Thanks to the many of you who noticed that my commentaries have been absent from this fine publication for the last six months. Frankly, my muse briefly left me following last November's election and I seemed to lose my usual ardor for provocation.
And then a week ago, I came across an internet article advising that "West Virginia on target to adopt common core curriculum for its schools."
Now, I consider myself fairly up-to-date on events in my fair state, but this one had apparently eluded my radar screen. My interest was piqued. Exactly what was Common Core and what impact would it have on West Virginia's schools and its pupils?
On the surface, the program appears to be beneficial. A spokesperson for the West Virginia Board of Education has described it thus: "The standards provide a consistent clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents have a road map for what they need to do to help them succeed."
While that certainly sounds laudable, if there is one thing that I have learned in my 70 years is that things are not always what they may appear to be. Therefore, I unleashed my natural skepticism and began to investigate this Common Core.
While ideas like Common Core have been percolating in the country for many years, it wasn't until 2009 when the National Governors Association's Center on Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers coalesced their members' support around an initiative to develop what they deemed to be voluntary, state-led standards, that the idea took root. The suggestion, however, that Common Core bubbled up from the states appears to be misleading. A shadowy nonprofit group called "Achieve, Inc." stocked with federal standards advocates who've been around since the Clinton years, has been pointed to as designing the materials and the program's progress has been spurred on by funding from, among others, the progressive Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.
The concept appears to have been attractive enough to persuade 46 states (minus Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia) to sign on and the idea enjoys a degree of bipartisan support. For instance, former Florida Republican Governor, Jeb Bush, and former New York Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in 2011 wrote that, "We must insist on standards that will prepare our high school graduates for the demanding challenges they will face. Recognizing our great need for more rigorous academics, state leaders and educators have come together to create model content standards." Notice again the suggestion that this idea originated with the states.
For an undertaking that claims to be state-generated and largely free of federal involvement, however, Common Core seems to have quite a few federal fingerprints on it. In a speech to the National Governor's Association in 2010, President Obama stated:
"I want to commend all of you for acting collectively through the National Governors Association to develop common standards that will better position our students for success. And today, I'm announcing steps to encourage and support all states to transition to college and career-ready standards on behalf of America's students. First, as a condition of receiving access to Title I funds, we will ask all states to put in place a plan to adopt and certify standards that are college and career-ready in reading and math."
In addition to the rhetorical support, Washington is financing the two national testing consortia that are creating the Common Core assessments (read tests). Congress has also tied $4.35 billion in Race to the Top state education grants to the adoption of Common Core standards and linked that adoption to securing a No Child Left Behind waiver from the Bush-era standards, which many states have sought. Some wonder if these actions have resulted in undue pressure being brought to bear on states to endorse the project.
Advocates of the program stress that these standards simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and are not a curriculum. They further insist that it's up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards. However, the assessments (standardized tests) developed by the National Testing Consortia mentioned earlier appear to be uniform in content and nationwide in application. The concern is that the curricula adopted by the states will, of necessity, need to align with the tests. Otherwise, how are pupils to successfully pass the tests? As Bill Gates described the matter to the National Conference of State Legislators, the idea is that, "When the tests are aligned to the common standard, the curriculum will line up as well ..."
These worries about nationalizing the curriculum taught in every public school in America are not limited to "conspiracy theorists" as some have suggested, but represent the fear of many ordinary moms and dads and teachers that the federal government is on the brink of dictating the content of information taught in every school in the nation. As Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said recently, "The bottom line is, we don't need the federal government with Common Core telling us how to run our schools in Virginia."
A couple of weeks ago, an MSNBC promo was aired in which anchor Melissa Harris-Perry calmly advised her viewers that: "We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we've always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven't had a very collective notion of our children. So part of it is that we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities." (Emphasis added)
Remember Hillary Clinton's "It takes a village to raise a child"?
Excuse me if I sound a bit old-fashioned here (my prerogative at 70), but I still believe that in these United States children are not the possession of communities (or government)!
Therefore, I trust that educators and lawmakers in West Virginia, if they continue to implement Common Core, will exercise due diligence to assure that our children continue to be taught the "core" beliefs of West Virginia families and not those of a faceless bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.
Guest columnist Bonenberger is an attorney who lives and practices in Wheeling.