Last week Reagan administration Secretary of Education Bill Bennett appeared on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal called The Conservative Case for Common Core.
That's the fundamental idea behind a core curriculum: preserving and emphasizing what's essential, in fields like literature and math, to a worthwhile education. It is also, by the way, a conservative idea.
In the op-ed, Bennett dangles a bewildering series of non-sequiturs before the reader:
When I was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1980s, I asked 250 people across the political spectrum what 10 books every student should be familiar with by the time they finish high school. Almost every person agreed on five vital sources: the Bible, Shakespeare, America's founding documents, the great American novel "Huckleberry Finn " and classical works of mythology and poetry, like the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The Common Core curriculum doesn't recommend any books, per se, but only excerpts from books. Homer and Shakespeare are represented along with some predictable modern and PC dross. Huck Finn has been banished. The Federalist Papers are missing from the curriculum entirely.
Governors, state education administrators and teachers used these principles as a guide when they developed a set of common standards that were later presented to the country as Common Core. Forty-five states signed up originally. But the process was contaminated by politics, and that brings us to the debate we have now.
In 2009 the Education Department created Race to the Top grants, federal funding for states that met certain educational benchmarks. To qualify, states were required, for instance, to demonstrate that they had a common, high-quality set of standards. Common Core standards satisfied the criteria.
This is technically true, but the fact is that the federal government has not approved any Race to the Top grants to any school districts not using Common Core. As Cato's Neal McCluskey says:
Let’s be clear: States adopted the Core, in the vast majority of cases, only after the federal government all but said they had to in order to compete for $4 billion in Race to the Top money. Federal force was further applied by the No Child Left Behind waiver program. And all this occurred in the context of federally driven standards and testing since at least 1994. So, would most states have adopted the Core on their own? We don’t know for sure, but the evidence is heavily stacked against it.
What motivated Bill Bennett to take up his pen and put his integrity behind Common Core? Money. Caitlin Emma writing at Politico's Morning Education blog says:
— Bennett said he wrote the op-ed because the Common Core has “taken a beating that’s been unwarranted.” And he's planning to write more in support of the standards, he said. He also acknowledged that the public relations, lobbying and business consulting firm DCI Group paid him for the op-ed. “I’m compensated for most of the things that I do,” he said.
A group on common standards sounds great in principle... until someone actually tries to develop those standards and the federal government imposes them on the nation. Most of the great advances in this nation were made with educational standards were based on a cultural consensus of what was important. Many schools only had one textbook: the Bible. The obvious answer to educational standards is the federalist approach. Good ideas spread. Ideas and methods that are appropriate for one school district aren't appropriate to another. But the role of developing curriculum belongs under the purview of the people elected to run our schools. They should not be developed by people with a financial interest in the outcome and then foisted upon the nation by the threat of withholding federal education grant funding if the standards are not adopted.
I think the jury is out on whether a national curriculum in a federal republic is a good thing, much less a conservative idea. The way Common Core has been developed is a travesty and Bill Bennett pimping Common Core as conservatism for cash will redound to his everlasting shame.