declining for nearly a century (and that classics professors were complaining about this in 1898). Students barely know anything about my favorite historical figures! This happens every generation. Typically with subjects from within the last fifty to one hundred years. Between increased scholarship that changes the narrative and shifting issues that make various issues from the past more or less important to the lives of students today the narrative must change. This is not a bug, it is a feature. But Lynne Cheney and company were having none of it. This was all proof of the creeping liberal indoctrination taking place in our public schools, which somehow fills our kids minds with dangerous liberal ideas while also failing to teach them much of anything at all. Neat trick. As such, the schools need to be held accountable! The people deserve to know what is being taught and how well students are learning it! Liberal politicians had no real response– Democrats and Republicans alike enjoy running on “education is failing” dystopian narratives that allow them to stake out how they can “save” it. And media outlets gave little coverage to experts who countered these hyped up claims that the schools were a mess. You may have noticed that boring stories like “X institution works pretty well and here are a bunch of nerdy reasons why” are not terribly interesting or popular. So how did our government respond to this conservative outrage?

They came up with bipartisan policies that created standards and testing programs that would set academic achievement bars for public schools. State and federal tax dollars were tied to those achievements. This is where the conservative No Child Left Behind came from (passing the House 381–41 and the Senate 87–10). And NCLB begot the Common Core.

Accountability required standards. Otherwise, what are you holding the schools accountable for? And if you are holding schools across the country accountable don’t they need to be accountable for the same standards? Of course, you do. None of this was a surprise to the people who crafted NCLB. Indeed, it was sold as a feature of the program. So scores of highly qualified scholars, teachers, administrators, and policymakers studied and developed a wide-ranging, 30000-foot view of what children should know at various grade levels. It is not a tight curriculum that demands you teach very specific information in tightly defined ways. Each state board of education still controls curriculum guidelines. The 45 states that use the Common Core aligned their existing curriculum with these benchmarks. For most, this required little more than minor tweaking. Which state boards of education are constantly doing anyway.

Does that shock you? It shouldn’t. For most of the history of public education, each state and school district taught really similar material. Why? Because since the mid-19th century the convergence of how they were trained at the major teaching institutions, the similarity in the educational materials available for use in the classrooms, and the professionally recommended curriculum of expert organizations like the American Historical Association created remarkably stable and coherent teaching and learning environments in the public schools. The Common Core has nothing on the Committee of Ten.

To recap: conservative public education critics demanded accountability to standards in the schools and then became paranoid about the undue influence of standards makers in what would be taught in their schools (even though such standards have been the backbone of the curriculum in private and public schools for well over a century). And now they demand the Common Core get out of their curriculum!

This whole thing was a scam from the start. It was never really about accountability. DeSantis is explicitly saying so. If it is a “big, big problem” to have standards that professionals generally agreed upon then you have no process for accountability. It was about finding evidence that would allow conservatives the leverage to shut down public schools and funnel tax dollars to private institutions. You see, conservative policymakers also pushed for the laws like the ones we have in Ohio that allow the state to step in when a school district “fails” to meet acceptable levels of performance. Once this happens, the state’s can step in and make administrative decisions for the district. And their biggest preference is to promote charter school alternatives in these areas. So you might not have voted to have them locally. And there might not be anyone in the community with the resources, know-how, or desire to run a charter school. But you will get one anyway. Likely several for-profit options offered by people who have no connection to you or your children and are only coming to your community because they can make money off the venture.

I don’t really care much about Common Core one way or the other. Eliminating it won’t eliminate standards or curriculum. They are deeply baked into formal education. But conservatives flipping back and forth between demanding centralized standards and accountability and freedom for local control over what is taught is just goal-post moving nonsense. Their actions speak louder than their words. The only constant of conservative educational policy over the last fifty years is an attempt to undermine and eliminate it wherever they can. Be honest about what you are trying to do and let the people decide if that is the course they want. They clearly wouldn’t support your plans to eliminate their schools. So instead of foisting an unpopular and unnecessary policy on them by masking it as an alternating set of contradictory proposals why don’t you consider the idea that public education is a collective good worthy of support rather than constantly undermining it?

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