WASHINGTON, D.C. – Common Core money man Bill Gates appeared on a news show last Sunday to once again defend the K-12 experiment against charges that it will erode state and local control of public education.
Gates’ proclamation was the latest in a string of assurances from Common Core proponents to a skeptical public that the nationalized learning standards – which tell educators which academic concepts to teach students in each grade level – will not shift education-related decisions from state lawmakers and local school boards to bureaucrats in faraway Washington D.C.
Those guarantees are far-less ironclad, however, when Common Core backers talk among themselves.
In an overlooked op-ed from last November, former National Education Association Executive Director John Wilson called on the two private organizations that created the learning standards to also create a “Common Core Czar” to “oversee the implementation, call out bad practices and recommend policy changes to the politicians.”
Wilson – who now works for the nonprofit arm of pro-Common Core textbook publisher Pearson – added that the czar “should offer a new vision of (student) testing that differentiates between accountability and instruction.”
“All students need diagnostic tests that drive instruction,” Wilson wrote. “Testing for accountability should be limited to a scientific sampling. High-stakes tests have poisoned the system and need to be eliminated. The czar must be able to communicate this vision to the public.”
Does that mean the Common Core Czar would tell state and local school district officials which policies and practices to use to make the standards and tests produce the promised results? And if they don’t toe the line, would the czar publicly berate and bully them until they gave in?
Wilson doesn’t offer specifics, though an overseer without enforcement powers could hardly be called a “czar.”
It’s safe to assume that Wilson’s hypothetical czar would have the ear of D.C. officials who could withhold federal funds from uncooperative states and districts. Remember, states signed on to Common Core in exchange for desperately needed education grant dollars and waivers from the hated No Child Left Behind law.
It’s staggering to think how much authority this official might have.
In his op-ed, Wilson conceded that the czar would have to possess “an understanding of local and state authority over curriculum.”
In other words, state and local school leaders would still have a say over which textbooks and instructional materials get used in their classrooms, but would have little input on matters related to academic standards and testing. That’d be like having the Environmental Protection Agency dictate the make and model of car Americans must drive, but telling consumers they can still choose the color.
A Common Core Czar would almost certainly spell the end of locally controlled schools as Americans have long understood them.
‘No one wants the hot potato’
Wilson is not alone in thinking that a central authority is necessary to make the Common Core experiment work properly.
In a just-released Education Next article – “Navigating the Common Core” – scholar Michael McShane acknowledges that for the nationalized learning standards experiment to succeed, it will need a “governing body” to make a variety of tough decisions.
“There are numerous tasks that a (Common Core State Standards) governing body would need to undertake, including revising the standards as needed, holding states accountable for faithful implementation of the standards and administration of the tests, and fostering cooperation across states so as to leverage the national scope of the project,” writes McShane, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “To date, it is not clear who or what is going to perform these functions.”
McShane cites Wilson’s Common Core Czar as a possible solution, but concludes such a position would be impossible unless it was granted some “government-based authority.”
McShane highlights other possible governance plans, including one that resembles “the National Assessment Governing Board, which currently oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).”
Like the assessment board, the theoretical Common Core board would be “empowered by law” and comprised of representatives from the major constituent groups, such as governors, state lawmakers, scholars, local school officials, business leaders, teachers, and taxpayers.
McShane explains that “states could then enter into a memorandum of understanding to agree to abide by the board’s rulings. If that is too heavy-handed, states could band together in smaller groups with interstate compacts that promise particular behaviors and create organizations to help them achieve their goals.”
That sounds an awful lot like local school districts and states surrendering their autonomy to some type of centralized authority, whether it be national or regional.
“The oversight and governance challenge is a catch-22: any governing body that actually holds states’ feet to the fire will most likely drive pushback from state- and local-control advocates; any group that defers to those advocates will most likely be so powerless as to be ineffective.
“What’s more, these issues have been known to Common Core supporters for a long time now; their inaction seems to indicate that no one wants the hot potato.”
In other words, Gates and company know that a central authority will eventually have to be created and empowered so their sweeping K-12 overhaul can succeed. Local and state control over certain K-12 policies will necessarily have to be curtailed – possibly by quite a bit. But the Common Core purveyors aren’t going to broach this subject publicly until the current controversy over the learning standards dies down and Americans accept them as a new reality.
Local control is an antiquated idea to many
Since the Obama administration has put so much money, effort and coercion into getting the Common Core experiment off the ground, it would be helpful to know where it stands on the issue of local control.
The administration’s official line – delivered repeatedly by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – is that local and state control of education is sacrosanct and that Common Core poses no threat to the long-standing American principle.
Americans should hope that the administration is being sincere, because there are powerful forces in Washington D.C. that view local control as an antiquated ideal that’s blocking the federal government from enacting policies to solve persistent educational inequalities.
Many of those powerful forces undoubtedly see Common Core as an opening for more federal influence over the nation’s schools.
In 2013, a special commission created by Congress issued a report – “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence” – that “recommend(ed) ways in which federal policies could address such disparities.”
In its report, the commission bemoans the nation’s “patchwork system of local, regional, state and federal bureaucracies that has struggled to set clear student achievement goals, establish clear lines of responsibility and allocate funding fairly or equitably.
“The current system, in which policy and resource decisions are made across 15,000 local school boards, 50 state legislatures and state education agencies, plus three branches of the federal government, is not serving national goals of equity and excellence and is not meeting the needs of far too many children in too many communities.”
The commission’s report – which does not represent the official position of the federal government – recommends that local K-12 authorities “should operate with a clearer, stronger framework that aligns local decisions with state policies and with national commitments to equity and excellence.”
For now, the ideas in the “For Each and Every Child” report are only wishes, they’re not law. But the federal government is like a pesky salesperson. If you open the door a crack, it will push its way in.
It would be wise for local school boards and state governments to jealously guard their authority over public education, particularly in these challenging times of Common Core.
Bill Gates may be a well-meaning man, but when you look at all the evidence, his denials and guarantees ring pretty hollow.