The merits of Common Core have been debated for so long that there is little, if anything, I can add. It is important, however, to remember and debate the larger issue.

Common Core is not the problem with local or national education, it is a symptom. The problem is that the U.S. has an entrenched education establishment that must reinvent itself every few years in order to remain relevant and justify the enormous sums of taxpayer dollars it is awarded each year.

Common Core is just another reinvention; another justification.

We can debate Common Core all we want, but I can guarantee you that a few years from now, it will be gone – replaced by some other education method du jour that promises to keep our kids competitive in the world economy or whatever rationale the establishment chooses to use. I am as sure of this as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.

If this reads like some radical conspiracy theory conjured up by a frustrated education activist, I won’t spend a moment trying to change your closed mind. But this belief is supported by some very bright minds and if you are open to an honest discussion of education in the U.S., all you have to do is look at its history to support this theory.

When I was in elementary school in the 60’s, my classmates and I were subject to “New Math.” Times were different then. Parents trusted education to teach their kids what they needed to be successful and education had earned that trust by sticking to a formula that had worked for decades. Teachers taught the basics – the three R’s – and our students were considered to be among the brightest in the world, if not the brightest. (Yes, there were exceptions in the country but I’m not one to argue extremes.)

But someone or some group decided in the 60’s that there was a better way to teach math, despite the track record of success of the current method. A curriculum was developed, textbooks were printed, and teachers were instructed how to use New Math to improve kids’ understanding of basic mathematics.

Bear in mind that at the time, there was no talk of “world competitiveness” or some other sound bite designed to scare parents into embracing a new program. We were already at the top of the heap.

So why New Math? Because they could. Because they needed to, just as any other bureaucracy needs to look busy in order to justify its existence. As an organism, no being has a greater instinct for survival than a bureaucracy.

We were never told whether New Math had been beta tested in Pigsknuckle, or Podunk or some other willing community. We had no idea whether it worked or what the ramifications would be ten years later.

Since that time, taxpayers have suffered one great new program after another. The fact that new math failed is not the point. I want to stress that because it is important that this debate – if one develops – not evolve into the merits of yet another new program.

We are not asking the right questions. We are not asking, for example, about specific long-term goals. “Keeping our students competitive in the world economy” is not a goal, it is a wish. It is one of the grand and vague comments that bureaucracies toss out when they want to generate support for something but do not want the oversight that should accompany it.

A goal is specific. If Common Core is so wonderful, the education establishment should have its feet held to the fire and commit to an estimate of how far test scores will rise, how high GPAs will increase, or how many more kids will graduate from high school. But that can’t do that because they don’t know. Just as my classmates and I were new math guinea pigs 50 years ago, so are Common Core kids today.

Maybe Common Core will work, maybe not, which leads me to more justification for education establishment theory. We will never really know if Common Core works in California because the Dept. of Education conveniently eliminated the testing model schools had been using for years. Instead, Common Core kids will be tested using Common Core tests, which measure only how well they understand Common Core, not whether they have learned more or less against the old program.

As I wrote, there is no greater instinct for survival than that which exists in a bureaucracy.

If Common Core fails, don’t expect anyone to admit it or claim responsibility. Bureaucrats don’t do that. You’ll know it has failed when a new program comes along that promises to keep our kids competitive in the world economy.

But even if Common Core works, it’ll be scrapped in a few years anyway. That’s when we’ll learn about New Common Core.

Steve Smith

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