For the first time in American history, states have reportedly adopted a common “understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” States have joined one of two assessment “consortia” developed to assess achievement of the goals embodied by those standards. Taken as a whole, this is known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative. In fact, in the year 2007, there was no talk of common core standards, and previous attempts and developing “national standards” (e.g., promoted by Diane Ravitch) had been deemed “politically dead”. Six years later, such standards have not only been developed, they have been adopted by all but five states (Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Minnesota). Now a frenzied effort by a host of interconnected private interests and public officials are revamping K12 curriculum and assessment like never before.
This is indeed an historic political achievement. Few would have predicted that early in the 21st century the United States would adopt something resembling a national curriculum, given its long standing commitment to “local control” and “state’s rights.” Of course, there is a long history to the increasing involvement of the federal government in education, dating all the way back to the Morrill Act, Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act, National Education Defense Act, not to mention Civil Rights rulings and legislation, and the recent saga in the growing federal role, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And, don’t forget the numerous attempts, beginning with George Washington, to create a Federal University (something I’ll write more about later)!
Yet, I do believe that the CCSSI is more “revolution” than “evolution.” Such broad support from a variety of quarters for something anathema to the American creed is intriguing. The development suggests a radical change in the roles of federal, state and non-public entities in governing education.
Official press releases, news and commentary about the CCSSI remains narrowly focused on whether or not, and mostly how, this initiative will improve education. Much attention is being paid to certain technical details of implementation, and getting “everyone on board.” And for the most part, critics of the CCSSI simply argue that the initiative will not improve the quality of schooling in the United State.
Despite the obvious shift in how schools are governed, few seem to entertain the governance question. What is missing, then, is an analysis of how the CCSSI affects and reflects changes in governance — not just of education, but governance in general. Put differently, even if the CCSSI fails to improve the quality of education, what lasting changes in the United States system of governance have already taken place as a result of the CCSSI? Has decision making power over curriculum and assessment changed? Who now holds that power? What is the political significance of these changes? What is the significance of such change occurring through the restructuring of public education? What functions was public education to perform and how are these functions changed with the arrival of the CCSSI?
Over the next several months I will be posting research and views aimed at answering the above questions. Today I hope to begin that discussion by establishing a few starting points.
An Outline of The Political Significance of the Common Core
We are no doubt experiencing significant change to our political and economic institutions. These changes are not only taking place inside the United States, but across the globe. While these changes are by no means singular in the nature, evidencing as much contention as consensus, general patterns do exist. Various terms are commonly attached to these changes: globalization, neoliberalism, denationalization, privatization. The patterns that these words describe form the context in which the CCSSI emerged. In this sense, the CCSSI must be understood as both a response to and means for institutionalizing changes associated with these larger trends.
But it is unlikely that the political significance of the CCSSI will be fully grasped if left there. Yes, I have no doubt that the CCSSI is an expression of neoliberalism, a form of privatization, representing a type of denationalization, but without a detailed analysis of how it alters political institutions inside the United States, important features of the CCSSI will be missed.
A main function of the political architecture of the United States is to avoid or block “tyranny.” Tyranny in this sense refers to both an overbearing central government (the Federalist system is designed to share power between federal and state authorities, and is biased towards “local control”) and a political arrangement where legislative power (law making and control of the treasury), judicial power (legal interpretation and application of law to conflict) and executive power (enforcement of laws, police powers) are institutionally separated and provided means for defending themselves against the encroachment of other branches of government (e.g., the veto power of the President can be used to “check” the power of Congress; congress can impeach the President; to promote court independence, Supreme Court justices are appointed for life). This arrangement of “separation of powers” dates back to the time of the Roman Republic.
While the framers of the Constitution were mainly concerned with avoiding “the tyranny of the majority” (what might be thought of as direct or real, as opposed to “representative”, democracy) they were also interested in crafting arrangements that would block concentration of power into one office, especially at the federal level. In this sense, State power was to be a block to an overgrowth of Federal power. Thus, the reservation of many powers for the States (or the people themselves) in Article X of the Constitution. Federalism was also designed to use states as testing grounds for new policies and programs (e.g., the No Child Left Behind Act was premised on education policy as enacted in Texas).
While Diane Ravitch and many others have argued that the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top reform initiative represents a “federal power grab”, many remain silent regarding the political affect of the CCSSI. As a long-time supporter of “national standards”, Ravitch, and her new found union-boss friends, consciously avoid discussing the political consequences of CCSSI. This is particularly noteworthy given her opposition to high-stakes testing, which will only increase under the CCSSI.
Right wing think tanks have taken a principled stand against the CCSSI on the grounds that it violates the constitution and laws of the United States. Folks at Schoolsmatter and Susan Ohanian are almost lone wolfs on the left in vigorously targeting the CCSSI as “authoritarian”, and exposing the role venture philanthropy (especially Bill Gates) plays in imposing the CCSSI.
