My Common Core Objections Are Not about My Race or Class or Gender

Yesterday, I learned–thanks to U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan–that my unease about the virtually nationwide adoption of Common Core Standards for education is not about the facts. No, Secretary Duncan helpfully mansplained, “suburban white moms” like me oppose the Common Core because the tests designed to evaluate them show that our kids aren’t actually “brilliant” after all.

So helpful!

Here I was thinking that I am skeptical of the claims made by Common Core supporters because I actually want more out of my child’s public education–more art, more music, more foreign language, more physical wellness–not less.

Here I was thinking that my wariness of the Common Core arises out of a concern that many of its corporate proponents are lining up to market costly standardized tests of core skills like abstract thinking, reasoning, and written expression–tests that will be administered and scored by for-profit companies at a far remove from the classrooms where instant feedback about students’ progress is what is needed.

Here I was thinking that my objections to the Common Core standards in English and Language Arts are rooted in my actually having read them and having real concerns about just how “common” or “core” some of the favored skills are.

Here I was thinking that it was my rational application of the thinking and reasoning skills I obtained a generation ago as a public school student that led me to question the merits of adopting an untested set of standards drafted by a small handful of people–many of whom are not professional educators, some of whom stand to gain economically from the adoption of the standards, and none of whom represented the wisdom or interests of parents–to evaluate abilities of my child and his peers.

Here I was thinking that my objection to the Common Core standards is rooted in a fundamental belief that education has more to offer my child and his peers than mere readiness for career and college–that public education can and should be more than a workforce development pipeline.

Here I was thinking that no set of standards–no matter how well-designed or well-intentioned–can overcome the troubling landscape of urban and rural poverty that is the through line for America’s most at-risk schools and students.

So I am grateful that Secretary Duncan has simplified my concerns so effectively. Instead of all of the above worries, I can relax knowing that my objections are merely the class-and-gender-and-race-based worries of a carpool-addled know-nothing!

To be fair, I have no doubt that Secretary Duncan wishes he had chosen his words more carefully. And to be fair, I have no doubt that Secretary Duncan, under whose tenure nationwide adoption of Common Core standards has been cleverly bootstrapped to federal education stimulus money, believes ardently that he is fighting for better outcomes for all American kids. I need not assail his motives to call into question his proposed social policies; instead I think it is more helpful to do that through spirited debate and analysis. Which leaves me wondering why he does not offer the same courtesy to those of us pushing back against the perils we have identified in the Common Core standards.

Indeed, the opposition to Common Core is distributed across all segments of American society–from Tea Partiers who reject what they see as the back-door nationalization of education standards (something that doesn’t trouble me) to liberals like me who question the influence of big business and something I’m calling “big philanthropy” on our system and the threats of commodifying what we believe has inherent, non-monetary value. The opposition to Common Core is not white or black or Asian or Latino. It is not anti-choice or anti-progress or anti-rigor. The opposition to Common Core is not monolithic or unworthy of critique (opponents in my state who have chosen this day to protest the Common Core by taking their kids out of school spring to mind for hearty rebuke). Regardless of how we may be labeled, those of us voicing a variety of concerns about the Common Core should be a part of the conversation.

I want my kid taught and evaluated by well-trained, experienced teachers, not politicians and technocrats ticking through the points of some joyless rubric. I want him and the kids who go to school with him to be safe and well-fed at school and at home. I want his days to be enriched with music and art and foreign language and physical education. I want him to read and write and think and argue and calculate and dream and build and explore.

There is nothing wrong with coming to an agreement as a country that certain skills and knowledge are canonical, core experiences that all of us should share. The problem with the Common Core is that the conversation and its terms have been shared among the fewest of people. The Common Core standards are not the result of a national conversation. They are not the product of broad-based public agreement. They are the product of a well-funded, largely opaque process organized and managed by a tiny handful of people.

In our era of sharp polarization and in a country of such cultural, social, regional, ethnic, and religious diversity, it may seem that there can be no hope of a broad-based agreement on what matters, on what our kids need to know, or on how best to measure what they do know. Perhaps that is true. But where there is no widespread buy-in from parents–many of whom oppose the Common Core and even more of whom simply do not know or understand the standards it proposes–the failure of an effort like the Common Core seems destined.

So, let’s pretend this never happened. Let’s bring parents and politicians and teachers back together to start working on the really tough issues. And let’s leave the ad hominem, straw men attacks out of the debate. After all, according to Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing #1, we should have all learned to do that in school.

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