The New Common Core Democracy: Allowing Citizens to Speak for One Minute

Published April 19, 2014

Here in Georgia, politicians and state school board members did a lot of listening in the months before and after state Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) introduced his Common Core withdrawal bill. Listening sessions were held across the state in the months before the legislative session began in January. Parents testified about the crazy homework and lowered standards. Professors presented their expert opinions. Teachers who had quit because of Common Core talked about its emotional damage to kids. Tea Party activists denounced the unconstitutional federal imposition.

It made no difference. No legislation restricting Common Core passed.

I testified at one of the “listening sessions,” at a state school board meeting, and at a house education committee hearing. I said Common Core would accelerate the decay in reading and writing skills I had been seeing in college students during my 20 years of teaching English. In the minute to three minutes I was allotted each time, I explained how Common Core lowers standards by replacing literary works with short excerpts, informational texts, and videos; and focuses on “speaking and listening,” rather than reading, writing, and debating.

After all this, it occurs to me that Common Core proponents have adopted its dumbed-down “speaking and listening standards,” based on “collaborative discussions” with “diverse partners,” and little else.

These are not debating skills or even the public speaking skills. What I got at all the listening activities was a dismissive “thanks for sharing” response. Consensus with the dominant view was the goal.

It’s what Martha Reichrath, a deputy superintendent at the Georgia Department of Education meant during a September 26 debate when she made such a plea for “unification” because “the children deserve it.” “Unification,” however, comes in the adjustment to the change demanded by those in charge. (Ligon’s bill would have allowed school districts that had not yet spent money on switching over to Common Core to retain the superior Georgia Performance Standards.)

Who Is Setting the Agenda?
While parents, teachers, tea party members, and citizens were upset about Common Core as they came to realize what it really was (and learned of its existence), those on the public payroll had their own ideas about what listening sessions should be for.

A listening session I attended on October 10 brought out public school employees expressing concern about budget shortfalls and begging for money. I think it had something to do with people like Patrick Atwater, superintendent of Tift County Schools, sending out a memo on October 1 asking for “help” regarding budget cutbacks. He reminded employees that the federal government shutdown threatened “supplemental services, many of which are jobs and or job-related.”

Around the same time I downloaded a “Listening Session Talking Points” memo from the Georgia Association of Educators. Four of the nine points were about budget issues. Members were encouraged to share personal stories about “how budget cuts are affecting your classroom.” The other points promoted Common Core, with suggestions for speaking about not “straying the course” (echoing Reichrath) and the need for testing in the “positive way” of Common Core. Teachers were advised to challenge the right of homeschooling parents to “dictate” what is taught in public schools. They were told to ask opponents for their suggested “alternatives.” (Of course, homeschooling parents who also pay for public schools are being affected; as for the “alternatives,” Ligon’s bill called for allowing school districts to return to the superior Georgia Performance Standards.)

At a Dawsonville, Georgia, “listening session” in early January, fellow college teacher Tina Trent made these observations about the majority of the politicians: “The real objective of the listening tour, of course, was to shut up opposition to Common Core by claiming they have listened to us and heard what we had to say so they can get back to doing politics without any more interference from the little people.”

As she notes, “listening sessions” are a way to avoid debate. Yet, that was all outsiders were offered. Those not financed by taxpayers or powerful foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are at a distinct disadvantage. While it would be challenging, Trent said we should build coalitions.

How ‘Democracy’ Works
I had had an introduction to how state-level decision-makers view us at a state school board meeting on November 7, 2013, at which I testified with four others. A huge clock was projected onto three walls in front of me, with the second hand ticking away the three minutes I had to speak. Those advocating for the board’s pet projects had unlimited time. These included Michelle Tarbutton Sandrock, Georgia parent engagement manager, as she talked up the upcoming Georgia Family Engagement Conference, a conference that included one-sided panel discussions promoting Common Core, as I would discover.

While there was much friendly engagement with Sandrock and others, we were politely thanked and then ignored until more than two hours later when board member Mary Sue Murray congratulated herself and fellow board members. She said, “At the risk of being maudlin. . . I think today what we saw, allowing people to speak without threat of being thrown in jail, is a perfect example of American democracy” (at around the 2:30 mark of the November 16 link). At the next board meeting in December, five people from the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders (GAEL) and similar groups had their opportunity to testify in favor of Common Core. Of course, taxpayers pay for the dues and activities for “educational leaders,” like the superintendents and principals that belong to GAEL.

Rent-seekers Galore at Education Committee Meetings
On January 21, 2014, Trent and I attended a House Education Committee meeting. The chairman, Brooks Coleman, in an unusual move, asked all sitting in the audience to introduce themselves. I scribbled down organizations represented—Teach for America, League of Women Voters, EmpowerEd, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Professional Association of Georgia Educators.  

Coleman announced he had met with the governor and that the budget “addressed everything we asked for.” (Gov. Nathan Deal, in this election year, had boosted the education budget considerably.) Coleman declared, “Good education is taking place.” Like Murray, he was “touched” by the testimony he had heard. He vowed to work with Ligon and the lieutenant governor. He promised an education bill would be passed. (Ligon attempted to restore his bill gutted by the House education committee, but it did not pass the committee.)

Again, there was much congratulation on the democratic process, on allowing citizens to speak. Coleman stated that members of House and Senate education committees had traveled more than 2,000 miles to listen at eight sessions in such places as Dahlonega, Gwinnett County, and Savannah. Out of the 180 superintendents in Georgia, 150 had attended. More than 1,400 teachers and parents had participated. Five things emerged from the testimony: 1. Concern over austerity cuts 2. Concerns about health insurance, 3. Equalization grants, 4. Common Core (superintendents were unanimously in favor; parents were split) 5. Teachers like being evaluated.

Listening to Whom?
They did “listen.” But those they heard were representatives of organizations like GAEL and those on the public payroll who toe the party line, like the superintendents. They did not ask the logical question about their boss, state Superintendent John Barge, who is running for governor, and who made an impassioned plea for Common Core at the March 5 hearing. Is it a surprise that superintendents would overwhelmingly support Common Core? Or that dissenting teachers would remain quiet?

Were parents split on Common Core? That is not the impression Trent and I had from the listening sessions, where most seemed to be alarmed about it.

Perhaps Coleman was thinking of parents on the state superintendent’s Parental Advisory Council who just might favor Common Core because of how they were chosen and where they got their information. Meeting minutes show such parents are given a slanted picture of Common Core, just as they were at the Georgia Family Engagement Conference in January.

In the next article, I will discuss the manipulative advising of “parent advisors.” 


Image by Jay Baker for the Maryland governor.