Indiana has become the first state to retreat from the Common Core standards, as Governor Mike Pence has just signed a bill suspending their implementation.
A great deal has been written and spoken about Common Core, but it is worth rehearsing the outlines again. Common Core is a set of math and English standards developed largely with Gates Foundation money and pushed by the Obama administration and the National Governors Association. The standards define what every schoolchild should learn each year, from first grade through twelfth, and the package includes teacher evaluations tied to federally funded tests designed to ensure that schools teach to Common Core.
Over 40 states hurriedly adopted Common Core, some before the standards were even written, in response to the Obama administration’s making more than $4 billion in federal grants conditional on their doing so. Only Texas, Alaska, Virginia, and Nebraska declined. (Minnesota adopted the English but not the math standards.)
Here is my prediction: Indiana is the start of something big.
Just a year ago Common Core was untouchable in Indiana, as in most other places. Common Core had been promoted by conservative governor Mitch Daniels, and the state superintendent of public schools, Tony Bennett, was a rising GOP education star.
How did the bipartisan Common Core “consensus” collapse?
It collapsed because some parents saw that Common Core was actually lowering standards in their children’s schools. And because advocates for Common Core could not answer the questions these parents raised.
In Indiana, the story starts with two Indianapolis moms, Heather Crossin and her friend Erin Tuttle.
In September 2011, Heather suddenly noticed a sharp decline in the math homework her eight-year-old daughter was bringing home from Catholic school.
“Instead of many arithmetic problems, the homework would contain only three or four questions, and two of those would be ‘explain your answer,’” Heather told me. “Like, ‘One bridge is 412 feet long and the other bridge is 206 feet long. Which bridge is longer? How do you know?’”
She found she could not help her daughter answer the latter question: The “right” answer involved heavy quotation from Common Core language. A program designed to encourage thought had ended up encouraging rote memorization not of math but of scripts about math.
Heather was noticing on the ground some of the same things that caused Stanford mathematics professor R. James Milgram to withhold his approval from the Common Core math standards.
Professor Milgram was the only math content expert on the Validation Committee reviewing the standards, and he concluded that the Common Core standards are, as he told the Texas state legislature, “in large measure a political document that . . . is written at a very low level and does not adequately reflect our current understanding of why the math programs in the high-achieving countries give dramatically better results.”
The Common Core math standards deemphasize performing procedures (solving many similar problems) in favor of attempting to push a deeper cognitive understanding — e.g., asking questions like “How do you know?”
In fact, according to a scholarly 2011 content analysis published in Education Researcher by Andrew Porter and colleagues, the Common Core math standards bear little resemblance to the national curriculum standards in countries with high-achieving math students: “Top-achieving countries for which we had content standards,” these scholars note, “put a greater emphasis on [the category] ‘perform procedures’ than do the U.S. Common Core standards.”
So why was this new, unvalidated math approach suddenly appearing in Heather’s little corner of the world, and at a Catholic school?
Heather was not alone in questioning the new approach. So many parents at the school complained that the principal convened a meeting. He brought in the saleswoman from the Pearson textbook company to sell the parents. “She told us we were all so very, very lucky, because our children were using one of the very first Common Core–aligned textbooks in the country,” says Heather.
But the parents weren’t buying what the Pearson lady was selling.
“Eventually,” Heather recalled, “our principal just threw his hands up in the air and said, ‘I know parents don’t like this type of math but we have to teach it that way, because the new state assessment tests are going to use these standards.’”
That’s the first time Heather had heard that Indiana had replaced its well-regarded state tests, ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress–Plus) in favor of a brand-new federally funded set of assessments keyed to Common Core. “I thought I was a fairly informed person, and I was shocked that a big shift in control had happened and I hadn’t the slightest idea,” she says.
Erin Tuttle says she noticed the change in the math homework at about the same time as Heather, and she also noticed that her child was bringing home a lot fewer novels and more “Time magazine for kids” — a reflection of the English standards’ emphasis on “informational texts” rather than literature.
These standards are designed not to produce well-educated citizens but to prepare students to enter community colleges and lower-level jobs. All students, not just non-college-material students, are going to be taught to this lower standard.
I want to pause and highlight the significance of Heather and Erin’s testimony. Heather Crossin and Erin Tuttle did not get involved in opposing Common Core because of anything Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck said to rile them up, but because of what they saw happening in their own children’s Catholic school. When experts or politicians said that Common Core would not lead to a surrender of local control over curriculum, Heather and Erin knew better. (Ironically, the leverage in Indiana was Tony Bennett’s school-choice program, which made state vouchers available to religious schools, but only if they adopted state tests — which were later quietly switched from ISTEP to the untried Common Core assessments.)
A STEALTH CAMPAIGN TO BYPASS PARENTS
At first Heather thought maybe her ignorance of Common Core was her fault. Maybe, with her kids (as she imagined) safely ensconced in good Catholic schools, she hadn’t paid attention.
That’s when she and Erin started contacting people — “and we found out something more shocking: Nobody had any idea,” Heather told me.
