‘Counter-Manifesto’ Challenges Common Core Standards

Published May 20, 2011

A coalition of more than 150 education reformers, state and federal policymakers past and present, teachers, and opinion leaders has released a manifesto opposing a state and federal government effort to establish a national curriculum and testing system.
“Closing the Door on Innovation” argues the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which the National Governors Association developed with the U.S. Council of Chief State School Officers, would “stifle innovation and freeze into place an unacceptable status quo,… end local and state control of schooling,… lack a legitimate legal basis,… and impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s students.”

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core language and mathematics frameworks, which were released last year.

Several legislators and school board trustees from states that already adopted the curriculum signed on to “Closing the Door on Innovation.” Legislatures in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and South Carolina are also considering bills to withdraw from the initiative.

Against Shanker Manifesto
The coalition’s “counter-manifesto” is a rebuttal to one published earlier this year by the American Federation of Teachers’ Albert Shanker Institute. Titled “A Call for Common Content” and bearing the signatures of more than 200 union leaders and policymakers, the Shanker document avoids the term “national standards” but admits the Common Core would require “a sea change in the way that education in America is structured.”

Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice, coauthored the response manifesto with former U.S. Deputy Education Secretary and Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Evers, University of Arkansas professors Jay P. Greene and Sandra Stotsky, and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ze’ev Wurman. Forster says Education Department officials have been “quietly working behind the scenes to establish national control of K-12 education curriculum.”

Forster says the timing of the counter-manifesto is critical to the public policy debate. Congress is preparing to debate reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the primary federal law authorizing aid to K-12 education. Meanwhile, Forster notes, the U.S. Department of Education has been funding efforts by two assessment groups to develop a national curriculum and a national testing system.

“This federal initiative would create a national system of academic-content standards, tests, and curriculum,” Forster said.

‘Voluntary’ Label Disputed
Although the Common Core standards are supposed to be voluntary, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last year made adopting the frameworks a condition of state eligibility for $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grants. President Obama has said $15 billion in federal Title I aid eventually may be contingent on states using the standards and accompanying tests.

Greene, who served in the Education Department during the George W. Bush administration, says the Common Core is voluntary in name only.

Any Education Department participation in designing a national curriculum, including “incentivizing” states to adopt the Common Core frameworks, Green says, violates federal law and undermines the constitutional balance between national and state authority.

“The department seems to think it is on solid footing as long as it does not mandate or control curriculum,” explained Greene. But the 1979 law establishing the Education Department restricts its activities further than that, he said.

“It may not even direct or supervise curriculum,” Greene said. “I have no idea how the department could fund the development of curriculum without also exercising some direction and supervision over that curriculum.”

“As far as I know, no law has specifically authorized the department to engage in these activities,” he added.

Consensus Against Nationalization
Greene says the signers of the counter-manifesto do not necessarily agree with each other about whether standards, curriculum, and assessments are best handled at the school, district, or state level. He says those are legitimate policy debates.

“But we all agree that centralization to the federal level is undesirable,” he said.

Forster adds, “National control over curriculum creates a single lever you can pull to move every school in America. Would conservatives trust progressives, and would progressives trust conservatives, not to try to seize control of that lever to inculcate their religious and moral views among the nation’s youth?”

“And if you don’t trust the other side not to try to seize the lever,” Forster said, “is there any reasonable alternative to trying to seize it first?”

‘A Serious Response’
Thomas B. Fordham Institute president Chester E. Finn supports a robust national curriculum and signed the Shanker Institute manifesto. Finn and vice president Michael Petrilli responded to the counter-manifesto in a post at Fordham’s “Gadfly” weblog, saying it was “full of half-truths, mischaracterizations, and straw men” but nevertheless deserved “a serious response.”

“States should be encouraged to stay the course with the Common Core standards and assessments, at least until we see what the tests look like,” Finn and Petrilli wrote. “While the standards aren’t perfect, they are vastly better than what they are replacing in most states.”

Greene retorts, “Standards, curriculum, and assessment are all connected. Once the federal government coerces states to adopt a set of standards and once states are compelled to adopt a particular set of assessments, then we have a de facto national curriculum regardless of whatever else is done.”

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from Southern California.

Internet Info:
Bill Evers, Jay P. Greene, et. al., “Closing the Door on Innovation,” k12innovation.com, 2011: http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/29936

“A Call for Common Content,” Albert Shanker Institute, 2011: http://shankerinstitute.org/curriculum.html