Yet, it is not so clear that the CCSSI is a “federal power grab” — at least in the common understanding of what that would mean. In fact, all four major institutions that directly govern the initiative are non-public, 501c3s. They are: the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and the two assessment apparatuses, the Partnership for Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). While there is no doubt that the power and influence of the USDOE was instrumental in bringing about the CCSSI, little direct authority (which must be distinguished from influence) over the CCSSI appears to rest with USDOE administrators. Yet, as Race to the Top operates on incentives and is based on granting waivers from NCLB testing requirements on the condition that states comply with Race to the Top initiatives, including the CCSSI, an argument can be made that USDOE — an executive body — has actually engaged in law making. So, while USDOE policy may not specify that the USDOE has direct control over curriculum, etc., it might nonetheless represent a significant departure from Constitutionally authored practice. The point is to be open to dynamics that don’t fall neatly into the “state’s rights” vs. “federal power” framework. Maybe the federal government used (illegally) its power to remove components of the governance of public schools from public authorities at both the federal and state levels?
Thus, one preoccupation will be to isolate the role of the USDOE and other federal authorities in brining about the CCSSI and how these roles change federal power and influence.
But, neither does any substantive power over the initiative reside within the states (which is different from saying some state officials might have substantial power). In fact, at both the federal and state level, there appears to be little role for the legislature. The role of local educational authorities (LEAs) or “local school boards” has been diminished over the last several decades under a variety of auspices (e.g., mayoral control, “control boards” and emergency financial mangers, etc.). In the case of the USDOE, congressional approved funds (namely Race to the Top) are being expended free of congressional oversight. State legislatures, likewise, seem to have little role in the CCSSI, other than to possibly rubber stamp it as required by Race to the Top application “guidelines” (even if a state legislature did consciously adopt the CCSSI, they would have, it appears, legislated themselves out of power!). In fact, the long standing state control over public school curriculum and assessment seems to have largely vanished, at least as it existed in its past forms. The details and significance of this development must also be explored.
And, while the executives of each state constitute the membership of the NGA and CCSSO, and state representatives participate in the governance of the assessment consortia, neither of these organizations seems to exist as a means to represent individual state interests or the interests of the electorate of each state (i.e, they don’t operate as units of a federalized system). The nature of these arrangements must also be explored, although, since they are 501c3s, their internal workings are not easily subjected to public study. Of course, that fact alone is politically significant.
So, while the Constitution provided means to both block the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of a strong central authority (blocks which are now obviously permeable), it seems to have no specific means for limiting the power of non-public power over public affairs (e.g., powerful foundations, a different kind of tyranny of the minority) or for stopping the government from privatizing functions of governance (e.g., turning over the role of a legislature to a 501c3). Given the tremendous concentration of wealth that has occurred over the past three decades, this is a key concern, as concentration of economic power yields concentration of political power. Certainly the role of venture philanthropy (e.g., Gates, Broad) rivals the power of the USDOE in terms of brining about the CCSSI, power based on accumulation of massive private fortunes.
In this sense, the increasingly dominant role of 501c3s in the sphere of education policy and governance warrants a careful analysis of that category of institution and its original and putatively changing role in the political life of the United States.
Finally, in American political thought, public education — controlled by local and state authorities — was itself given as a bulwark against tyranny, and as a means for “the common man” to counter the political power afforded the economic elite. In this sense, traditional public schools were not only presented as “citizen making” institutions, and as a “great equalizer” and the “balance wheel” of society, they were also given a political function, a means of sustaining republican democracy through the expansion of publicly controlled education for the people at public expense as this in itself was thought to mitigate the extreme accumulation of political and economic power. The political significance of the privatization of a system with such a function must also be analyzed.
 These are the words of the CCSSI: http://www.corestandards.org. I had originally written “common curriculum” but in fact the Core is a set of expectations about what students are to be able to do. Ostensibly, curriculum is to be built around the expectations, although the underlying sense that they are “product specifications” suggests an elimination of curriculum (products don’t need curriculum), in the normal sense of the word.
 These are an outcome of the Race to the Top Assessment Program; see: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/index.html
 See: Tienken, Christopher H. “Common Core Standards: The Emperor Has No Clothes, or Evidence.” Kappa Delta Pi Record 47, no. 2 (2011): 58-62. See also: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/newsletters/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf; Stotsky, Sandra, and Ze’ev Wurman. “The Emperor’s New Clothes: National Assessments Based on Weak “College and Career Readiness Standards”.” A Pioneer Institute White Paper 61, (2010, May). http://www.pioneerinstitute.org.
 Ball, Stephen J. Global Education Inc. : New Policy Networks and the Neo-Liberal Imaginary. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012.
 See: http://dianeravitch.net/2012/07/09/my-view-of-the-common-core-standards/
 See: http://www.k12innovation.com/Manifesto/_V2_Home.html; and http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303630404577390431072241906.html; and http://www.indystar.com/article/20130112/OPINION07/301120307/Russ-Pulliam-Common-Core-foes-hope
 My most recent estimates show that the Gates foundation has, between 2009 and 2012, spent nearly $1billion to realize the CCSSI.