A friend of Heather’s who is a former reporter for a state newspaper and now a teacher didn’t know. Nor did her state senator, Scott Schneider, even though he sat on the state senate’s Education Committee. (In Indiana, as in most states, Common Core was adopted by the Board of Education without consulting the legislature.) Nor, evidently, did the state’s education reporters — Heather could find literally no press coverage of the key moment when Indiana’s Board of Education abandoned its fine state standards and well-regarded state tests in favor of Common Core.
“They brought in David Coleman, the architect of the standards, to give a presentation, they asked a few questions, there was no debate, no cost analysis, just a sales job, and everybody rubber-stamped it,” Heather said.
So began an 18-month journey in which these two mothers probably changed education history.
One reason the media ignored the implementation of Common Core is that the Indiana education debate was dominated by Governor Daniels’s high-profile effort to expand school choice. But as my colleague at the American Principles Project (APP) Emmett McGroarty pointed out to me, nationalizing curriculum standards quietly knifes the school-choice movement in the back. As McGroarty puts it, “What difference does it make if you fund different schools if they all teach the same basic curriculum the same basic way?”
Common Core advocates continue to insist that Common Core does not usurp local control of curriculum, but in practice high-stakes tests keyed to the Common Core standards ensure that curriculum will follow.
Emmett McGroarty turns out to have been a very important person in the journey that Heather Crossin and Erin Tuttle made to take down Common Core.
Heather and Erin were helped by many people and groups along the way, including the Pioneer Institute’s Jamie Gass, the Hoover Institution’s Bill Evers, and the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke. Many Indiana organizations played key roles, beginning with the indispensable leadership of the Indiana Tea Party. Other natural allies Heather and Erin contacted and educated in order to build the movement include the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Indiana Family Institute, and the Indiana Association of Home Educators.
But Heather told me that what McGroarty and his colleague Jane Robbins at the American Principles Project did was unique. “I call him the General of this movement,” Heather says. “He strategizes with people in every state. Day or night, Saturday or Sunday, Emmett’s there if you need him.”
The 2012 white paper, co-sponsored by the American Principles Project and the Pioneer Institute, that urged the American Legislative Exchange Council to oppose Common Core became Heather and Erin’s bible. “That white paper is the most important summary; we gave copies to people and said, ‘Read this. If you can’t read the whole thing, read the executive summary.’ Because it covered all the bases, from the quality of the standards to the illegitimate federal data collection to the federal government’s involvement in promoting Common Core,” Heather told me.
But even more influential than its message development was APP’s willingness to give in-depth, hands-on, intensive help whenever Heather and Erin requested it. “Usually you call up a national organization, and they are really nice, they say they are with you, and they send you some helpful research and say, ‘Good luck with that,’” Heather explained. But APP did much more. “All along the way APP has been the greatest source of support mentally, emotionally, and with research that a grassroots organization could have had.”
A big break came in June 2012, when the local tea-party council asked Heather and Erin to develop a flyer that it could use to spread the word to tea-party meetings all across the state; the two women turned to Emmett and Jane to help draft it. The first time Heather and Erin were asked to appear on a local radio show (something they had never done before), they asked Emmett if he would fly in and do the show with them. APP staff would fly out to attend rallies, do local radio shows with Heather and Erin, help them prepare to meet with editorial boards, and act as sounding boards and strategists each step of the way as the grassroots movement grew.
THE FIRST TIME FAILED
In 2012, it looked as if Heather and Erin had failed: Prodded by Governor Daniels, the Indiana legislature voted down a bill to withdraw from Common Core.
Heather was ready to give up. Without hands-on support, she told me, “For sure, I would have given up. But Emmett told me this was just the beginning.”
So Senator Schneider agreed to introduce the bill again, and Heather and Erin went to work crisscrossing the state that summer for rallies and meetings that drew large crowds. The media reluctantly began to take notice.
And then something magical intervened: an election.
Tony Bennett’s reelection as state superintendent of public schools was supposed to be a slam dunk. His opponent, Glenda Ritz, was a Democrat in a deeply Republican state, and she had no name recognition and almost no money; she ended up being outspent by more than 5 to 1 as Bennett’s war chest swelled to $1.5 million with major gifts from Michael Bloomberg’s PAC, Walmart heiress Alice Walton, and other national players.
But Bennett was also the highest-profile public defender of Common Core, while Ritz was raising concerns about it.
When the dust had settled on election day, Bennett had lost, badly. It was the upset of the year.
When Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (which backs Common Core), found out late on election night that Bennett had been unseated by the unknown, underfunded underdog Glenda Ritz, he wasn’t happy: “Tony Bennett! Sh*t sh*t sh*t sh*t sh*t,” Petrilli told Huffington Post writer Joy Resmovits. “You can quote me on that.”
Well, something had clearly hit the fan.
Bennett’s defeat marked a decisive turning point, making every Indiana politician aware how deep voter discontent over Common Core was.
