ONE NIGHT LAST SEPTEMBER, a 46-year-old Veterans Administration research manager named Robert Small showed up at a public meeting with state education officials in Towson*, a Maryland suburb, with a pen, a notebook, and an ax to grind. Small had been doing some homework on the main topic of the event, a set of math and language arts standards called Common Core that had recently been introduced in schools across the country, including his kids’. Fresh from work in a crisp, checkered shirt, he stood up in an overflow crowd and channeled his inner Henry V. “I want to know how many parents here are aware that the goal of the Common Core standards isn’t to prepare our children for world-class universities—it’s to prepare them for community college!” An off-duty police officer approached, and Small began to shout. “You’re sitting here like cattle!” Out came the handcuffs. “Hey, is this America?” Small bellowed, as he jostled with the officer. “Parents, you need to question these people! Do the research!”
The police department later dropped the charge of second-degree assault of a police officer; Small, for his part, said he held no grudge against the cops. But a video of the incident, which racked up more than a million views on YouTube, set off a firestorm of right-wing outrage. On his radio show, Glenn Beck confessed he couldn’t sleep after watching the clip. “This is the way it used to happen in Mother Russia, not America. It’s Dictatorship 101.”
The educational initiative that has inspired such a remarkable outpouring of fury began as a bipartisan endeavor so anodyne, nerdy even, that it proceeded for years with virtual consensus among policymakers of all stripes. Republican governors once enthusiastically signed on to the initiative—but now they (especially those contemplating presidential bids) are scrambling to distance themselves, and around the country state lawmakers are seeking to halt the implementation of the standards. Perhaps second only to Obamacare, Common Core has become a rallying cry on the right, evoking the kind of anguish and horror once reserved for the so-called death panels. And unlike health care reform, Common Core has tapped into a vein of outrage on the left as well.
Over the last two years, the bipartisan coalition that brought the standards into being has been supplanted by a growing movement of activists who variously claim that they are too tough, too easy, too liberal, too invasive, too extensive, or all of the above. What might have been the last realm of public policy in which bipartisan consensus still reigned has been riven by an opposition as eclectic as it is disjointed—what other issue unites the John Birch Society in common cause with a former member of the radical Weathermen?
COMMON CORE EMERGED from the ashes of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era education reform law that tied federal funding for the nation’s schools to new, mandatory standardized tests. It was a time of sometimes-chaotic trial and error among educational reformers, who feared American students were falling further behind their counterparts in Finland or (gulp) China. But many teachers and parents were frustrated by an approach that seemed to punish schools for problems beyond their control, and the lack of uniformity from state to state—even zip code to zip code—made it impossible to tell how well kids were actually performing.
Common Core set out to change that. This time, the overhaul would be initiated by the states, not Washington. It would create a set of key educational benchmarks—concepts and skills students should be learning, but not specific curricula. The jumble of jam-packed, state-specific tests ushered in by No Child Left Behind would be replaced by new tests, consistent across state lines, that measured not rote learning, but the critical-thinking skills that demonstrated a real understanding of concepts.
It didn’t take long for some conservatives to conclude that the Obama administration, which helped to bankroll the standards’ rollout, was planning to program a new generation of godless socialist worker drones. One Florida lawmaker alleged that Common Core will “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.” Glenn Beck, who wrote a book declaring the standards “slavery,” rhapsodized about the “sci-fi, Gattaca kind of thing”—like a “wireless skin conductance sensor” and a “posture analysis seat”—that he claimed would find its way into schools in the name of Core-compliant data collection.
Common Core won’t turn your kids gay (or Muslim, as one activist suggested to me). Still, it is an ambitious vision—not the Marxist pipe dream that tea partiers have decried, but the brainchild of corporate-bred reformers such as Bill Gates. And it could consolidate power over public education in the hands of a small cadre who, along with the for-profit textbook and testing companies that lobbied for its adoption, stand poised to cash in.
