The Common Core Commotion

“Decisions about what content is to be taught,’ they insist, ‘are made at the state and local levels.’ At the same time, we read that Common Core’s “educational standards are the learning goals for what students should know.” Is what students should know different from content?” [That is the question. WHF]

Andrew Ferguson:

The logic of education reform always points to more education reform. With experts having shown they didn’t really know how to improve education on a broad scale, and with state school officials having proved themselves in many cases to be cheats and bunco artists, the solution was clear to every educationist: State school officials should get together with experts to come up with a new reform. Except this time it would work.

At least since the heady days of “A Nation at Risk,” the world of education reform has been a cozy fraternity. Foundation directors sit on one another’s boards, think tankers beehive with other think tankers in the lounges of convention hotels, academics peer-review the work of academics who will soon peer-review their reviewers’ work. One foundation will give a grant to another foundation to study the work of the first foundation. In the last decade the fraternity has increasingly become a creature of the fabulously wealthy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates has spent more than a billion dollars studying primary and secondary education. Few institutions dedicated to education reform have escaped Gates funding. Recipients range from trade groups like the American Federation of Teachers (more than $10 million since 2010) and Council of Chief State School Officers (nearly $5 million last year alone) to think tanks of the left (Center for American Progress) and the right (Thomas B. Fordham Institute).

The Gates Foundation has tunneled into the federal bureaucracy, too, at levels low and high. Several Gates officials and recipients worked in the Education Department under the second Bush, back when NCLB was the thing. Now, under President Obama, they are clustered at the top. Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, one of the few beat reporters who brings a gimlet eye to the work of educationists, points out that Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, oversaw a $20 million Gates grant when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Duncan’s chief of staff is a Gates protégé, as are the officials who designed the administration’s “Race to the Top” funding initiative in 2009. As we’ll see, the initiative was indispensable to enlisting states into Common Core.


The foundation’s generosity seems indiscriminate, reflecting the milky centrism of its founder. Evidently Bill Gates doesn’t have a political bone in his body. His intellectual loyalty lies instead with the ideology of expertise. His faith is technocratic and materialist: In the end he believes the ability of highly credentialed observers to identify and solve problems through the social sciences is theoretically limitless. “Studies” and “research” unlock the human secret. This is the animating faith of most educationists, too. All human interactions can be dispassionately observed and their separate parts identified, isolated, analyzed, and quantified according to some version of the scientific method. The resulting data will yield reliable information about how and why we behave as we do, and from this process can be derived formulas that will be universally applicable and repeatable.

“One size fits all” may be a term of mockery used by people who disdain the top-down solutions of centralized power; in the technocratic vision, “one size fits all” describes the ideal.

A good illustration of the Gates technocratic approach to education reform is an initiative called “Measures of Effective Teaching” or MET. (DUH.) The effectiveness of a truly gifted teacher was once considered mysterious or ineffable, a personal transaction rooted in intuition, concern, intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, and professional ardor, combined in a way that defies precise description or replication. Such an old-fashioned notion is an affront to the technocratic mind, which assumes no human phenomenon can be, at bottom, mysterious; nothing is resistant to reduction and measurement. “Eff the Ineffable” is the technocrat’s motto.

To demystify teaching, MET researchers designed experiments involving more than 3,000 teachers, easily recruited after a layering of Gates money. They were monitored, either in person or by video, by highly trained observers who coded their every move according to one of five “instruments” of measurement that were also designed by highly trained professionals—the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, the Mathematical Quality of Instruction, and so on. So far, MET has cost Gates $335 million, spent on statisticians and psychologists from education schools, teachers’ unions, and not-for-profit companies with names like “Teachscape” and “Empirical Education.”

So what’s the answer? How do you build a good teacher? The findings produced by MET experts are choked with charts, graphs, and algorithms—intimidating to the layman, consoling to the educationist. Their research has uncovered the 22 components, or “competencies,” that are exhibited to one degree or another by effective teachers everywhere. Non-educationists will find some of these components frivolous or predictably trendy (“attention to access, equity, and diversity”). Others are banal (“teacher knowledge and fluency,” “intellectual engagement in key ideas”). Still others are redundant, and many more are simply too poorly defined to qualify as distinct human traits. Yet the Gates reformers believe that their method—rigorous, empirical, scientific—can instill competencies in America’s teachers if the same MET process of observation and evaluation is duplicated in local classrooms. “The goal,” says Gates, “is for them to become standard practice.”

