Bottom 10 Common Core Blarney

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As far as I’m aware, I have no Irish ancestry whatsoever, but two of my wife’s grandparents emigrated about a century ago, and so I’ll wish sláinte to her, our children, and anyone else. And since I’m not drinking anything (alcoholic) today, I’ll use the holiday for a different purpose, to make a few observations about 10 illegitimate arguments in favor of or against a common curriculum (five each way). Generally, these arguments prey on audience predispositions, and specifically flatter the audience for their wisdom, especially about things that just aren’t so. Thus, they constitute Common Core blarney.

Blarney #1: We need the Common Core to compete internationally.

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s cosmopolitan beliefs in international trade and the critical nature of the trade to the United States.

Why this is blarney: As a large country with a large economy, the United States sells most of its goods and services to itself and will continue to do so for many decades to come. While trade is a good thing on the whole, and you might be able to tie human capital to marginal improvements in trade, the likely improvement in our exports from the Common Core is inevitably going to be a very small fraction of the economy. The economic reasons one might make for a common curriculum are about general productivity, and most of that will be about internal markets, not exports.

Blarney #2: A national curriculum would violate the history of local control in education.

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s small-c conservatism with regard to institutions, specifically local school boards.

Why this is blarney: Every state today has a set of curriculum standards. There is at least a consistent argument by those who argue against any curriculum standards, but for people to refer to state standards as “local control” is just not accurate. Anyone who argues that national standards are somehow a greater infringement on local school boards than state standards is ignoring the history of education, not honoring it.

Blarney #3: The Common Core is not an attempt at creating a national curriculum without saying the word “national.”

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s willingness to believe seven impossible things before breakfast belief in their own sophistication about political framing mechanisms.

Why this is blarney: Race to the Top technically allowed applicants to belong to any consortium that was developing common curriculum standards. There just happened to be only one in existence at the time.

Blarney #4: The Common Core is an attempt to cram corporate-friendly reform down everyone’s throats.

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s belief in their ability to intuit motives behind broad reform movements.

Why this is blarney: While a bunch of corporate interests have supported the development of the common core, there are some important signs that this is not a top-down effort. One is the extensive involvement of teachers and other educators in the development of the science standards. If corporations had somehow wanted to control schools indirectly through national standards, you would have thought that science would be a key target, and yet it has taken several years to get to the current draft state of the standards, and the draft standards do not look very corporate-y to me.1

Blarney #5/6: The Common Core standards will dramatically improve instruction/the Common Core standards will bring new, more authentic forms of assessment.

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s belief that the primary impediment to effective instruction is political will, and if we only create an outstanding curriculum framework, everything else will be significantly easier to align with those expectations.

Why this is blarney: I think of the curricular-alignment/”political will” argument as the Green Lantern Theory of Reform, after the comic hero who just had to have enough willpower and the Green Lantern ring to be save the day. A curriculum framework may encourage certain patterns of coverage in a school year, but there is nothing automatic that ties a specific instructional method to a curriculum framework. Likewise, there is nothing automatic that ties a specific set of assessments to a curriculum framework. California and Kentucky experimented with performance-based assessment more than two decades ago with the blessing of “it’s okay to teach to the test if the test is good enough” advocate Lauren Resnick, long before either the first wave of state curriculum standard writing or the Common Core.

Blarney #7/8: The Common Core standards will dramatically harm instruction/the Common Core standards will bring even worse assessment systems.

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s belief that top-down reforms happen as ordered, and that whatever your local superintendent says is Common Core-required really is Common Core-required.

Why this is blarney: Is there anyone who really believes that the English Language Arts standards in the common core will automatically be followed to the letter everywhere, in terms of (for example) having two-thirds of reading material for high school juniors and seniors being nonfiction? I can poke at specifics as being inappropriate, but where there are curriculum micromanagers out there, it will be much less likely to exist in terms of page-counting of this sort than in too-rigid pacing calendars… and attempts to enforce idiotic pacing calendars existed long before curriculum standards. The cause of bad instructional supervision is bad instructional supervision, not a curriculum framework. Same for tests: the cause of your particularly bad state assessment system is the assessment system, not the curriculum framework.

Blarney #9: The Common Core will significantly equalize educational opportunities by setting common expectations of what students should learn.

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s belief that curriculum standards are interpreted in like fashion everywhere (i.e., that what is written as common will be read in common ways as well).

Why this is blarney: Institutionalized inequality is a set of patterns, a repertoire if you like. You can make the argument that curriculum standards are a tool of equalizing opportunity, but the fundamental cause of unequal curricular opportunities goes well beyond a curriculum structure. Somehow, algebra texts in some communities have less than a third of the text being algebra, compared with other texts. A curriculum framework can be an important structure, but never a determining one.

Blarney #10: The Common Core will block curricular innovation by standardizing all curriculum.

Flattery object: This claim flatters its audience’s belief that formal curriculum standards are the most important determinant of curricular stability, and that somehow the Common Core is more of a monopolizing force than various state standards.

Why this is blarney: Curriculum standards by committee are rarely as coherent as this argument implies. Is there the potential for curriculum standards to embed a particular set of assumptions? Certainly, but in most of those cases the standards are likely to reflect current practices, such as the emphasis in most high school U.S. history courses to emphasize national development in a triumphal narrative. The stability of those structures rely more on the (small-c) conservative nature of the academic school curriculum than formal standards. And to the extent that formal curricular standards impede innovation, that would have happened when state curricular standards popped up, long before the Common Core.  

As has typically happened with reform where its advocates overpromised results, the rhetoric surrounding the Common Core has taken on a life of its own, almost if not entirely separate from what is actually happening. Right now, the Common Core set of curriculum standards exists only for English/language arts and math, with a squidgy draft in science and an apparently going-nowhere-fast set of “guidelines” in social studies. We are never going to have a set of curriculum standards in foreign-language instruction, nor in many other areas.

