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The Problems with "Common Core"

"Common Core," or the Common Core State Standards Initiative, was launched in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. States that choose to adopt these standards will have to align eighty-five percent of their English and mathematics standards with Common Core. Christian families, even those whose children are not in government schools, should be aware of the widespread impact Common Core could have.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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"Common Core," or the Common Core State Standards Initiative, was launched in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. States that choose to adopt these standards will have to align eighty-five percent of their English and mathematics standards with Common Core. Christian families, even those whose children are not in government schools, should be aware of the widespread impact Common Core could have.

Common Core is, in part, a reaction to the failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was supposed to improve education by requiring all states to set standards in reading, math, and science. Perhaps the intentions of NCLB were good. Certainly the failings of government schools were painfully obvious. But, as the Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey has argued, "NCLB arguably made matters worse, giving states powerful incentives to set low standards and simply label poor performance ‘proficient.'"1

Opportunism, Not Education

Advocates of Common Core argue that strong national standards might help American students catch up with better-performing students in other nations. But among economically advanced (OECD) nations, there is little evidence that national standards help. Among OECD nations, the U. S. ranks somewhere in the middle. The U. S. definitely has room for improvement, but it also outperforms some nations that have national standards. McCluskey concludes, after a survey of recent studies, that "[t]he scientific literature on national standards simply does not demonstrate that national standards drive superior performance."2  And private and homeschools consistently produce students who are well above the government school average, despite being the least tied to centralized standards of any kind.

Federal standards are subject to the inevitable opportunistic scramble of political interest groups. Interest groups will fasten their own agendas to any federal program until the original intent is lost underneath an accretion of bureaucratic or corporate parasites. We can expect no less of national education standards. As even one of the advocates of national standards, Diane Ravitch, wrote of President Clinton's earlier plans,

I came to realize even as I was writing that the seemingly straightforward idea of national standards was falling victim to a tortuous political process. Other agendas became attached to the basic idea of standards, as legislators and lobbyists from various interest groups saw an opportunity to hang their favorite causes onto the legislation. The measure placed unnecessary restrictions on how states could use their tests; dictated to states the composition of their standards-setting body, ensuring the representation of every professional group and mandating affirmative-action criteria for selection; insisted on vague and controversial opportunity-to-learn standards; and required that any state educational plan encompass all social services, not just academic standards ...3

Furthermore, in typical bureaucratic fashion, Common Core seeks to quantify everything about education, even that which cannot be quantified. The technological side of Common Core provides for a national student-tracking system that has many concerned about the privacy implications. Vast databases with information that may be only peripherally related to education will be created.

The potential for misuse of these databases is enormous. Not just grades, but all kinds of information about students will be collected and made available to many government agencies. This includes, as Michelle Malkin has warned, "health-care histories, income information, religious affiliations, voting status, and even blood types and homework-completion rates."4 Some of this information may end up being sold to the private sector. It would not be unreasonable for homeschoolers to have concerns about eventual requirements that their children's information be inserted into this database.

Politicizing Education

While Common Core standards are advertised as voluntary, the federal grants tied to adopting Common Core could make this practically irrelevant, just like the "voluntary" state adoption of the twenty-one-year-old drinking age that is tied to federal highway dollars. As McCluskey argued,

[D]espite national-standards supporters emphasizing that the CCSSI [i.e., Common Core] is state-led and that adoption of its standards is technically voluntary, adoption will almost certainly be de facto involuntary, and the standards themselves ultimately federal. Already ... Secretary of Education Duncan has made clear that it would behoove states to sign on to the CCSSI if they wish to compete for a share of the $4.35 billion "Race-to-the-Top" fund. Duncan has also said that the federal government would furnish $350 million to develop tests tied to the standards.5

In April, the Department of Education announced an additional review process for the two state-based consortia that are designing assessment procedures (read: standardized tests) for Common Core. The consortia, which received four-year "Race-to-the-Top" grants in 2010, are now being monitored by the federal government to see that their work is satisfactory. While the Common Core website claims that the effort "was and will remain a state-led effort,"6 and that "the federal government had no role in the development of the Common Core State Standards and will not have a role in their implementation," the federal funding and oversight of the state consortia developing the assessments strongly suggests otherwise.

J. Gresham Machen, the great Presbyterian theologian and founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, warned in 1926 about the federalization of education, and in particular the strings that would inevitably be attached to the federal dollars. Common Core standards are only the latest manifestation of those "strings." On February 25, 1926, Machen appeared before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Education, to express his opposition to the bill establishing a federal Department of Education. "The department of education ...," Machen said, "is to promote uniformity in education. That uniformity in education under central control, it seems to me, is the worst fate into which any country can fall. That purpose, I think, is implicit also in the other form of the bill, and it is because that is the very purpose of the bill that I am opposed to it." Machen went on to say that the bill established:

... in a very radical way a system of Federal aid to the States, with conditions on which this aid is to be received. It is perfectly clear of course, that if any such principle of Federal aid in education is established, the individual liberty of the States is gone, because I think we can lay it down as a general rule, with which everyone who has examined the course of education recently will agree, that money given for education, no matter what people say, always has a string tied to it. That appears in gifts of money by private foundations, and it appears far more, of course, when the gift comes from the Federal Government, which has already been encroaching to such an extent upon the powers of the States.7

