Building the Machine: Conservatives Debate the Common Core

She’s in a hurry.

Balancing a crate of oranges in one hand, a purse and bag of groceries in the other, a stylish, affluent, and beautiful mom hustles to answer a call on her iPhone from a friend. “Calling to see if you’re going to the special PTA meeting,” the friend asks as creepy music deedles in the background, “the school is changing the tests next Spring . . . something about the Common Core Standards?”

That’s the opening of a new short film about the Common Core Standards produced by the Home School Legal Defense Association. The forty-minute film, Building the Machine, examines conservative arguments for and against the new standards. As we’ve noted in these pages [check out ILYBYGTH coverage here, here, or here, for instance], conservatives have wondered about the implications of these new standards. I’m told by watchful members of the ILYBYGTH community that the film has made a big splash among conservative homeschoolers. What are conservatives supposed to think about the new standards? What do they need to know about them?

The conservative HSLDA certainly wants to portray the CCSS in a negative light. As HSLDA leader Michael Farris makes clear in the documentary, he feels the standards make a fetish of centralization, systematization, and data collection. But the film gives ample time for pro-CCSS conservative intellectuals to make their cases.

Most prominently, Michael Petrilli of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute tries to allay conservative worries. The standards, Petrilli argues, resulted from an open and public process. They were not imposed top-down by grasping central elites. Best of all, they will improve education. They will hold teachers, unions, administrators, and students to higher standards. Are they perfect? Not according to Petrilli. But they are the nation’s best shot at renewing academic rigor in public education.

Petrilli is joined by conservative standards-boosters such as Mike Huckabee and Chester Finn. But most of the screen time is devoted to CCSS dissidents Sandra Stotsky and Jim Milgram. Both were part of the original validation committee in charge of the standards, and both refused to sign off on the final product. Why? Both Stotsky and Milgram assert that the new standards are not offering the rigorous academic benchmark that they claim to be. And both insist that their dissent was swept under the rug.

The HSLDA documentary also features conservative critics from the Heartland Institute and Pioneer Institute. The new standards, conservative intellectuals complain, were crafted in a secretive manner, rammed through by the federal government, and do not make academic sense. By aiming at the broad middle, by promising to make all students “college and career ready,” these standards fail to prepare students for either college or careers. More troubling, the standards represent a dictatorial overreach by central government. Mega-rich donors such as Bill Gates greased the slide and snuck this project past the complacent American public.

Perhaps more than the messages delivered by the talking heads, the film’s fast-cut montages and sinister musical background send a clear message: Take your kids and run for the hills. We can’t all be as hip, rich, and beautiful as the mom in the opening montage. But the film makes it clear. All of us—beautiful moms and the rest of us alike—need to wake up and smell the Common Core.

 

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Bashing the Common Core

Is there a “conservative” attitude toward the new(ish) Common Core State Standards?  Though as we’ve noted, conservatives disagree, the session at the on-going Conservative Political Action Conference about the standards sounded like a bash-fest.

In the pages of The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead offered a fly-on-the-wall report.  Conservative luminaries such as Phyllis Schlafly, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation, and Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute took the CCSS to task for centralizing education.

Such centralization, Schlafly warned, does not occur in an ideological vacuum.  With more control from Washington comes more “liberal propaganda,” Schlafly insisted, as she has done before.  Enlow warned that centralization introduced yet another level of government control, blocking parents from their rightful control of their children’s education.  And Stergios insisted that the CCSS claim to be “state-led” was laughable.

Did this CPAC panel define the only “conservative” position on the Common Core?  As Stergios noted, many conservatives like the core.  He thought that opinion was “ludicrous.”  But correspondent Gracy Olmstead disagreed.  She noted that the standards still attracted fans and foes from all political sides.