The Common Core is best thought of as one abstract level of formal curriculum, a few steps above what happens in a classroom or a student’s head. If you condense the extensive literature on curriculum into a formal-taught-received-tested-hidden classification, the Common Core fits in the formal curriculum category or even a “meta curriculum” level, what one student of mine called “the skeleton of the formal curriculum” (others have used similar phrasing). It and other curriculum standards are neither as good as their proponents claim nor as domineering as opponents assert. It is neither a guarantor of any particular method of instruction nor does any test or textbook slapped with “Common Core aligned” really mean that is the case. It does not address the underlying tensions in the purposes of public schooling nor the double-standards currently attached to voucher programs and similar privatization efforts. 

A set of common curricular standards are just that — a set of common nominal expectations that somewhat overlaps current practices. The vast majority of what is good or bad in a school cannot be related to them. I wish we’d stop hearing such blarney about the Common Core today and forever more.

Addendum: I am not the first person to use a “green lantern theory of” metaphor. Matt Yglesias used a Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics (specifically Mideast diplomacy) in 2006 (in a blog entry now lost to the ether), and John Quiggin wrote about it on Crooked Timber.

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  1. That does not meant that various corporate interests may not be trying to influence different standards, but that is different from a monolithic causal claim. []

4 responses to “Bottom 10 Common Core Blarney”

  1. Andy

    Thanks for the call to end the blarney surrounding the Common Core. I’m a regular reader of your blog. I’m a high school Engish teacher in New York State. The issue right now, that seems to be traveling under the radar, is the Odell Education modules for ELA that the state bought. Districts need to “adopt,” “adapt,” or “alternately align.” Most districts in our area are fully adopting because the modules are being advertised as “test-prep” for the state assessments, and they’re “aligned to the Common Core.” The modules are standardized curricular materials. Fictional and nonfictional texts are selected by Odell. Lessons are fully scripted. The materials cover an entire school year (grades 3-8 have four modules covering four quarters). They’re already up and ready for next year. Modules for grades 9-12 are still being developed. Everyone seems to up in arms about Common Core, APPR, and testing. As an English teacher, the impending loss of autonomy is more disconcerting. The ELA staff at my school are trying to convince administrators to allow the high school to alternately align. The administrators are adamant about fully adopting the modules for grades 3-8. I’m sure when the modules are created for 9-12, they’ll want to fully adopt at those grade levels as well.

    Have you heard news of these Odell Education modules? Are there similar modules in Florida?

    The only criticism of the modules I’ve seen in New York are in a commentary I found in the Syracuse Post-Standard. Check it out if you feel compelled.


  2. Mark Garrison

    Sherman, I love the way you think … in part because arguing with you in my mind always proves to be fruitful. I’ll share three:

    1) While local control over curriculum standards has been eroded over a long time (I don’t think that means its OK or an absolute “good”), I think narrow focus on the CCSSI and local, state and federal dynamics misses the increasing role of non-public entities, private/public partnerships and for-profits in *governing* education. The CCSS are “owned” by the NGA/CCSSO; increasingly important technical decisions are controlled by for-profits, including NYS value-added metrics. The role of non-profits and for-profits in this entire initiative appears to be far greater than in past reforms. It is not only a matter of federal vs state vs local, but also public vs private (even if in some instances, symbiotic, as you say). Increasingly, control is moved outside the public domain at all levels. I’d love to see a Dornist take on that.

    2) Which leads me to this: to render it as “a bunch of corporate interests have supported the development” is an understatement, suggesting, as appears to be the case with Larry Cuban, a refusal to acknowledge what is going on, what many call “corporate school reform”. While we might quibble about the theoretical weakness of that moniker, I think it is off to say the CCSSI was “supported” by identifiable corporate interests and associated political operatives. Even PTA support came with a Gates grant. These interests actively pursued the CCSSI; its present form would not be without Gates, and other corporate interests. I’ve been analyzing Gates grant activity since 2009 and there is a pattern of propaganda and policy support work in almost every state, including the NGA and CCSSO, the creation of non-profts to carry out various functions (data, curriculum, professional development, technology) all under the rubric of Career and College Ready. The effort is coordinated and networked via conferences to related efforts. The amount is quite large, about $1.5 billion. That compares to RTTT. Would you argue RTTT “supported” the CCSSI? If feds and “the corporate” merely “supported” the CCSSI, from where did the initiative come, such that they could decide to offer up their “support”?

    3) And finally, I’m not sure that the mere existence of teachers in standards creation means they are not “corporate”. Why the difference in how science standards are being composed? While educators played a minimal role in the current Core standards, I don’t believe their absence is the key problem with the CCSSI initiative either — i.e., teacher involvement in standards creation is an insufficient standard for determining if the standards are “corporate” or otherwise undemocratic. Who sets the agenda, controls the process and who controls the product after construction needs be examined before one can claim Common Core standards aren’t “corporate-y”.

  3. David Howard


    While I am sure you want to supply good information, your article shows a decided lack of exploration as to the amount of corporate input and in fact the architecture of the entire Common Core program.

    Companies like ACT, the primary architect, Achieve Inc., McGraw Hill, the Gates Foundation and so many others that provided huge funding, and political pressures to implement a program that will benefit each and every one of them immensely.

    You might take the time to read the minutes of organizations like ALEC, CCSSO and others that hold direct financial interests in the implementation of Common Core.

    Clearly your investigation is lacking and more needs to be done should you wish to provide an article or opinion that is complete in its scope.

    Dig deeper and check back