Yet what made Common Core such a potent wedge is that it mobilized not just the usual suspects, but also the suburban communities that sat out the last round of ed reform battles. In the era of No Child Left Behind, reformers like Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, would take charge of a poor, struggling, urban school district, earn plaudits for shaking things up, and leave behind shuttered schools, angry teachers, and a riled-up electorate. According to its supporters, what Common Core did, by applying a more rigorous testing standard across the board, was pull back the curtain on the problems that had existed everywhere else. It turned out that a lot of suburban schools weren’t doing so well either, although the system didn’t show it. They had been administering the wrong kind of tests and teaching the wrong kind of math, and now it was their students and teachers who would feel the heat of the “accountability” ethic implemented by a group of technocrats. Now it was white suburban parents who felt betrayed by their elected officials. And now, finally, politicians were listening.
THE DEBATE behind Common Core is as old as public education itself: Who controls how—and what—children learn? But the standards are the more immediate creation of two men, David Coleman and Jason Zimba. They met as Rhodes Scholars in the class of 1993, and afterward Coleman headed to McKinsey while Zimba became a physics professor at Bennington College (where Coleman’s mother happened to be president).
In 2000, they reunited to launch the Grow Network, an organization that helped large school systems make sense of the flood of data derived from No Child Left Behind-inspired tests. They found no shortage of clients.
In 2008, Coleman and Zimba unveiled an ambitious plan for overhauling education in an essay for the Carnegie Corporation. “The standards must be made significantly fewer in number, significantly clearer in their meaning and relevance for college and work, and significantly higher in terms of the expectations for mastery of what is covered,” they wrote. In reading, for example, they said schools should deemphasize literature and rely more on “informational texts”—speeches, magazine articles, government reports. As Coleman would later put it, “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”
Coleman and Zimba determined that most K-12 math lacked real-world applications, too. They wanted the focus to be on real learning rather than rote memorization. These were not groundbreaking theories; they were distilled from years of thinking among educators, but many states had neglected to incorporate those ideas. Instead, states would simply add new concepts to existing standards, which became so unwieldy that it was a struggle to cover everything in the course of a school year, let alone in a test with any real merit. Washington, DC’s standards had swelled to the point where 80 percent of the math concepts students were tested on were superfluous, by Coleman’s estimation. Fixing education meant doing less, not more: America, he said, needs “an eraser, as well as a pen.”
Coleman and Zimba weren’t alone in seeking a fix. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a national organization of education commissioners, had been stymied by the same issues Coleman and Zimba had faced: whether the tests measured any actual learning. Adding another layer of complication, under No Child Left Behind, each state’s tests and standards were different, making it hard to determine who was really improving, and frustrating colleges and business leaders who wanted to be sure of what their applicants knew.
Coleman and Zimba’s plan attracted widespread support within the commissioners’ group and the National Governors Association. The two organizations decided to work together to devise “a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12″—something that could put the United States on the same level as the fabled Scandinavians. It wasn’t a curriculum: For, say, statistics, Common Core would suggest a standard like “use random sampling to draw inferences about a population”—and leave it up to schools to figure out how to get kids there.
But the reformers soon realized that as cash-strapped states confronted the Great Recession, funding a sweeping education initiative would be nearly impossible. So in 2008, Coleman and a top CCSSO official flew to Seattle to pitch Bill Gates.
For Gates and his wife, Melinda, it’s not hard to see why the idea of achieving uniformity would have a unique appeal. Gates has built his fortune by taking a standardized platform—Windows—and crafting a platter of services to fit it. He compares Common Core to the electric socket—under the old system, it was as if appliance makers had to make a different plug for each state. “If you were from Maryland, you didn’t have to learn trigonometry, but your neighbors in Virginia did. Maybe they have less triangles,” Gates quipped to an audience of teachers in DC this past March.
Gates, who had already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into public education, bought in, and his foundation began spreading grants around to think tanks that could get the ball rolling politically, as well as to the governors’ and state school officials’ groups. He has channeled more than $200 million toward Common Core’s implementation, with the money flowing to dozens of universities, state departments of education, policy institutes, and trade groups—recipients ranged from the progressive Center for American Progress to the conservative US Chamber of Commerce, which was awarded $1.38 million last year to whip up support for the standards.
Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, liked the Common Core concept and wanted to aid the implementation process by offering states major incentives to sign on. During his campaign, Obama had vowed to “fix the failures of No Child Left Behind.” Now, he offered a carrot: If states agreed to adopt new “college and career readiness standards,” they could compete for funds from a $4.35 billion Department of Education program called Race to the Top. The program awarded extra credit to states that tracked students’ development from kindergarten through high school. No Child Left Behind had, for the first time, collected a huge amount of data about schools, but Duncan wanted schools to drill down deeper, zeroing in on individual students as they progressed through the education system.
Common Core’s critics contend that the administration took advantage of the recession: “The states just adopted it so quickly, largely because a large pot of Race to the Top money was encouraging them to do so,” says Terrence Moore, senior adviser of the charter school initiative at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, who has toured the country to challenge the standards. In much the same way that No Child Left Behind-powered reformers had left urban parents feeling powerless, Common Core skeptics saw billionaire philanthropists, multinational corporations, and Washington bureaucrats hijacking local control of education—dictating from on high what was best for their families.
Fueling their suspicions was the string of education companies lining up to support Common Core: Testing and textbook provider Pearson, which saw big money in the coming curricular overhaul and exam boom, positioned itself for a financial windfall. Over the previous decade, testing had grown into a $2.7 billion-a-year industry in the United States, largely thanks to No Child Left Behind, and Common Core promised to push those revenues higher still. Also potentially lucrative was the vast amount of student data collected via testing. Common Core itself did not call for data collection (it was the federal Race to the Top Program that incentivized it), but the standardization it sought was a major goal for educational number crunchers. In the previous decade, studying student data had been a bit like comparing stats in a basketball league in which all the hoops were a different height. Common Core would ensure the rims were at the same level across the board.
And the reformers had bigger goals for student data: The Gates Foundation, along with the Carnegie Foundation and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., created a $100 million nonprofit database called inBloom, which would allow schools and testing companies to share information they collected about individual students, from attendance records and parents’ names to test results. In the name of innovation, the data would also be made available to for-profit companies seeking to peddle a variety of educational products and services to school districts. (This spring, inBloom was scrapped over privacy concerns.)
With the education industry on board, the governors and school officials got to work. At a joint meeting in 2009, the two groups tapped Coleman and Zimba to lead working groups of math and language arts educators who would draft the new standards. Forty-eight governors agreed to participate in the development, with only Texas’ Rick Perry and Alaska’s Sarah Palin holding out.
Even the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions and a frequent skeptic of high-stakes testing, hailed the project as “essential building blocks for a better education system.” Coleman was triumphant. “Tell me a significant domestic policy area where Republicans and Democrats have gotten together and gotten something done outside of education,” he later boasted.
He spoke too soon.
THE STANDARDS were not written in secret, as critics would later contend, or rushed through overnight. But it’s fair to say that in Common Core’s early stages, the nation’s focus was elsewhere. The Wall Street bailout, stimulus, and Affordable Care Act all commanded far more attention than a wonky initiative by America’s governors. It wasn’t until late 2011, when states began to move forward with the implementation of Common Core, that parents and political rabble-rousers began to take note.
Once they did, Common Core fast became a tea party cause célèbre. Previous reform efforts, such as No Child Left Behind and the Clinton-era Goals 2000 (which set goals for developing standards) had sparked mini-rebellions on the right—but they had been mild by comparison. For years, conservative activists had feared that government bureaucrats might indoctrinate their children with progressive values, and the Obama administration’s support for Common Core turned their dark suspicions up to 11. Though it hadn’t even originated at the federal level, the reform was viewed as yet another prong of Obama’s devious master plan, one aided and abetted by a sinister group of politicians and businessmen.
“Common Core fits nicely into the whole dynamic of local control and the overly intrusive federal government,” says Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the DC-based New America Foundation who has been studying the political fallout of the standards. “You can call it ‘Obamacore’—rhetorically it works very well.”
And it inflamed activists who were battling Obamacare and other Obama administration initiatives—activists like Chris Quackenbush, a real estate agent in Fort Myers, Florida, who heads one of the state’s largest grassroots group opposing the standards. “The steamroller is moving along like we never existed,” she told me one day in February, after returning from a marathon five-hour hearing on Common Core at the state board of education. The conspiracy had never been clearer: “It’s the corporate elitists, the one-world-government types from both sides that have joined together under the UNESCO treaty, item 36″—the nonbinding United Nations Agenda 21 agreement, a tea party bugaboo that committed signees to promote universal primary education.
