Georgia’s 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 don’t want remote politicians controlling local education.
Here’s 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. Bush’s 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 Obama’s administration gradually dismantled NCLB.
Obama’s 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unilateral, massive presidential “adjustment” of a law that, however misbegotten, should instead have been fixed or repealed legislatively.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 that’s another story.
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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, Obama’s 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 won’t graduate. Many of Bibb’s high schoolers can’t 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. He’s 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 they’re federal standards. OK, so they’re only fostered by the feds. Second, Barge said the Common Core is hardly different from Georgia’s prior standards, so shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. That’s hardly reassuring, though, as the other standards weren’t effective.
On his campaign website, Barge says that he favors firm state “control” over standards. Although that’s 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 Mitchell’s. They’re 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 don’t often agree with the Tea Party, we’ve concluded that there’s 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.