Whether this is even possible is a question that doesn’t take up much room in the MET literature; technocrats are seldom preoccupied with bridging the theoretical and the actual. Yet the researchers themselves give off occasional hints that the process they’ve invented won’t travel very far. The observers used in the MET experiments had undergone training far too elaborate, time-consuming, and expensive for any but the richest school districts to afford. The observers were usually strangers to the teachers they evaluated in the experiments; in actual practice, in real schools, observers and teachers would be acquainted with each other, with the social and personal complications any such relationship entails. No consequences were attached to the ratings the observers came up with—no raises or job security influenced the experimental evaluations, as they would in real life. And even then, researchers found, evaluations of the same teacher often differed radically from one observer to the next, and depending on which “instrument” was used.

Exciting as it undoubtedly is for the educationist, MET research tells us nothing about how to improve the world that students and teachers inhabit. It is an exercise by educationists for educationists to ponder and argue over. Three hundred and thirty five million dollars can keep a lot of them busy.


The Common Core State Standards are a product of the same intellectual ecosystem that gave us MET: the same earnest good will, the same cult of expertise, the same tendency to overthink, the same bottomless pot of money. Common Core would not exist without the Gates Foundation.

When it became clear that NCLB wasn’t working, a Gates-funded trade group called Council of Chief State School Officers (yes: CCSSO) summoned a conclave of educationists, including officials from 48 states. They agreed that the embarrassing muddle of test results delivered by the varied state tests under NCLB should be cleaned up. The way to do it was through a single set of standards that would explicitly list the things a properly educated American child should know and be able to do as he rose from one grade level to the next, no matter what state he lived in. Even Tennessee.

Here the sequence of events in the story of Common Core grows murky. Official histories say only that “committees of educators” and “subject matter experts” were deputized by the National Governors Association (NGA, ahem) to develop the Standards. The Gates Foundation was generous as always. It kicked up a whirlwind of working groups, feedback committees, workshops, forums, advisory groups, development teams, and expert panels—a Full Employment Act for educationists. But how the experts who wrote the Standards were chosen, and which expert wrote what standard and why, are questions that are hard to get answers to. More than 10,000 educators commented on the Standards after they were developed, according to Common Core’s publicists. But the attention of the general public or press was never aroused, and the impression of a mysterious elite gathering secretly to impose a New Educational Order has been hard to shake.

The committees worked fast. In less than a year, in June 2010, their handiwork was unveiled at a little-noticed event in Suwanee, Georgia. Kentucky agreed to the Standards days before they were made public. Five months later, 41 states had agreed to “fully implement” the Standards by the end of 2014. More states signed on within another year, bringing the total to 46. (Alaska, Texas, Virginia, and Nebraska were the holdouts.)

All of this activity at the state level has allowed advocates to say, correctly, that the federal Department of Education did not produce the Standards. Our nation’s educationists, working together, produced the Standards. But it is a distinction without much difference. When the Ed Department found itself flush with cash from the 2009 Obama stimulus, it came up with “Race to the Top,” a $4.35 billion program that allocated federal money to states based in part on how closely they embraced “common standards” for “college and career readiness.” Department officials, especially Secretary Duncan, have been tireless in promoting the cause, and the revolving door of the Gates Foundation has made it hard to tell the difference between state and federal, public and private.

Once the states fell into line, the department paid another $330 million for two state consortiums to hire educationists to devise Common Core tests. These will measure how well students are rising to the Standards, and those results, in turn, will be used to evaluate how well individual teachers are teaching them. The new tests will replace tests that each state had to develop over the last few years in response to NCLB. Those tests cost a lot of money too—money down the drain. In fact, many school districts were still introducing the NCLB tests when word came down that Common Core would require new tests to replace the old tests. Educationists are always on the go.


Only half the Common Core states say they will have the program up and running by the 2015 deadline. The Standards, with thousands of pages of experimental research to support them, are proving difficult to put in practice. If you read them, you get hints why. I’ve spent many hours pinching myself awake as I read through the hundreds of thousands of words that make up the Standards for Language Arts and Social Studies. Their length is intimately involved in their ambition. “The Standards,” reads a preamble, “lay out a vision for what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century.” Students who meet the Standards are “engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners. They work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying. .  .  . They use relevant evidence .  .  . making their reasoning clear .  .  . and they constructively evaluate others’ use of evidence.”