Far from reassuring Quackenbush, Common Core’s bipartisan backing only made her more suspicious. She brought up George Soros, the liberal financier; Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and possible Republican presidential candidate, who has made the standards a central mission and has a financial stake in them through his education ventures; and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and social-conservative icon, who was an early supporter.
“We have George Soros, we have Bill Gates, we have Jeb Bush, we have Huckabee, and you would think that those would be very strange bedfellows, but in fact they are the corporate elitists,” she told me. What’s more, the standards were being embraced by Islamists—the third-largest shareholder of British textbook giant Pearson, which is publishing texts that conform to the standards, is the government of Libya. (True, but the shares have been frozen since the Qaddafi regime fell in 2011.) “I’m doing a lot of research,” Quackenbush told me.
She isn’t alone. Fears about Common Core’s aims and origins abound—often blurring the distinction between the standards and the curricula being developed to fit it by school districts and private companies. In Louisiana, a fourth-grade worksheet that mentioned “pimps” and “mobstaz” was highlighted by a local television station as part of a Common Core-compliant lesson plan. (It wasn’t—Common Core does not include lesson plans.) Citing a school district spokesman, the Albany, New York, Times Union reported that an assignment asking students to defend the Third Reich was “the type of writing expected of students under the new Common Core curriculum.” (There is no Common Core curriculum.)
Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman recalled one meeting where activists presented him with a paper identified as the “Common Core standards for Sexual Education.” The widely circulated document, which is actually titled “National Sexuality Education Standards,” is a report prepared by a national health advocacy group. (Common Core has nothing to do with sex ed.) Kristie Martorelli, an elementary school teacher from suburban Phoenix, told me of hearing from irate parents who believed that the standards had eliminated the teaching of cursive. “We didn’t teach cursive as a standard previously!”
Common Core became a symbol for change itself, a magnet for every national anxiety (or conspiracy theory) involving the education system. Stories about the depravities of public education had been popping up in conservative media for years, but now critics had something tangible at which to direct their outrage.
IF YOU WERE looking to create a bogeyman to scare conservative education activists, it would look and talk a bit like David Coleman. A classicist by training, he speaks in the lofty cadence of TEDx talks. And, critics often note, he was turned down from the only teaching gig he ever applied for, as a public school teacher in New York City: Instead, he came up through the ranks of the consulting giant McKinsey. “He’s a charlatan!” says Sandra Stotsky, an English professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas who served on the national validation committee but refused to sign off on the standards.
Critics fear Coleman’s omnipresence as much as his ideas. In 2012, with his work on Common Core at a close, he took a lucrative job as CEO of the College Board, where he set about remaking the SAT. When he discusses the future of education, he says he wants to emulate the work of Dan Wagner, the data whiz who helped get Obama reelected by studying hundreds of pieces of information about individual voters. He’s also enlisted Wagner’s firm, Civis Analytics, to process student data at the College Board. Conservative parents found Coleman’s role terrifying: “Once the AP U.S. History test demands blame-America-first answers,” wrote National Review‘s Stanley Kurtz in July, neatly synthesizing the new fear, “public and private schools alike will be forced to construct an American history curriculum that ‘teaches to the test.'” The formerly media-friendly Coleman has become such a lightning rod that he declined an interview request for this story. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he told me when I approached him during a recent conference, “but I have to obey my comms team or they’ll kill me.”
“This is not unlike No Child Left Behind, where there were a lot of really kind of out-there fears,” says Michael Brickman, national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that supports the standards. The difference between now and then is the scale of disinformation. “We didn’t have the internet [like] we do today, where you can really spread the fears more efficiently.”
Still, the grassroots critiques of activists like Quackenbush were slow to catch on in national political circles. When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was asked about Common Core as recently as last year, he confessed he had no idea what it was. (He’s now against it.) But eventually the fight drew the attention of established Republican figures, particularly on the religious right. David Barton, a popular evangelical “historian” who keeps a collection of thousands of 18th-century documents from the Founding Fathers in a climate-controlled vault outside of Fort Worth, Texas, began arguing that Common Core poses “serious problems for the future of the republic.”