Before the federal government exerted its standardizing power upon the schools, the state governments were doing the same thing, using state funds as a tool to elicit compliance. John Swett, nineteenth-century California gold-seeker turned public education advocate, promoted government schools as institutions by which the people could be made into more loyal and productive servants of the state. In 1864, Swett "threatened recalcitrant school trustees who refused to use the state textbooks with loss of state funds."8 But even he, with his statist impulses, began to suspect that the power to choose textbooks could result in a smothering, crippling uniformity. In 1888, he told the National Educational Association,

California is the only state that has entered into the business of publishing school-books ... some of us have grave doubts about it ... in large and populous states the power of adopting books is too great to be entrusted to any one board.9

Eleven years later, at another NEA meeting, he began to sound almost like Machen: "There is a growing tendency in California towards uniformity and state centralization of power, which, if continued, might lead us into a kind of Chinese civilization. I have no love for Chinese uniformity in education."10

As Rushdoony pointed out, Swett did not see that the uniformity he worried about was a consequence of the elevation of the state above the individual. As much as the organs of state-run education crow about diversity, it is the direction of schools from government bureaucracies that truly crushes diversity. In a free society in which there is a true separation of school and state, a family that would like to have its children taught creationism may choose a school that teaches science in that way. A family that seeks a classical education may choose a school that uses that approach. A family that wants courses taught in Spanish could seek out such a school. Private schools, some of them expensive, some inexpensive, some funded through charity, would fill niches that are barely noticed today. What a contrast to the status quo, in which angry or worried parents from various religious and political persuasions fight at the state or federal level for mandates that must be imposed on everyone-or for the removal of controversial material. Competition among vendors of education, offering various pedagogical approaches and curricula, would produce a wide range of options. Today food shoppers have a similar range of options-organic, processed, GMO, gluten-free ... from high-end grocery stores to cheaper bulk purveyors and community food pantries. The choices are continually expanding-and in the United States even the poor are remarkably well-nourished, with over ninety-percent of poor households not suffering even temporary food shortages.

Politicized education separates the vendor from the customer. It means that school administrations and teachers respond less to parents and more to the source of their funding-the state and federal bureaucracies. Real diversity in education suffers as standardization takes over. Parents are a far lower priority than in a private school setting where they are writing checks directly to the school. And of course, government responsiveness to parents cannot hold a candle to the ultimate in parent-directed education-homeschooling.

So the problem, at its root, is more than about federal versus local control. It is about more than the particulars of the content being taught. The problem is whether the family should control education, or whether the state should control education. Sadly, saving government schools from Common Core is only a rear-guard action. As Machen's nearly ninety-year-old warning reminds us, government schools have been on a track toward federalized bureaucracy for a century or more. This has led to several serious problems, only one of which is the squelching of local priorities and local content in schools. (One size does not fit all.) To the government school, the family is an undesirable competitor.

Who controls education is, and has always been, key to every issue of pedagogy or content that follows. Education is never separable from the interests of the educator. R. J. Rushdoony, in his 1963 book The Messianic Character of American Education, argues that education cannot produce liberty in society as long as it is subordinated to the decrees of the state (or the church). "Wherever church or state have claimed a prior, or any, jurisdiction over every other sphere of human activity or institution, there has been, with the realization of their claim, a steady diminution of liberty and the substitution of an institutional bureaucracy for law."11

Responding to Common Core

McCluskey, following his criticism of national standards like Common Core, proposes a move toward parental control through vouchers or tax credits. Vouchers have a multitude of problems that tax credits do not-chief among them the risk that the government would tie "standards" to the money. But, in general, the closer education moves toward family control (which is essentially a free market in education), the better. McCluskey lists a few of the advantages:

District budgets would be irrelevant because schools would be funded based on their ability to attract customers, not their allocations of public dollars. Curricular and pedagogical battles would peter out as schools independently chose the curricula they thought best and parents selected the schools with programs they thought most effective for their children. Finally, no longer would going through a labyrinthine and stacked political process be the only avenue through which "customers" could try to fix education problems; they would be able to execute immediate accountability by taking their children and the money to educate them out of unsatisfactory schools and putting them elsewhere.12

Actually, parents already have the ability to "fix education problems," by removing their children from the government school system-vouchers or no vouchers, tax credits or no tax credits. Certainly a tax provision that allows private and homeschoolers a generous deduction would be a welcome encouragement to family-directed education. I would support a tax credit that grants any parent not using the government school system a credit in the amount of the average cost per child in that family's school district. But parents should not wait for something of this nature to become a reality. While a few voucher and school choice programs have emerged nationwide, teacher unions and other groups have opposed even this limited step toward markets. And neither should parents expect any real improvement from federal content standards like Common Core. The evidence suggests that hope in these programs is badly misplaced.

1. Neal McCluskey, "Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards," Cato Policy Analysis No. 661, Feb. 17, 2010,  2. See

2. McCluskey, 12.

3. McCluskey, 5.

4. Michelle Malkin, "Rotten to the Core: The Feds' Invasive Student-Tracking Database," National Review Online, March 8, 2013. Available at

5. McCluskey, 15.


7. J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State, ed. John Robbins (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1987), 100.

8. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963), 86.

9. John Swett, "The General Function of the State in Relation to School Books and Appliances," 200, Journal of Proceedings, N.E.A., 1888. In Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, 86.

10. John Swett, Public Education in California, 318. In Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, 86.

11. Rushdoony, 3.

12. McCluskey, 19, 20.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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