This is a lofty notion of a high school senior, and rare even among accomplished adults—I can think of several columnists for the New York Times who would fail to qualify. It is also notably abstract. The Standards are this way from necessity. The experts who wrote them had to insist on a distinction between a national curriculum, which the federal government is forbidden by statute to enact, and national standards, which any state or local curriculum must meet. Advocates try to draw a bright line between these two, curriculum and standards, without much success. According to the authors, the Standards “do not—indeed cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn.”

“Decisions about what content is to be taught,” they insist, “are made at the state and local levels.” At the same time, we read that Common Core’s “educational standards are the learning goals for what students should know.” Is what students should know different from content?

This distinction between content and learning—between what a student is supposed to learn and how he is supposed to learn it—has been a premise of educationist philosophy for a generation or more. Before schools fell under the sway of modern educational theory, it was assumed that a student would learn how to weigh and judge knowledge in the act of acquiring it; the best way to get a kid thinking, in other words, was to make him learn something. The educationist bisects the process. The act of learning is somehow to be separated from what’s being learned and then taught independently of it. The what of learning is much less important than the how. This is why such airy concepts as “critical thinking” and “problem solving” and “higher-order thinking skills” are the linchpins of modern education. As one disgruntled teacher put it: Rather than learning something in particular, students learn nothing in general.

Teacher training has developed accordingly. In the schools of education where most primary and secondary teachers learn the trade, the method is not to train teachers in the subjects they’ll teach but to train them in theories about teaching. The adage that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach has been topped off: Those who can’t teach, teach teachers. The technocrats in social sciences produce a limitless supply of theories to study and argue over—enough to amuse education majors and keep an entire academic discipline busy. Education schools are now understood to be the easy mark of higher education: Anyone can get an education degree. The paradoxical effect is that some college students are drawn to become teachers precisely because they don’t have to know much to be one.

In the confusion between content and learning, the Standards often show the telltale verbal inflation that educationists use to make a simple idea complicated. The Standards for Reading offer a typical example. They come in groups of three—making a wonderful, if suspicious, symmetry. Unfortunately, many of the triplets are essentially identical. According to the rubric Key Ideas and Details, a student should “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly.” Where one standard says the student must be able to “analyze the development of central ideas,” the next standard says the student should be able to “analyze” “how ideas develop.” One “key detail” is to “learn details.” Under Craft and Structure, the student should be able to “analyze” how “portions of text” “relate to each other or the whole.” Another says he “should cite specific textual evidence” and still another that he should “summarize the key supporting details.” All of this collapses into a single unwritten standard: “Learn to read with care and to explain what you’ve read.” But no educationist would be so simple-minded.

There are standards only an educationist could love, or understand. It took me a while to realize that “scaffolding” is an ed-school term for “help.” Associate is another recurring term of art with a flexible meaning, from spell to match, as when third graders are expected to “associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.” This seems like students are being asked to spell vowels, but that can’t be right, can it? And when state and local teachers have to embody such confusing standards in classroom exercises, you’re likely to wind up with more confusion. In a teacher’s guide to the Standards from Kentucky, I found this problem for tenth graders, who will be asked to decide “which person demonstrates more admirable qualities”:

“Aristotle describes three different types of people. He points out that Person A gets pleasure from doing good things. Other people get pleasure from doing bad things. Of these people, Aristotle mentions two types.” [So there are four types?]

“Person B eats too much food because he gets pleasure from it. Person C would also get pleasure from eating too much food. However, this person controls himself and eats the right amount of food even though he would prefer to eat more.” [Then Person C is doing a good thing?]

“In Aristotle’s system, both Person A and Person B eat the right amount of food. [Don’t you mean Person C?] Person A eats the right amount of food by nature. Person B eats the right amount of food by choice.” [Wait. He does?]

By the end Person C has vanished altogether apparently, leaving many unhappy tenth graders in his wake.


Most of the criticism of the Standards has come from the populist right, and the revolt of conservative parents against the pet project of a national educationist elite is genuine, spontaneous, and probably inevitable. But if you move beyond the clouds of jargon, and the compulsory gestures toward “critical thinking” and “metacognitive skills,” you will begin to spy something more interesting. There’s much in the Standards to reassure an educational traditionalist—a vein of subversion. At several points, Common Core is clearly intended as a stay against the runaway enthusiasms of educationist dogma.