When Sean Fieler, a New York City hedge fund chairman and big-time Republican donor who runs the American Principles Project (an organization founded by Ted Cruz mentor and Princeton professor Robert George), unleashed a $500,000 campaign to rally the grassroots against Common Core, Washington began to take note. Conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, started to push back. In 2013, Cruz spearheaded a letter signed by nine Republican senators threatening to block the Department of Education from providing further federal funding for the implementation of Common Core.
Just like that, the bipartisan consensus that had birthed Common Core was beginning to crumble.
BY 2012, THE backlash had spread to the ballot box. The first casualty was Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a man who was revered among DC think tank types and had been tasked by Gov. Mitch Daniels with revamping the state’s school system. Bennett had outraised his Democratic opponent, librarian Glenda Ritz, by a factor of four, but tea party conservatives—who also elected Mike Pence to the governor’s office when Daniels termed out—rallied behind Ritz, shocking the establishment. Under Ritz and Pence, Indiana halted plans for Common Core testing and announced it was evaluating the entire system. Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have since followed suit.
Bennett, for his part, wound up confirming anti-Core activists’ worst fears. After losing the election, Bennett was quickly snatched up by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to run that state’s education system. In short order he resigned over allegations (which he denied) that while in Indiana he had changed the performance grade of a charter school—founded by a top GOP donor—from a C to an A. Now he advises the ACT on how to align its tests to the standards, one of many reformers who have gone on to collect paychecks from a testing company.
By now, Common Core has spilled into elections across the country. Dave Brat, the libertarian college professor who unseated Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in June, made his opposition to Common Core, which Cantor supported, a key plank of his campaign. The issue has become so politically toxic that of the 27 major Republican candidates for governor or Senate who are not incumbents, only one publicly supports Common Core.
The standards seem destined to become a divisive issue in the 2016 presidential race: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum are against them, while Chris Christie supports them and Jeb Bush’s fate is inextricably bound to them—his Foundation for Excellence in Education is devoted to promoting national education standards, and he’s barnstormed the country to promote the standards. “If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine,” he said at the National Press Club in September 2013.
And what of the standards’ former Republican supporters? They have sought to shield themselves from the backlash—by helping to lead it. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made fixing his state’s failing school system the centerpiece of his tenure, directing tens of millions of dollars to charter schools and voucher programs. He was an early Common Core booster, praising the standards as an opportunity to “raise expectations for every child.” The Chamber of Commerce even featured his on-camera endorsement in a promotional video. But in June, he issued a set of executive orders that forbid officials from implementing Common Core without express authorization from the Legislature. “We’re very alarmed about choice and local control of curriculum being taken away from our parents and educators,” he said. “It is never too late to make the right decision.”
Meanwhile, Common Core has cleaved apart the deep-pocketed conservative groups that fueled the anti-Obama uprising. Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, began targeting candidates who support the standards, blasting Common Core as an Obamacare-like takeover of the education system (never mind that it has been and remains a state-led initiative). On the other side, the Chamber of Commerce has poured more than a million dollars into keeping Common Core alive, because corporations both stand to benefit from a better-educated labor force and from money spent to implement the new standards.
But the fight is no longer merely a wedge issue within the GOP. After gathering steam on the right, dissatisfaction has also grown among progressives, long frustrated by the testing-and-school-closing fervor of the Waiting for “Superman” reformers. In an ironic twist on David Coleman’s earlier boast, Common Core became a cause where left and right were working together—to tear it apart.
MARK NAISON is a lefty out of conservative fever dreams. Born in Brooklyn, he was active in Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s before joining the Weathermen, a radical SDS faction that was the forerunner of the Weather Underground. Naison now teaches African American history at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he has pushed for rent control and fought back against the technocratic education reforms ushered in by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He writes a blog, With a Brooklyn Accent, and he raps under the alias “Notorious PhD.” Naison has a white goatee and white hair set halfway back on his head, giving him the appearance of a slightly more ruffled Louis C.K.—who, incidentally, has also denounced Common Core.
