Getting to the “Core” of the Common Core (Hint – It’s Not About Obama)

I applaud Ethan Young, the Tennessee high school student who spoke out against the federal Common Core State Standards at the Nov. 7 Knox County School Board meeting.

But he needs to get a grip on the history of education reform. And believe me, it goes way back.

Horace Mann (1796-1859), considered the “Father of American Education,” brought the Prussian model of education to his home state of Massachusetts during his tenure on the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education. “Mann hoped that by bringing all children of all classes together, they could have a common learning experience. This would also give an opportunity to the less fortunate to advance in the social scale and education would ‘equalize the conditions of men.'”

Mann focused on the social and moral good that could come from public education in cities flooded with immigrants, where crime had become a problem.

But the person I want to really put under glass is John Dewey, who came on the scene around the turn of the 20th Century. Dewey’s fingerprints were all over my kids’ schools. And they’re on the Common Core, too.

Known as the “Father of Progressive Education,” Dewey instructed new teachers in experiential (Constructivist) methods back in the 1930s. Industry was booming, and the manufacturing machine needed workers.

Teachers, thanks to Dewey’s ideas, created little worker-bees by the drove. And these worker-bees, Dewey believed, should not have too much knowledge or be too literate. As long as they are doing meaningful labor and contributing to the whole, people should be satisfied.

Not that we don’t need assembly-line workers. We do.

Unfortunately, for today’s kids, his methods translate to huge knowledge deficit. And here’s the thing: We need an educated electorate.

In truth, the people (dare I call them “educrats?”) who are bringing the Common Core to your schools, have way more time and money on their hands than Ethan Young. Or anyone else who wants to do battle, for that matter.

I fought the school wars until I was a bloody mess.

I just wanted to figure out how “the group” had become more important than the individual.

Enter B.F. Skinner. If you haven’t read the behavioral psychologist’s depressing bestseller, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in which he makes a case for the demise of individual autonomy for the betterment of society, now might be a good time.

My research put me in a state of depression. For about three years.

Of course education reform is top-down. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either an idiot or a liar.  I first sat up and took notice of education reform in the mid-’90s,  at the outset of Goals 2000, after Clinton took office.

Before it morphed into No Child Left Behind.

After reading about the Federal Education Tool-Kit in the Blumenfeld Education Letter, I went over to the University of New Mexico library and logged into ERIC, the online library of education research and information.

The inch-thick handbook was directed at administrators and teachers, and provided cunning schemes they could use to diffuse the opposition. Ideas like disallowing groups of two or more parents from meeting with the principal.

There was nothing grassroots about it.

I started reading Robert Holland’s column on education in the Richmond Times Dispatch. (During his 1992-99 tenure as op-ed page editor Holland wrote an award-winning column on education-related topics. His 1995 book, Not With My Child, You Don’t, examined the parents’ revolt against national school restructuring. In 1998, he was the editor of a special issue of Crisis magazine, Crisis in Education, which featured articles by many of the nation’s leading proponents of market-based education reform.

I collected state dept. of education communications to school administrators, warning them that their jobs would be on the line if they failed to put “restructuring” into practice.

It is now and has always been about the money. The dangling carrot. Jobs, grant money, special programs, curriculum materials and tests that align with the standards.

It’s a goldmine. Especially for big publishers (Of which, I recently learned, there are only a few remaining in the United States.)

As a bona fide school wars veteran, I can tell you that the Common Core is just another step in the evolution of school reform. And the powers that be are armed with tactics and strategies to waylay the opposition. After all, parents don’t get paid to push back.

They have to go home and make dinner, read stories and give the kids a bath.

I know this is true. I volunteered to help a dedicated member of the New Mexico State Board of Education. I took Millie’s list of parents pleading for answers, parents who cried at the monthly meetings she held, wondering what in God’s name was going on in their children’s schools.

I called all of them, and put together an action group.

We wanted our old schools back.

They asked why their kids now had “values clarification” classes. (If kids can’t accept that cars have to stop at red lights, how are they ever going to accept drinking laws?)

They asked why social studies and science were only taught on alternate days, or even weeks.

And why all the group projects? Did it really take a team of  four students to make one poster and write a report about the three branches of government?

Suddenly kids’ school supplies were being piled in bins at the start of the school year. Teachers made it very hard for my daughter when I told them to let her keep her own.

Well, society is still making worker-bees, but there’s so much more information out there now, that these kids don’t know what they don’t know. And a lot of them don’t care.

The late Ted Sizer of Brown University founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, a nine-point education reform model that slipped into schools like a cat burglar. I got fed up with his “less is more” malarkey, and “the teacher as facilitator” crap. It had my daughter’s kindergarten teacher chanting under her breath, “Do not to control the kids!”

She didn’t want to “control” them because she’d been brainwashed at professional development workshops, convinced that good teachers don’t “teach.” They only encourage children to “explore” their environment. Act as “facilitators.” And then wait for them to ask “meaningful questions.”  I think the only teacher-led activity they had was story time, when no one could see the book she was holding because she didn’t dare control the seating arrangement. It was a disaster.

I inquired about  Sizer’s model at the NM State Dept. Of Ed. The head of the program, which was called “RE: Learning” in NM and something different every place else, put me through the third degree, as though I were a spy.

I told him I was a parent.

When parents are not informed of the education reform models coming down the pike, and asked if they even want them in their kids’ schools, they can get pretty ticked.

It’s called cognitive dissonance: Parents expect a certain kind of teaching, the kind they were used to, but they get something entirely different.

Most of all, parents want their kids to reach their potential.

They want their kids to be good thinkers. And to be inspired and get excited about learning for learning’s sake. Not because they’re going to be tested.

It’s impossible to measure every thought and morsel of creativity. Deep thinking and creativity require a certain intellectual privacy. A lack of mental invasion.

As a parent, I expected my children’s teachers to care about good literature. I wanted them  not only to be well-read,  but to bring cultural knowledge into their classroom

But I’m not sure that’s what kids are getting these days.

There can’t possibly be time in the school day for a teacher to share much about her life experiences.  Show a travel video, talk about a Broadway musical, or the opera. Or even bring in a guest speaker.

Yet when teachers share their passions, they’re giving children something they can take that into life with them that is not quantifiable.

Of course lots of things are quantifiable, especially math and science. But if teachers have no space, time, or emotional energy – let alone permission – to add lessons from their own life experience, it all  becomes rather meaningless

That’s because learning – any type of learning – is more meaningful in the context of relationship.

I predict that high stakes testing will eventually be used to separate those who can pass from those who cannot. The “losers” will be channeled into vocational programs at increasingly younger ages, preparing them for the occupations that Corporate America wants them to have – minus the benefits of a broad-based education. And minus the academic background that would allow them to change their minds at an age when the cerebral cortex is better developed, allowing mature decision-making.

For this bloodied mother, homeschooling was the only solution. I refused to sacrifice my kids’ shot at a decent education.

In his speech, Mr. Young said he’s committed to his cause. And I hope he is. Because with all the opposition he’s facing, he’ll have to be. FFG

(Check out the Blumenfeld Education Letter. Published from Sept. 1986 – Aug. 1996. Samuel Blumenfeld was a longtime documenter of education reform in America. Back issues contain a wealth of information and are available online.

Also by Samuel Blumenfeld, I recommend scanning back issues.  The man did his research, and I had the privilege of speaking with him over the phone about education reform in 2001.  Click here for links to all the issues

Learn about John Dewey’s impact on American Education:

Read  from Dewey’s book, School and Society


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