The Standards insist schools’ (unspecified) curriculums be “content-rich”—meaning that they should teach something rather than nothing. They even go so far as to require students to read Shakespeare, the Preamble and First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and works of Greek mythology. Phonics is the chief means of teaching reading in Common Core, rejecting the notorious “whole language” method first taken up in the 1970s and—research shows!—a likely culprit in the decline in reading scores. The Standards discourage the use of calculators, particularly in early grades where it has become a popular substitute for acquiring basic math. The Standards require memorization of multiplication tables as an important step in learning arithmetic, striking a blow against “fuzzy math.” Faddish notions like “visual literacy” are nowhere to be found.

Perhaps most impressively, at least in language arts, the Standards require students to read and write ever larger amounts of nonfiction as they move toward their high school diploma. Anyone familiar with the soupy “young adult” novels fed to middle- and high-school students should be delighted. Writing assignments, in tandem with more rigorous reading, move away from mere self-expression—commonly the focus of writing all the way through high school—to the accumulation of evidence and detail in the service of arguments. The architect of the Language Arts Standards, an educationist called David Coleman, explained this shift in a speech in 2011. He lamented that the most common form of writing in high school these days is “personal writing.”

“It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

Now, it is hard to imagine a more traditionalist sentiment than that. Yet conservative Common Core activists single out Coleman as a particularly sinister adversary, perhaps for his potty mouth. The populist campaign against the Standards has been scattershot: Sometimes they are criticized for being unrealistically demanding, at other times for being too soft. Even Common Core’s insistence on making the Constitution part of any sound curriculum has been attacked as insidious. Recall that students will be required to read only the Preamble and the First Amendment. That is, they will stop reading before they reach the Second Amendment and the guarantee of gun rights.

Coincidence? Many activists think not.

The conservative case, as seen in videos and blogs posted on countless websites, relies heavily on misinformation—tall tales and urban legends advanced by people who should know better. Revulsion at the educationist project predates Common Core by many decades. It is grounded in countless genuine examples of faddish textbooks and politicized curriculums. For the last few years, however, Common Core has been blamed for all of them. Textbook marketers and lesson-plan designers are happy to help. Their market, after all, isn’t parents but fellow educationists on state and local school boards that control purchasing budgets. Once Common Core was established as the future (for now) of education, the marketers knew the phrase was catnip. Every educational product imaginable now bears the label “common core,” whether it’s inspired by the Standards or not. A search of books for sale on shows more than 12,000 bearing the words “common core” in their titles. Many were produced long before the Standards were even a twinkle in an educationist’s eye.

And so, from a popular conservative blog, we get lists of horribles like this, attributed to Common Core:

“Would you be okay with your 4th grader learning how to masturbate from his school textbook? Would you think it’s a good idea to teach kids that the correct answer to 72 + 81 is 150, not 153? What about cutting Tom Sawyer from the curriculum, and replacing it with articles about the imminent dangers of man-made global warming?”

All these were evidently drawn from textbooks that sell themselves to educationists as being “aligned” with the Standards. Of course, if you live in the kind of school district that buys a textbook that teaches your fourth grader how to masturbate, that’s most likely the kind of textbook you’ll get. But Common Core has nothing to do with it. The Standards are agnostic on the onanism question at every grade level. Activist literature commonly confuses the Standards with the National Sexuality Educational Standards, a fringe concoction of left-wing “sexuality educators” that apes the Common Core but has no official or unofficial relation to it. The fact that the Common Core Standards can be plausibly linked to such enterprises is a testament to the neutrality of their content—their intentional blandness. Indeed, it might be an argument for making the Standards more demanding rather than for doing away with them altogether.

Conservative hostility to the Common Core is also entangled with hostility to President Obama and his administration. Joy Pullman, an editor and writer who is perhaps the most eloquent and responsible public critic of Common Core, wrote recently in “I wager that 90 percent of the debate over Common Core would instantly dissipate if states adopted the top-rated standards from, say, Massachusetts or Indiana and dropped the Obama administration tests.”

While the personal hostility to Obama might be overwrought, the administration’s campaign on behalf of the Standards has borne all the marks of the president’s other efforts at national persuasion. There is the hysterical overstatement—Secretary Duncan calls Common Core “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.” (Has he forgotten Goals 2000?) There are the same sly elisions, the buried assumptions and question-begging, the drawing of Jesuitical distinctions. Here are Secretary Duncan’s remarks last year to a group of newspaper editors: “The federal government didn’t write [the Standards], didn’t approve them, and doesn’t mandate them, and we never will. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading.”