In Indiana, as elsewhere, Common Core proponents have responded to public criticism by accusing the parents of being stupid and uninformed or possibly lying. Common Core, they say, is not a curriculum; it is not being driven by the federal government; it will not interfere with local control of schools.
A few days before Senator Schneider’s anti–Common Core bill passed, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce (which had spent more than $100,000 in ads opposing the bill) lashed out in frustration at the outsized effect Heather and Erin had had on the legislature: “Two moms from Indianapolis, a handful of their friends and a couple dozen small but vocal Tea Party groups. That’s the entire Indiana movement that is advocating for a halt to the Common Core State Standards,” the Chamber of Commerce fumed.
This is not accurate, given the opposition by many education experts, including Professor Milgram, Professor Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas, Professor Diane Ravitch of New York University, Professor Chris Tienken of Seton Hall, and former assistant education secretary Williamson Evers at Hoover.
But never underestimate the power of a mother, especially one who is defending her own child’s future.
What started in Indiana is not staying in Indiana.
Legislation opposing Common Core has been introduced in at least seven other states, and large crowds are turning out at public panels and rallies in states from Tennessee to Idaho. Last month the Michigan state house voted to withhold implementation funding, despite Republican governor Rick Snyder’s support for Common Core; the Missouri senate this week approved a bill calling for statewide hearings on Common Core.
In April the RNC passed a resolution opposing Common Core as “inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.”
On April 20, Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R., Mo.) sent a letter — co-signed by 33 other congressmen — to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asking for a detailed accounting of changes in student-privacy policies associated with the new national database the Obama administration is building as part of its Common Core support. The letter pointed out that the Education Department had already made regulatory changes — without consulting Congress — that appear to circumvent the 1974 law that limits the disclosure to third parties of any data collected on students.
“The Common Core places inappropriate limitations on the influence of states and localities, while burdening them with additional, unfunded expenses,” Representative Luetkemeyer told me via e-mail.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa is taking the lead nationally in shining light on the Obama administration’s key role in promoting Common Core. On April 16, Grassley was joined by seven other GOP senators (including major presidential contenders Ted Cruz and Rand Paul), who signed a letter calling on their colleagues to stop funding the implementation of Common Core, which, they point out, appears to violate federal laws that explicitly forbid the Education Department to influence curriculum or assemble a national database. “I voted against the Economic Stimulus Bill that essentially gave the Department of Education a blank check that was used for Race to the Top, and I have been very critical of how the Department of Education used those funds to push a specific education policy agenda from Washington on the states without specific input from Congress,” Senator Grassley told me via e-mail.
The recent announcement by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, that the AFT wants to delay implementation of the Common Core tests in New York put a bipartisan nail in the coffin of consensus.
And more moms are following the trail Heather Crossin and Erin Tuttle blazed.
One major objection to the Common Core standards is that they are not evidence-based. Their effect on academic achievement is simply unknown, because they have not been field-tested anywhere in the world.
But moms have a more elemental objection: The whole operation is a federal power grab over their children’s education. Once a state adopts Common Core, its curriculum goals and assessments are effectively nationalized. And the national standards are effectively privatized, because they are written, owned, and copyrighted by two private trade organizations.
“Legislators are incredulous when they learn the standards and assessments are written by two private trade organizations — the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. This creates concern why public education is now controlled by two private organizations,” says Gretchen Logue, a Missouri education activist and one of the co-founders of Truth in American Education, a network of activists and organizations opposing Common Core. “They also don’t like that the standards and assessments are copyrighted and cannot be changed or modified by the states.”
So why are so many good conservatives, from Jeb Bush to Rick Snyder, supporting Common Core? Many conservatives signed on to a clever strategy that asked them to endorse, not the specific standards, but the idea of high “internationally benchmarked” national standards. It is a principle of psychological persuasion that, once you act, in however small a manner, you will feel cognitively compelled to justify your action. Many business leaders with no experience or expertise in education reform have come on board.
This is as good an explanation as any for why so many conservatives are aggressively promoting a set of national standards about which we know, for sure, four things:
a) They are not internationally benchmarked. In fact, for math in particular, they are exactly contrary to the kind of national standards used in high-performing countries.
b) The two major experts on content who were on the Validation Committee reviewing the standards backed out and repudiated them when they saw what the standards actually are.
c) State legislatures and parents were cut out of the loop in evaluating the standards themselves or the cost of implementing them.
d) The Common Core standards are owned by private trade organizations, which parents cannot influence.
These objections, among others, led Diane Ravitch to call on her blog for backing out of Common Core, as the standards were “flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.”
Ravitch went on: “The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of the nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.”
I asked Heather how she felt on that historic day she saw the very first anti–Common Core bill in the nation pass. “I was elated!” she told me. “We were up against so many powerful groups with so much money. We fought against all odds, tons of money, a slew of paid lobbyists. All we had was the truth, the facts, and a passion to protect the future of our children. Our victory is proof that our American system of government still works.”
— Maggie Gallagher is a fellow at the American Principles Project. Her work can be read at MaggieGallagher.com.