Georgias school superintendent and gubernatorial candidate John Barge visited Macon last week to explain and defend the Common Core curriculum in a forum ably led by state representatives Nikki Randall and James Beverly. It was a useful exercise reinforcing why we dont want remote politicians controlling local education.
Heres a primer on the controversy. Schooling has traditionally been viewed as a local matter. Still, schooling has become increasingly nationalized thanks to projects like George W. Bushs brainchild law, No Child Left Behind, that imposed onerous testing requirements on kids and their disempowered teachers.
NCLB impeded education. After teachers and allied parents figured out that testers were taking over schoolhouses like zombies, President Obamas administration gradually dismantled NCLB.
Obamas dismantling of NCLB is another instance of unconstitutionally unilateral, massive presidential adjustment of a law that, however misbegotten, should instead have been fixed or repealed legislatively. Presidents these days seem to think they can do it all themselves, but thats another story.
Bill and Melinda Gates have big hearts and even bigger financial gifts. In their enthusiasm for educating more globally competitive American kids, though, they went beyond even their pay grades by touting the Common Core as superior to NCLB. Arne Duncan, Obamas education secretary, jumped aboard. Almost immediately thereafter, we had 45 states, including Georgia, getting dragged on to the Common Core bandwagon. Amazing what a few strategic federal nudges sprinkled with cash and stardust can do.
The Common Core advertises itself as a set of impressively tougher standards that will be taught through locally developed curriculums and then rigorously assessed (tested) on a standardized national basis.
Bill and Melinda Gates may well have terrific ideas about how to get Seattle schools to turn out more engineering whizzes. Regardless of whether Common Core might help achieve similar goals for some Bibb whizzes, we can more reliably note that Common Core standards have little connection to the realities faced by many of our local public school kids. Here, 48 percent of ninth graders wont graduate. Many of Bibbs high schoolers cant even read the standards, let alone achieve them. Standards are good, but they need to be contextually appropriate and realistic.
Gov. Nathan Deal was an initial supporter of the Common Core along with Barge. Deal, though, has more recently pulled back, refusing to pay for national assessment and calling for a review of what the standards might practically mean. Hes appropriately wary.
Barge, at the forum last week, made two points. First, he claimed that critics have poisoned the perception of Common Core with misinformation that theyre federal standards. OK, so theyre only fostered by the feds. Second, Barge said the Common Core is hardly different from Georgias prior standards, so shouldnt raise any eyebrows. Thats hardly reassuring, though, as the other standards werent effective.
On his campaign website, Barge says that he favors firm state control over standards. Although thats preferable to control by the Gates family or the federal government, the problem is that we really need local control -- specifically, control by our classroom teachers of their classrooms.
For someone who purports to like tough standards and state control, Barge throughout the rest of the forum was remarkably opaque about what the standards might mean for us. When pressed later about the mismatch between the standards and our kids disturbing realities, his odd response was to point to Mitchell County as a model for Bibb. Mitchell is rural and tiny. Bibb is urban with class size more than 18 times larger than Mitchells. Theyre hugely different.
A writer in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution derided critics of Common Core as being infused with Tea Party localism. Prominent math educators Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, though, offered a different view in The New York Times, saying, While we dont often agree with the Tea Party, weve concluded that theres more than a grain of truth about their concerns.
One bright light at the forum last week was Bibb school Superintendent Steve Smith. Forthright, experienced and thoughtful, Smith made a quiet case that local control can make good sense.
David Oedel teaches law at Mercer University.