Why does it always seem that those most vigilant in exercising forethought and taking responsibility end up on the hook for everyone else? This, of course, is true across contemporary culture, from the ever-burgeoning welfare state to the heavy regulatory and tax burden placed on entrepreneurs and small business owners. It is especially true in education, and as usual the homeschool parent must remain acutely aware of developments in public education, for as history has far too often shown, today’s public school bad dream has a tendency to become in short order a nightmare for homeschooling. And so it is with Common Core.
The impulse behind Common Core is not new. It has been intensifying since the creation of the superfluous federal Department of Education in the late 1970s. Once public education fell under the umbrella of yet another byzantine beltway bureaucracy, it was just a matter of time until the feds bought, bribed, coerced, and threatened their way to greater and greater centralization and control. For forty-five years the process has proceeded apace, with standardized testing a key tool in the battle to strip away state and local control of schools. The bigger, more complex, and extensive the tests become, the more impossible it is for states—let alone local school districts—to conform without massive federal help. And the more behemoth the exams, the less relevance they possess for the teachers, parents, and children who must take them. In essence, a vicious circle perpetuates a needless and cynical cycle of failure: mandating ever broader tests designed to facilitate data gathering and centralization of control at the Department of Education (but which have no real impact on actual student performance) forces states to depend more and more on federal dollars, leaving local districts and individual schools at the mercy of money-starved state governments and a federal bureaucracy happy to trade dollars for control.
There are two principle reasons to be worried about Common Core, and both have serious consequences for homeschooling: First, the “standards” represent the most serious consolidation yet of federal power over educational freedom; Second, the federal government—in conjunction with textbook publishers and testing corporations—is using this increased access and control to further politicize how America’s children are being taught and evaluated. This article addresses the first issue. I use scare quotes around the word “standards” because it is absolutely clear that they cannot be viewed in a vacuum: they are inseparable from the pedagogy, the curriculum, the textbooks, the worksheets, and, importantly, those tests that form the roots that sustain this noxious weed. Proponents of the standards insist they are merely benchmarks, simple guideposts that teachers can follow (in an infinite variety of ways, they tell us) to improve student learning.
But this is nonsense. The only way we have to measure the standards is the tests. As both Common Core architect David Coleman and Common Core financier-in-Chief Bill Gates have asserted: when the standards are aligned to the tests, the curriculum will line up as well, and the teachers will have no choice but to teach to the tests. Given that the only real way to measure the effectiveness of Common Core is the exams, it is beyond obvious that whoever controls the tests controls what happens in the classroom. And despite six years and counting for the Common Core era, that alignment between tests and standards did not begin in earnest for most states until Spring 2015. This long postponement of the tests is by design: the engineers of Common Core knew exactly how arbitrary, stressful, and transformative the tests would be, and therefore delayed them until the elaborate and expensive infrastructure was in set firmly in place (and well-nigh impossible to remove). Given this carefully orchestrated timeline, it is not surprising that some teachers and school administrators claim not to have experienced the worst aspects of the Common Core scheme: because of the methodical implementation schedule, we are only now entering the phase when the real aims and ambitions of those who created Common Core begin to surface. In a way, this directly parallels the route taken by the planners of “Obamacare,” who postponed the worst and most egregious regulatory aspects of the healthcare law until 2016—after Obama’s tenure in office expires.
Initially, the standards were sold on the seemingly benign premise that students in every classroom in every state should be learning the same thing at the same time every day. Wouldn’t it be nice if a child whose family moves from Arizona to Maine could walk into his new classroom and pick up exactly where he left off, without missing a beat? But the statistical actuality of such transfers is so staggeringly small that even hardcore advocates almost never make the argument any more. But look past the utilitarian feint and consider the premise: an education system so hyper-regulated and cookie-cutter mass-produced could only be managed, monitored, and made compliant by a massive federal machine that must—by definition—eliminate any meaningful control of education at state and local levels. How can state and local school boards—let alone individual moms and dads—have any meaningful say in what goes on in the classroom under such a paradigm?
And does anyone actually believe that scores of millions of kids from radically different geographies, diverse cultural, ethnic, and economic demographics, and myriad family circumstances will be held to higher standards when the endgame is parity not excellence (or even competency)? It does not require the convoluted processes of Common Core math to recognize that when the educational mandate for upwards of 60 million American school children is uniformity, not achievement, the new educational regimen will ultimately lower overall expectations, not enhance them, and inhibit if not repress high-achieving students. As with all such unworkably complex schemes for standardization, the ultimate result inevitably settles at the lowest common denominator, not the highest. And what parent can take seriously the argument that our kids are all ultimately the same kid when it comes to educational outcomes? That despite the differences in aptitudes, attitudes, resources, intellectual curiosity, self-discipline, and family support, we are better off forcing all children into the same educational mold, rather than allowing them to find their own levels through actual achievement and ability?
For homeschool parents—many of who opted out of public schools precisely because of bureaucratic over-reach and the growing recognition that government schools seek to supersede parental authority—the move to greater federal involvement is justifiably seen as ominous. Seeing the shock, hurt, and confusion of public school parents, who were never consulted about the Common Core takeover, and whose schools were transformed without their input, is a dramatic reminder to the homeschool community that a federal government that values progressive ideology over sound and developmentally appropriate pedagogy will not, in the long run, continue to allow educational alternatives that deviate from the collectivist status quo. As usual, homeschool families must care deeply about the hijacking of public education, and indeed must actively fight such takeovers on behalf of too many public school parents who are still in the dark about the dangers that face them. In the long run, the only way to guarantee the freedom educate at home is help prevent public education from every fully becoming government education.