“Supporters of Common Core were trying to paint all opponents as right-wingers and tea party people, and here’s me, who has been accused of being a communist, a socialist, a terrorist—you name it!” Naison says, laughing. He believes Common Core, like No Child Left Behind, is turning inner-city kids into lab rats, shuttled from school to school because of standardized exams that have turned their classrooms into little more than test prep. The problem with public education, he and his allies contend, isn’t lacking standards; it’s crushing inequality. No concoction of math benchmarks and informational texts will give kids in the Bronx the advantages of their peers in Westchester, let alone Helsinki. But Common Core will cost schools a lot of time and money that could be spent elsewhere. (The city of Los Angeles, for instance, spent $1 billion from a school construction bond on iPads outfitted by Pearson for the purpose of Common Core testing, rather than using it to fix crumbling schools.)
The problem with focusing on testing as a determinant of college and career readiness, he explains, is that if things go poorly—and in a trial run last spring, just 15 percent of African American students in New York passed the state’s new, more rigorous Common Core-aligned math exams—kids will be effectively branded as failures, as early as fourth grade. “This is fucking insane,” says Naison, who has formed the Badass Teachers Association, a grassroots organization that boasts almost 50,000 members. “It’s child abuse.”
Citing concerns over hasty implementation, the state’s largest teachers’ union withdrew its support for the standards in January. It specifically decried the state’s refusal to disclose a version of the test to prepare students for the new exam, a lack of additional funding for ESL students and children with learning disabilities, and a failure to provide teacher training—they were, the argument went, being evaluated on their ability to teach something they were learning on the fly. In March, state legislators voted for a two-year testing moratorium, on the grounds that students and teachers should have a chance to become familiar with the material first. In June, after months of pressure, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a two-year moratorium on using the test results to grade teachers, and he has also called the standards “flawed.” A recent statewide poll found less than 40 percent of New York voters support Common Core.
On the left, just as on the right, the role of corporate reformers like Bill Gates adds to the suspicion. “This is like somebody descended from Mount Olympus, like, ‘Take it or leave it, and if you don’t take it, you don’t get millions of dollars,'” says Diane Ravitch, the education historian who was an early supporter of No Child Left Behind before becoming a top critic of the high-stakes-testing approach to education reform. (Robert Scott, the former education commissioner of Texas, has said that a Gates Foundation official told him point-blank that his state would never receive funding unless it signed on to Common Core.)
Ravitch looks out on the landscape and sees the funding stream controlled by one man (Gates) and the content stream controlled by another (Coleman). “The more and more this kind of undemocratic nature of the process piled up,” she says, “the more unsavory it became that one man bought and paid for the national standard.”
In the face of the anti-Core backlash, some key liberal proponents have also backed away. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers—the union whose support had been so critical in getting Common Core off the ground—has called for a three-year moratorium on testing nationwide, comparing its implementation to the botched rollout of Obamacare. At Weingarten’s direction, the union’s in-house education think tank has stopped taking money from the Gates Foundation. The problem, she says, is “the fixation on testing. We’ve gone from, in the ’70s and ’80s, focusing on what kind of resources are brought to bear, to an education system that’s only looking at what the test scores are.”
Naison floats a theory that may go a long way toward explaining the scope of the Core rebellion. For a decade, he’d watched Bloomberg transform the New York City public school system, aided by mobs of consultants promising to hold teachers’ feet to the fire. It played well at the Aspen Ideas Festival—and, at least in some schools, got pretty good results—but it also roiled parents who saw their schools shuttered, their kids’ futures rising or falling on a single test.
Common Core took this disruption beyond the inner cities. “Everybody outside the cities would just say, ‘Let them take over Newark, what do I care?'” Ravitch says. “Once they start to mess with Great Neck, you’re gonna hear from a lot of loud voices.”
“It’s fascinating to me,” Arne Duncan mused, in a candid moment last year, “that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.”
