Common Core: A New Gloss on the Same Old Problems

Bonnie Kristian
Dec 12, 2013 at 11:10 AM

I’ve seen a lot of worry over Common Core, a nationwide educational standards project, among libertarian and conservative circles in recent months. Education policy usually isn't my focus, so I didn't pay too much attention to the issue. Then I ended up reading an article about Common Core’s math curriculum, and I have to admit it sounded like a good idea — with potentially disastrous implementation. 

For the math curriculum, at least, the concept is to have students figure out math formulas (e.g. how do you find the slope of a line?) for themselves instead of just having the teacher give them the formula and tell them to start using it. This is intended to give the students greater understanding of how the math they do works, instead of simply teaching them what to do to make it work. 

Now, I’m not a teacher and I’ve only had one math class since 2004, so I can’t claim expertise on this subject. But I can say that this doesn’t sound like a bad method of teaching math, and perhaps other subjects in the Common Core curricula involve good teaching ideas as well — I don’t know. (Of course, if you’re in 9th grade and you’ve spent your entire school career learning math the old way, getting suddenly dumped into this new method would be frightening for many...thus the disastrous implementation.)

All that said, I understand some of the objections small government types posit against Common Core…and some not so much. First, the good objections:

  • Some states have relatively good public school systems; some have relatively bad systems. Common Core may force some of the bad systems to improve, but it also will lower the standards of the good school systems to bring them down to the national goal.
  • Like No Child Left Behind, Common Core ends up forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” which “has a ‘dumbing’ effect on teaching and learning as worksheets, drills, practice tests and similar rote practices consume greater amounts of classroom time…time spent on test taking often overemphasizes basic-skill subjects and neglects high-order thinking skills.”
  • The curricula were written by education trade associations and businesses. Their interests show up in the focus of the lessons, too, as informational texts gain ground against literature. In fact, by high school, students will only read 30% literature compared to 70% informational texts, even in English class. Again, I’m not a teacher, and maybe my perspective is biased as a writer, but that seems very unbalanced.

And the not so valid:

  • The primary objection I’ve seen is that Common Core is a top-down, unconstitutional, federal education monolith. This is true, and expecting every child in a nation of 300 million to learn the same way, with the same methods is both foolish and dangerous. But public schools are already subjected to national control, and while Common Core continues and expands that trend, it certainly doesn’t pioneer it.
  • Some have claimed that Common Core will implement a new national database on American students. Unfortunately, the government has already been tracking this kind of data for years. The database(s) are invasions of privacy, to be sure, but they’re not an invasion of privacy caused by Common Core.

I went to four different private schools, a public school in America and one in China, and spent two years homeschooling before I finished high school (we moved a lot).

One thing that I gathered from all those different schooling experiences is that people learn very, very differently. I learn best by writing. Taking notes by hand and writing papers are the most important parts of any class for me. Other people’s minds work in completely different ways — ways that I don’t even comprehend. And that’s why — my principles against government being involved in education in the first place aside — I am naturally suspicious of national curricula. 

Different students have different learning styles; different teachers excel with different lesson plans; different communities have different educational needs. Particularly in a country as large as ours, bigness is not a virtue in education. With Common Core, the strain of attempting to force a whole nation of schools into one mold is showing.

So I’m inherently distrustful of Common Core because it is a national education standard. Like No Child Left Behind, Common Core will run roughshod over the needs and differences of local schools.

But I have trouble joining the frenzy which has been whipped up by some. My reticence may have something to do with my policy interests being elsewhere, but much of it I attribute to the fact that Common Core is in many ways simply a new gloss on the same old problems.

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Thank you for this article Bonnie, very cogent! You are correct that inquiry-based learning in mathematics (having students figure out mathematical concepts through a process of inquiry) can be highly effective but that most people that attempt to implement it have absolutely no idea how to do so effectively. Here's a video regarding the use of inquiry-based learning (IBL) in mathematics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6t6WiWYdgY

Common Core requires teachers that have no idea how to properly implement IBL to teach via IBL. Just like every other federal government mandate, the results will be disasterous.

Also, one must strike a balance between the didactic method and inquiry-based learning. Students tend to proceed much slower through the material when learning through inquiry-based learning, for obvious reasons. However, a correctly implemented IBL course teaches students how to think in an intellectually creative way. Thus, it is my opinion that students tend to benefit most from a curriculum that includes both didactic and IBL mathematics courses.

benjamin.rosenzweig's picture

I believe every libertarian needs to start researching the field of education, not only because selecting the right school for your children will have a profound impact on the rest of their lives, but also because of the need for more entrepeneurs in education.

Entrepreneurship in education is, in my opinion, the most effective way we can turn the tide in the battle for liberty. Government-run education, in which students are indoctrinated rather than encouraged to think independently and come to their own conclusions, is the primary reason for the widespread popularity of statism. If there we to be a movement within libertarianism to offer education of extremely high quality at low prices, we could effectively put an end to this deleterious effect on our culture. By expanding the private sector in education, we would also be able to offer a higher variety of choices so as to benefit students with unique learning styles.

I'm actually dual majoring in business administration and education at Widener University. My current area of interest is extraordinary teachers and how they achieve their results. My career goal is to eventually start a series of private schools based on the most effective teaching methods and business models in education. I also hope to someday lecture around the country regarding how entrepreneurs in education can put an end to the public school monopoly and the dumbing down effect it is having on our nation.

As such, I'm working on networking with other libertarians who might be interested in researching and getting involved in the field of education. If anyone is interested in looking into the subject, I would suggest beginning by checking out the writings of Lisa VanDamme: http://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2007-summer/false-promise-cla...

If the field interests you at all, feel free to shoot me an e-mail: bdrosenzweig@mail.widener.edu

benjamin.rosenzweig's picture

great post!

Thomas Nuffan's picture