This is willfully misleading. The federal government doesn’t mandate Common Core, but when Duncan and his department made lots of federal funds contingent on a state’s embrace of “common standards,” the Common Core was no longer “voluntary” for most revenue-hungry state officials. At the same time, for all practical purposes, the department assumed oversight of the program. Only a federal bureaucrat can say when a state has satisfied its obligation to produce materials appropriate to the Standards. And as implementation of Common Core begins in earnest, with confusion about which tests comply with which standards, the federal role will only grow.

Common Core does not impose a national curriculum, Duncan often insists, correctly; such an explicit move would not only be illegal but would face insurmountable resistance. Yet, in other venues where it is helpful to do so, he speaks of the program as if it had all the conveniences of a national curriculum: “Literally for the first time in American history .  .  . a fourth grade teacher in New Mexico can develop a lesson plan at night and, the very next day, a fourth grade teacher in New York can use it and share it with others if she wants to.” This assertion isn’t willfully misleading. To the extent it concerns the Common Core, it is nakedly untrue.


The administration’s bullying and dishonesty might be reason enough to reject the Standards. The campaign has even begun to worry its natural allies, who are losing trust in assurances that the Common Core is an advance for progressive education. Educationists on the leftward edge point to its insistence that teachers be judged on how much their students learn. This bears an unappealing resemblance to NCLB requirements, and they worry it will inject high-pressure competition into the collegial environment that most educationists prefer. Worse, it could be a Trojan horse for a reactionary agenda, a return to the long-ago era when students really had to, you know, learn stuff.

“The purpose of education,” says Paul Horton, a Common Core critic at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, “is for a person .  .  . to discover who they are, to grow as an individual. .  .  . I think current policymakers unfortunately see the purpose of education as being training people to acquire the minimum level of skills that are required to work in a technical workplace.”

The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, supported Common Core in its earliest stages, and were happy to accept very large grants to assist Gates and other pro-Standards institutions in their work. But as the deadline for implementation in 2015 approaches, the support among teachers shows signs of softening. Last month a group of nearly 200 local teachers marched on the Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle protesting its role in Common Core. Gates’s attitude, one protester told the local public radio station, “is, ‘It’s the teachers that need to change, and it’s the standards and the testing that really will improve [schools].’ .  .  . Really, the issue is class size, support for teachers, and poverty.”

In May, one of the AFT’s largest subsidiaries, the Chicago Teachers Union, passed a resolution condemning Common Core. “Common Core eliminates creativity in the classroom and impedes collaboration,” said a spokesman. “We also know that high-stakes standardized testing is designed to rank and sort our children and it contributes significantly to racial discrimination and the achievement gap among students in America’s schools.”

Already last year, the president of the AFT called for a delay of at least two years in using Common Core-related tests for teacher evaluations; states would test students, in other words, but teachers would not be judged on the students’ scores. The Gates Foundation has agreed, and several states have already announced a moratorium on teacher evaluations. In perhaps the most dramatic development of all, Politico reported, the AFT’s Innovation Fund announced it would no longer accept its annual $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation. The “level of distrust” of Gates among its members was too great. Of course, distrust has its limits. The union itself will continue to accept Gates money for its general fund. And AFT leadership holds out the possibility that even the Innovation Fund will once again accept Gates money in the future, according to a union spokesman. “We don’t want to say never, never, ever, ever.”


The delays and distancing suggest a cloudy future for the Common Core. Even its advocates say that the best possible outcome for now involves a great deal more unpleasantness: The tests will be given to many students beginning next spring, and the results will demonstrate the catastrophic state of learning in American schools. Of course, we knew that, but still. “Maybe this will be a reality check,” one booster told me the other day. “People will take a look at the results and say, ‘Aha! So this is what they’ve been talking about!’ It will send a very strong signal.”

It would indeed, but a signal to do what? Educationists don’t like unpleasantness; it’s not what they signed up for when they became reformers. We already know what happened when NCLB state tests exposed the reality of American public schools. It was time for a new reform.

In that case, Common Core would survive, but only as NCLB survives—as a velleity, a whiff of a hint of a memory of a gesture toward an aspiration for excellence. And the educationists will grow restless. Someone somewhere will come up with a new reform program, a whole new approach—one with teeth, and high-stakes consequences for stakeholders. Bill Gates will get wind of it. He will be intrigued. His researchers will design experiments to make sure the program is scientifically sound. Data will be released at seminars, and union leadership will lend tentative support. The president will declare a crisis and make reform a national priority. She will want to be called an education president too.