IN LATE MARCH, three days before state testing was slated to begin, I took the Long Island Rail Road to the epicenter of the Common Core fight. In few states are the standards more politically charged than New York, and perhaps nowhere has the testing program been greeted as harshly as Port Jefferson Station, a working-class suburb halfway to the Hamptons. There, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, several hundred parents and teachers rallied against Common Core in a high school auditorium. A local radio host in an earth-tone muscle shirt took the stage to “We Will Rock You” and announced he had a special message for Bill Gates and his crew of corporate reformers: “They have awoken the mommmmmmies!”
The hero of the event was the district’s superintendent, Joe Rella, known among anti-Core activists as “America’s Superintendent.” It’s typical for school district administrators to send a letter to parents explaining the results of annual testing, but when Rella saw his scores last year, he took things further. In 2010, 65 percent of his kids had passed. In 2013, with the new Core-aligned test, it was 35 percent. If these scores reflected reality, he wrote, he should be fired. “The majority of young children will receive the clear message that since these tests are predictors of college success—they are not college material in the 3rd, 4th, 5th grade???!!!” he wrote. “That message is unconscionable.”
Rella, whose district stands to lose funding if the low scores continue, has been urging parents to simply boycott the new test. Last year, 6 percent of students opted out; this year, with Rella’s backing, it was 38 percent of the student body.
When we spoke in the hallway outside the auditorium, interrupted frequently by adoring parents and activists, Rella wore a tweed jacket and lime-green shoelaces, the official symbol of the New York opt-out movement. (“If green laces are everywhere,” a sign explains, “people will ask, what’s with the green laces?”) He gestured animatedly, tapping my shoulder and extending his arms as if coming in for a hug as he explained that the corporate education wonks behind Common Core are misguided. The United States is nothing like the countries reformers are attempting to emulate, he said, and policies should reflect that. “They’re comparing us to Finland! Finland has 5 million people. I had more people in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. They’re comparing apples to reindeeeuh.”
They’re also sticking him with the tab, a critique school administrators had leveled previously at No Child Left Behind. His school district got a total of $70,000 over four years from Race to the Top—and it spent $500,000 to implement the Common Core.
Parents I talked to on Long Island, all wearing lime-green shoelaces around their necks, said it was the notion that their kids were marching into uncertainty that scared them most. Preparing a kid for life in the 21st century is hard enough. Doing it on the fly—learning algebra one way in seventh grade and by the Common Core-prescribed method in eighth—is something else entirely. “They threw a soccer ball in the middle of a football game,” one mom told me.
The architects of Common Core would counter that the new standards aren’t about branding kids as failures—they’re about revealing how they have been failed: They weren’t held to a high enough standard in the No Child Left Behind era, and are now having to come up to speed. In fact, Common Core’s supporters even anticipated that drop and offered a fix: The point of all the data-gathering they envisioned was to help teachers make adjustments that would let students master the new methods. Common Core’s drafters always anticipated a learning curve—just not a political insurgency intent on destroying the program before it had a chance to produce results.
The trajectory of Common Core just might wind up resembling that of the Affordable Care Act. Once the hysteria passes, it’s likely to be viewed as a genuine improvement to the education system—even if the vision of a national standard isn’t fully realized. “The [original] promise was, ‘Wow, this is nearly every state in the country!'” the New America Foundation’s Hyslop says. “We may not have that moving forward, but we’re at least going to have a good 25 or 30 states.” From the perspective of the policymakers who pushed for Common Core seven years ago, that would still be a success story.
But it came at a heavy cost: The grand bipartisan consensus has been cut clean to the bone, offering a preview of the obstacles facing future reform efforts. If you thought math and reading standards were a hard sell, try biology. And activists are already taking aim at Coleman’s new Advanced Placement tests, administered by the College Board—tests they fear have been infected with the ills of Common Core.
The political consequences are still unfolding. In June, the Pew Research Center released new evidence that the gap within the GOP had closed: self-identified “business” conservatives opposed Common Core at the same rate as “steadfast conservatives” (61 percent). If that holds true, the 2014 midterms, where many candidates have staked out anti-Core positions, just might determine the standards’ fate in many states. Common Core now faces the highest-stakes test of all—the ballot box.
*Correction: The original version of this article, which ran in the September/October 2014 issue of Mother Jones, misidentified the town in which the meeting and Small’s arrest took place.