The myth of Common Core.

June 21, 2015

The Mitten Memo. A blog by Nick Krieger. 

It’s the first day of summer, and school policy is probably the furthest thing from your mind.  Instead, you’re probably thinking about barbeques and vacation plans.  Maybe you’re also wondering whether Lake Michigan will get warm enough to swim in this year.

But a well-funded movement is gaining steam all across the United States.  Those who support the movement refer to it as “school reform.”  In truth, its centerpiece is the implementation of Common Core educational standards and increased standardized testing for America’s K-12 students.

As a matter of historical record, there was no such thing as a national school policy for the first 220 years of America’s existence.  School decisions were made at the state or local level, and the states developed their own curricula to suit their unique circumstances and needs.

In the last 20 years, however, federal officials have increasingly inserted themselves into the management of local K-12 school districts.  Beginning in earnest with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and continuing through the so-called Race to the Top program announced by the U.S. Department of Education in July 2009, the United States government has taken an ever-greater interest in the establishment of education policy and the creation of a nationwide curriculum.

How is this being accomplished?  First, federal officials decided to implement a series of “incentives” for K-12 schools, based largely on student test performance and the goal of annual test-score improvement by districts.  The premise of the No Child Left Behind Act was that the establishment of specific objectives and measurable standards would improve the overall quality of teaching and education.  More recently, under the Race to the Top program, the U.S. Department of Education has begun rewarding states that increase the use of teacher evaluations, adopt the Common Core educational standards, and create alternatives to “failing” schools.

In short, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top — both federal programs — now operate in tandem and effectively require the states to adopt more and more standardized tests.  What’s more, these federal programs force the states to disproportionately rely on the resulting student test scores to make education-policy decisions that were once considered local in character.  It is a dangerous, slippery slope, and we are sliding further toward the bottom every day.

The proponents of “school reform” repeatedly claim that the power to make education-policy determinations remains exclusively with state and local officials.  They also repeat the mantra that Common Core is “not a curriculum,” but merely a list of basic guidelines that we should all strive to achieve.  As we all know, however, repeating a falsehood over and over does not make it true.

While it is correct that the United States has no national curricular standards imposed by law (at least not yet), it is undeniable that the Common Core standards are turning into a de facto national curriculum.  Look no further than U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has tirelessly pushed the states to adopt and implement Common Core, which he has propped up with $350 million in federal stimulus funds.  Federal stimulus funds?  Weren’t those intended to create liquidity in the commercial-lending market, to keep homeowners afloat, and to prevent the mortgage-foreclosure crisis of 2007-2009?  Why yes; yes they were.  But some of those dollars were also used to induce our 50 sovereign states to buy into Duncan’s idea of a nationalized school curriculum.

The most vocal non-governmental supporter of the Common Core standards, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation), has similarly been on a nationwide campaign to convince governors, legislators, and school officials to adopt the standards in their respective jurisdictions.  According to most sources, the Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of its own to achieve this.

So if the Common Core educational standards are simply a set of general, feel-good guidelines as the proponents claim, what could be motivating this vast expenditure of money?

The Common Core supporters continuously allege that these nationwide standards are key to making American students globally competitive.  Indeed, the Detroit Free Press suggested earlier this month that the Common Core educational standards are necessary to bring the United States in line with “countries whose students trounce ours in the global economy.”  The data show that this claim is simply untrue.

Consider the results of the 2014 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which are administered to 15-year-old students in countries around the world.  In the aggregate, it is true that U.S. students don’t perform remarkably on the PISA tests.  But when U.S. students’ PISA scores are disaggregated and separated by poverty rates, the numbers tell a much different story.

According to education expert Dr. Mitchell Robinson of Michigan State University, American students who attend the wealthiest schools—those schools with free or reduced lunch rates lower than 10 percent—scored first in the world in science literacy, first in the world in reading literacy, and fifth in the world in mathematics literacy.  By comparison, students from Finland scored fourth in the world in science literacy, fifth in the world in reading literacy, and eleventh in the world in mathematics literacy.

It is clear, then, that the true villain is poverty, not the absence of uniform educational standards.  As we all know, Common Core does absolutely nothing to address the problem of childhood poverty in the United States.  And if the ability to compete globally were actually the goal (as Bill Gates keeps repeating), his foundation would be spending its money to provide U.S. children enough to eat rather than to push the Common Core standards.

So what could be the true reason behind the Common Core push?  Bill Gates has publicly stated that developing Common Core is “just the starting point,” that “we’ll only know if this effort has succeeded when the curriculum and tests are aligned to these standards,” and that aligning the curriculum and tests to Common Core will “unleash a powerful new market of people.”  More and more, it seems that the objective is to create a market for companies that print standardized tests, distribute standardized tests, score standardized tests, develop curricula to accompany these tests, and produce software and computer programs that align with these curricula.  Remember how Bill Gates made his money?

Why have so many legislators and education officials bought into the myths of Common Core?  The answer is not clear.  What is clear, however, is that if we really want to make all American students globally competitive, we need not look any further than the ones who already are—from America’s wealthiest school districts.  Questioning the motives of people like Duncan, Gates, and other “school reform” advocates is nothing to be ashamed of.  On the contrary, it is the duty of everyone who is truly concerned with the current state of public education in America.

Nick Krieger is a graduate of Ludington High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, and holds a law degree and master’s degree from Wayne State University Law School.  Nick works as an attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals and owns a home in Ludington. The viewpoints expressed in The Mitten Memo are Nick’s own, and do not reflect the views of the Michigan Court of Appeals or Media Group 31, LLC and its affiliates: Mason County Press, Manistee County Press and Oceana County Press.  Contact Nick via e-mail at or follow him on Twitter at @nckrieger.

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