Will the REAL Conservative Fan of the Common Core Please Stand Up

Are the new(ish) Common Core Learning Standards “conservative?” Some say yes, some say no. But even among those who say yes, we see a split. Leading conservative educational thinker Sol Stern offers one “conservative” vision of the Common Core, while Michael Petrilli gives another. And their differences can tell us a lot about the complicated world of conservative educational thinking.

Among some conservatives—some of them literally from an earlier generation—the new standards seem obviously objectionable, simply because of their provenance. Phyllis Schlafly, for example, emerged from the 1970s to bash the Common Core as a power grab by “Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.” Some pundits from a newer generation agree. Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin warn that the new standards are turning American kids into “guinea pigs.”

But among those conservatives who like the Common Core—or at least think the new standards are the least-bad option—we see different emphases. Both Stern and Petrilli agree that the new standards will offer a more rigorous academic experience. But Stern suggests that such rigor is the core of the conservative case for the Core, while Petrilli says that academic rigor is only one aspect of the conservative argument in favor of the new standards.

Writing in the pages of the New Criterion, Stern defends the Common Core as the best “chance of restoring traditional academic content to the classroom.” As Stern explains,

As a conservative, I remain convinced that, faults and all, the Common Core still presents a golden opportunity and a challenge for states and school districts to rethink what is taught in their classrooms. The Standards are more than just a list of learning objectives and skills that American students are expected to achieve by the end of each grade level. The most hopeful part of the new Standards is that they reject the instructional malpractice that prevents the public schools from fulfilling their historic mission of producing literate American citizens who know something about their country’s history and its republican heritage. Contrary to the conservatives’ complaints, the Common Core is, in fact, a document that the founders would approve.

Michael Petrilli does not disagree. He thinks the Common Core will indeed help re-introduce academic rigor to public schools. But as he argued a while back in the pages of the Weekly Standard along with co-author Chester Finn, the real score of the Core is elsewhere. As Petrilli tells the story, the road to the Common Core began back in the days of Bill Bennett, Reagan’s second secretary of education.

Petrilli argues that the new standards fulfill a generation-long conservative plan to make schools more measurable, more interchangeable. With such standards in place, free-market conservatives have thought, public schools could be freed from the dead hand of left-leaning teachers’ unions. Parents could be offered a market-friendly menu of charter schools and voucher-funded private schools.

In Petrilli’s words,

Standards do a good job of clarifying the public’s expectations for schools, and signaling to parents and taxpayers whether the campus down the street is educating its students poorly or well. But standards-based reform has never had a suitable answer for failing schools. It can identify them but has had little success turning them around.

Choice, on the other hand, is great at creating new school options, places that can replace the failures and give needy kids decent alternatives. Yet market-based reform needs reliable consumer information for it to lead to strong outcomes—information that standards and tests are excellent at providing.

We might describe this difference in conservative emphases as a difference between a “classroom” approach to conservative school reform and a “systemic” approach. Or maybe a “traditionalist” versus a “free-market” approach.  And, again, we don’t want to make these plans sound entirely exclusive.

But it seems as if Stern is arguing that the heart of “conservative” reform must be with an intellectual change in the way kids are taught. Stern excoriates pedagogical ideas such as “balanced literacy.” Instead, Stern celebrates the approach of anti-progressive E.D. Hirsch. Instead of looking at structural reforms, Hirsch and Stern wanted conservative reforms to begin in the classroom. Students needed to learn basic cultural information, to focus on “Core Knowledge.”

Petrilli, on the other hand, emphasizes a different approach. Academic rigor is important, Petrilli argues, but it is only one of the reasons for conservatives to support the Core. At least as important, Petrilli says, is the boost the standards will give to school choice. Without what Petrilli calls “true external standards,” it will always be impossible to introduce a true educational marketplace. After all, how can parents know what school is the best if there are not measures that compare schools in a fair way?

In any case, these conservative pleas in favor of the Common Core might be too little, too late. Recent polls have indicated plummeting popular support for the new standards. In spite of the smart arguments of intellectuals like Stern and Petrilli, parents might decide that these standards are just too iffy.


Common Core Poisons the Well

What’s wrong with the Common Core?  According to one conservative scholar, it threatens to take away the very glue that holds our culture together.

As we’ve seen, no one is quite sure what to make of the new Common Core State Standards.  In addition to debates over the efficacy of these new curriculum and assessment tools, progressives and conservatives all argue about whether or not these standards are ideologically dangerous.  Some conservatives say the standards are anti-Catholic.  Others blast them as a “progressive beer bong.”  Still other conservatives defend the Common Core standards as the least bad approach to public schooling.

