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Getting Past Surreal Arguments on the Common Core

Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute writes again to Deborah Meier today.

Deb:

We agree on the broad principles of "democracy in education and education for democracy," to borrow the old American Federation of Teachers slogan. Where we may differ is on the emphasis we give to different elements of democratic practice.

Your general rule that "where possible, decisions should be made by those who are most affected" is a sound one. I would maintain, however, that it must be paired with strong guarantees of liberty and equality. Freedom of expression, of conscience, of press and of association; equality before the law; due process of law; and the principle of one person, one vote: taken together, these rights are the necessary foundation of all democracies. While the exact parameters of liberty and equality need to be negotiated democratically, the underlying principles must be inviolable for democracies to prosper and persist. They cannot be diminished by the will of the many, no matter where and how decisions are made. Local decisions and consensus decisionmaking may be especially powerful forms of democracy, as you believe, but neither can preempt the principles of liberty and equality.

The principles of liberty and equality are particularly important in the United States, given the ways in which the intersection of race and class has defined American society since its earliest days. Slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and institutionalized racism have all denied the liberty and the equality of African-Americans, and have been the basis of their exclusion from American democracy. Oppressive experiences denying liberty and equality have also confronted other peoples of color, such as the genocidal wars waged against American Indians. The history of American education is, in no small part, the story of struggles to overcome this exclusion from democracy, from Freedman Bureau schools and freedom schools to Brown v. Board of Education and the continuing battles for racial and class integration and education equity.

In American history, state and local decisionmaking has often been a vehicle for the racial oppression and class inequality that strikes at the heart of democracy. Slavery was defended as a matter of "state sovereignty." The Reconstruction was ended in the name of the self rule of Southern states. In the wake of Brown, white supremacist opposition to school desegregation and civil rights was fought under the banner of "states rights" and federalism. Local control and funding of education has been the main conduit for the "savage inequalities" that define American schools, with districts in wealthy suburbs being able to provide a rich education that poor urban and rural districts could only dream about.

By contrast, it was the national government that has advanced civil rights, from the Civil War amendments to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Much of the progressive reform in the last 75 years of American education has come from the national government, from the G.I. Bill, school desegregation and Title I to Head Start, free school meals and the I.D.E.A. To be sure, it was grass roots insurgencies such as the abolitionists, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement that created the political momentum for these reforms, but the national government was the level of government these movements could access to change and improve law and policy.

One hears the echoes of this history in the Tea Party opposition to the Common Core State Standards, which has taken up the old segregationist banner of "states' rights" against "national standards." Tea Party antagonism toward "ObamaCore," as it is now called within their circles, is inseparable from their refusal to reconcile themselves to the fact that Americans have twice elected an African-American president. Their discourse on the subject is an example of what the historian Richard Hofstadter once aptly named "the paranoid style" in American politics. It makes only tangential reference to the standards themselves, and instead free associates them with various effects: the common core "indoctrinates" students into "extreme left-wing ideology," promotes "Islamism," is an assault on "Western civilization" and "Judeo-Christian values," and turns kids "gay."

The surreal projections of the Tea Party aside, there is a genuine debate to be had about the educational merit of the common core. In my judgment, the standards have the potential to do some real good. (I have argued my brief for this position here.) In a future post, I would like to make a case for why I think the common-core focus on "close readings" of texts can be a powerful tool for teaching civic literacy. But the way in which the common core has been implemented in places like New York, with a mad rush to poorly designed tests for which neither teachers nor students were prepared, has done considerable damage. If the common core is to be rescued, we need to de-link the standards from high-stakes testing. We need to provide educators with the supports—curriculum, teaching materials, professional development, and time to meet and work with other teachers—they need to make a shift to more challenging standards. This will require that we move from our current "test and punish" accountability status quo to an approach focused on "supporting and improving" schools.

The Tea Party is not the only opponent of the common core, but it certainly is the dominant and driving force in the opposition. The common core has been rolled back in deeply red states with a strong Tea Party, such as Oklahoma and South Carolina; the standards that have replaced the common core in these states are clearly inferior and have had less educator input into their formulation. Tea Party governors and state legislators are the sponsors of numerous state bills to nullify the common core.

And yet, common-core critics who think of themselves as progressive don't want to discuss the realities of this political landscape. The mere mention of the Tea Party role in the common-core debate is seen as offensive by some, as if it were the crazy uncle who lived in the attic and wasn't discussed in polite company. Worse, in the absence of a substantive educational critique, a number of these critics have taken to mimicking Tea Party arguments that the common core violates "states' rights" and federalism.

As a union leader for many years, I am not unfamiliar with having to make choices where one opts for the lesser evil. But given a choice between the common-core stands of Louisiana Education Superintendent John White and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, one determined to push "test and punish" accountability at the cost of destroying the common core as a tool to improve education and one a Bobby-come-lately partisan of the Tea Party jeremiad against the common core, I have some difficulty finding any "lesser" in all that educational evil. It remains to be seen who will win their titanic battle over the common core, but there is little question in my mind that Louisiana students and educators will be harmed whoever comes out on top. We need to fashion a positive educational alternative to both sides of this Hobson's choice. And that can't be done by taking on the language and the program of those who would deny liberty and equality to African-Americans and other oppressed races.

Leo

Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City's teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers. 

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