In a recent speech, historian Terrence O. Moore of Hillsdale College revived another accusation: The Common Core is taking away our great stories.  According to the Christian Post, Moore blamed the new standards for culture-cide.  The standards, Moore insisted, “attempt to take away the great stories of the American people and replace them with the stories that fit the progressive, liberal narrative of the world.”

Too often, Moore concluded, the new standards encourage teachers and students to read about our culture’s great narratives, rather than spending time with the narratives themselves.  As a result, Moore said, the real aim of education is thwarted.  Instead of pushing the Common Core’s goal of “college and career readiness,” real education should push young people to become more human.

In his new book on the subject, Moore spells out his argument in fuller depth.  I admit, I haven’t read the book.  But I wonder if Moore is aware of his ideological genealogy.  In his book, Moore blames “The Story-Killers” of the Common Core standards for turning students away from their rich intellectual heritage.  He offers a “common-sense” solution to the problem.  With the general argument and even the offer of a new common-sense conservative approach to schooling, Moore is reviving the 1960s-era talk of Max Rafferty.

Max Rafferty isn’t a name we hear much in conservative talk about schooling and education, but it should be.  As California’s State Superintendent of Education in the 1960s and as a popular syndicated columnist, Rafferty spelled out many of the ideas that Moore seems to revive.

For example, in a 1963 collection of his newspaper columns, Rafferty complained of the mindless watering down of curriculum.  Students used to read our culture’s great stories, but since the 1930s more and more of them had been brutalized with intellectual pablum.  If you doubted it, Rafferty wrote, just try this experiment: Take any class of students.

suddenly, as though opening an enchanted window upon a radiant pageant, give them the story of the wrath of Achilles. . . .

Watch their faces. . . .

This is teaching.  This is what you trained to do. . . .

Let us say to these diluters of curricula, these emasculators of texts, these mutilators of our past, ‘We have had enough of you.  The world is weary of you. . . . With your jargon of behaviorism and Gestalt and topological vectors and maturation levels, you have muddied the clear waters of childhood long enough.  You have told us to teach the whole child, but you have made it impossible to teach him anything worth learning.  Little by little you have picked the meat from the bones of Education and replaced it with Pablum.  You have done your best to produce a race of barely literate savages.

Just as Moore apparently does in his recent book, Rafferty insisted that the solution for this “utilitarian” nonsense was simple “common sense.”  In a 1964 book, Rafferty laid out his vision of the power of common sense.  “Common sense,” Rafferty insisted,

                told us that the schools are built and equipped and staffed largely to pass on from generation to generation the cultural heritage of the race.

Common  sense took for granted that children could memorize certain meaningful and important things in early life and remember them better in later years than they could things that they had not memorized.

Common sense in recent years believed that putting children of like abilities together for at least a part of their school experience would help them to find their own rate of achievement and advance accordingly.

Common sense, since anyone could remember, had always held that children who did their homework covered more ground in school and learned more than children who didn’t.

Common sense told us that discipline, like good manners, had to be taught to a child over a period of years.

Does Professor Moore know about Rafferty’s arguments?  Or do these ideas just cycle back around for conservative intellectuals?

Max Rafferty’s books used to be widely read.  Not so much anymore.  I wonder if more conservatives would be interested in digging into their own intellectual heritage.

Catholics against the Common Core

Don’t do it, a group of Catholic academics advised their bishops recently.  Don’t let Catholic schools follow the new Common Core Learning Standards.

As with everything Catholic, the signatories of this letter were a diverse bunch.

They were led by Notre Dame’s Gerard Bradley and included prominent conservatives such as Anthony Esolen, Robert George, and Patrick Deneen.  Also signing on was Lehigh University’s intelligent-design black sheep, Michael Behe.

Why did this group want to keep the new standards out of Catholic schools?

For one thing, they argued the new focus on nonfiction threatens to water down the rich cultural heritage of Catholic schooling.  “Common Core,” the letter charges,

shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government. . . . Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work.  But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry, and everyone is capable of it.

But there is more at stake than just a profound, moral education.  Bradley’s letter worries that future new standards will directly contradict the specifically religious values at the heart of the Catholic faith.  As the letter put it,

In science, the new standards are likely to take for granted, and inculcate students into a materialist metaphysics that is incompatible with the spiritual realities—soul, conceptual thought, values, free choice, God—which Catholic faith presupposes.  We fear, too, that the history standards will promote the easy moral relativism, tinged with a pervasive anti-religious bias, that is commonplace in collegiate history departments today.

As Richard Perez-Pena noted in the New York Times, the letter-writers do not represent the entirety of Catholic opinion.  Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director for Catholic education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said she viewed the new standards as an opportunity, not a threat.  And Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Chicago’s Catholic schools, agreed that Catholic schools must maintain their high educational standards, but did not see the standards as a problem.