Two Moms vs. Common Core

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Heather Crossin, Emmett McGroarty, and Erin Tuttle

Heather Crossin, Emmett McGroar­ty, and Erin Tut­tle

Indi­ana has become the first state to retreat from the Com­mon Core stan­dards, as Gov­er­nor Mike Pence (in 2013) signed a bill sus­pend­ing their imple­men­ta­tion.
A great deal has been writ­ten and spo­ken about Com­mon Core, but it is worth rehears­ing the out­lines again. Com­mon Core is a set of math and Eng­lish stan­dards devel­oped large­ly with Gates Foun­da­tion mon­ey and pushed by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and the Nation­al Gov­er­nors Asso­ci­a­tion. The stan­dards define what every school­child should learn each year, from first grade through twelfth, and the pack­age includes teacher eval­u­a­tions tied to fed­er­al­ly fund­ed tests designed to ensure that schools teach to Com­mon Core.
Over 40 states hur­ried­ly adopt­ed Com­mon Core, some before the stan­dards were even writ­ten, in response to the Oba­ma administration’s mak­ing more than $4 bil­lion in fed­er­al grants con­di­tion­al on their doing so. Only Texas, Alas­ka, Vir­ginia, and Nebras­ka declined. (Min­neso­ta adopt­ed the Eng­lish but not the math stan­dards.)
Here is my pre­dic­tion: Indi­ana is the start of some­thing big.
Just a year ago Com­mon Core was untouch­able in Indi­ana, as in most oth­er places. Com­mon Core had been pro­mot­ed by con­ser­v­a­tive gov­er­nor Mitch Daniels, and the state super­in­ten­dent of pub­lic schools, Tony Ben­nett, was a ris­ing GOP edu­ca­tion star.
How did the bipar­ti­san Com­mon Core “con­sen­sus” col­lapse?
It col­lapsed because some par­ents saw that Com­mon Core was actu­al­ly low­er­ing stan­dards in their children’s schools. And because advo­cates for Com­mon Core could not answer the ques­tions these par­ents raised.
In Indi­ana, the sto­ry starts with two Indi­anapo­lis moms, Heather Crossin and her friend Erin Tut­tle.
In Sep­tem­ber 2011, Heather sud­den­ly noticed a sharp decline in the math home­work her eight-year-old daugh­ter was bring­ing home from Catholic school.
“Instead of many arith­metic prob­lems, the home­work would con­tain only three or four ques­tions, and two of those would be ‘explain your answer,’” Heather told me. “Like, ‘One bridge is 412 feet long and the oth­er bridge is 206 feet long. Which bridge is longer? How do you know?’”
She found she could not help her daugh­ter answer the lat­ter ques­tion: The “right” answer involved heavy quo­ta­tion from Com­mon Core lan­guage. A pro­gram designed to encour­age thought had end­ed up encour­ag­ing rote mem­o­riza­tion not of math but of scripts about math.
Heather was notic­ing on the ground some of the same things that caused Stan­ford math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor R. James Mil­gram to with­hold his approval from the Com­mon Core math stan­dards.
Pro­fes­sor Mil­gram was the only math con­tent expert on the Val­i­da­tion Com­mit­tee review­ing the stan­dards, and he con­clud­ed that the Com­mon Core stan­dards are, as he told the Texas state leg­is­la­ture, “in large mea­sure a polit­i­cal doc­u­ment that … is writ­ten at a very low lev­el and does not ade­quate­ly reflect our cur­rent under­stand­ing of why the math pro­grams in the high-achiev­ing coun­tries give dra­mat­i­cal­ly bet­ter results.”
The Com­mon Core math stan­dards deem­pha­size per­form­ing pro­ce­dures (solv­ing many sim­i­lar prob­lems) in favor of attempt­ing to push a deep­er cog­ni­tive under­stand­ing — e.g., ask­ing ques­tions like “How do you know?”
In fact, accord­ing to a schol­ar­ly 2011 con­tent analy­sis pub­lished in Edu­ca­tion Researcher by Andrew Porter and col­leagues, the Com­mon Core math stan­dards bear lit­tle resem­blance to the nation­al cur­ricu­lum stan­dards in coun­tries with high-achiev­ing math stu­dents: “Top-achiev­ing coun­tries for which we had con­tent stan­dards,” these schol­ars note, “put a greater empha­sis on [the cat­e­go­ry] ‘per­form pro­ce­dures’ than do the U.S. Com­mon Core stan­dards.”
So why was this new, unval­i­dat­ed math approach sud­den­ly appear­ing in Heather’s lit­tle cor­ner of the world, and at a Catholic school?
Heather was not alone in ques­tion­ing the new approach. So many par­ents at the school com­plained that the prin­ci­pal con­vened a meet­ing. He brought in the sales­woman from the Pear­son text­book com­pa­ny to sell the par­ents. “She told us we were all so very, very lucky, because our chil­dren were using one of the very first Com­mon Core–aligned text­books in the coun­try,” says Heather.
But the par­ents weren’t buy­ing what the Pear­son lady was sell­ing.
“Even­tu­al­ly,” Heather recalled, “our prin­ci­pal just threw his hands up in the air and said, ‘I know par­ents don’t like this type of math but we have to teach it that way, because the new state assess­ment tests are going to use these stan­dards.’”
That’s the first time Heather had heard that Indi­ana had replaced its well-regard­ed state tests, ISTEP (Indi­ana Statewide Test­ing for Edu­ca­tion­al Progress–Plus) in favor of a brand-new fed­er­al­ly fund­ed set of assess­ments keyed to Com­mon Core. “I thought I was a fair­ly informed per­son, and I was shocked that a big shift in con­trol had hap­pened and I hadn’t the slight­est idea,” she says.
Erin Tut­tle says she noticed the change in the math home­work at about the same time as Heather, and she also noticed that her child was bring­ing home a lot few­er nov­els and more “Time mag­a­zine for kids” — a reflec­tion of the Eng­lish stan­dards’ empha­sis on “infor­ma­tion­al texts” rather than lit­er­a­ture.
These stan­dards are designed not to pro­duce well-edu­cat­ed cit­i­zens but to pre­pare stu­dents to enter com­mu­ni­ty col­leges and low­er-lev­el jobs. All stu­dents, not just non-col­lege-mate­r­i­al stu­dents, are going to be taught to this low­er stan­dard.
I want to pause and high­light the sig­nif­i­cance of Heather and Erin’s tes­ti­mo­ny. Heather Crossin and Erin Tut­tle did not get involved in oppos­ing Com­mon Core because of any­thing Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck said to rile them up, but because of what they saw hap­pen­ing in their own children’s Catholic school. When experts or politi­cians said that Com­mon Core would not lead to a sur­ren­der of local con­trol over cur­ricu­lum, Heather and Erin knew bet­ter. (Iron­i­cal­ly, the lever­age in Indi­ana was Tony Bennett’s school-choice pro­gram, which made state vouch­ers avail­able to reli­gious schools, but only if they adopt­ed state tests — which were lat­er qui­et­ly switched from ISTEP to the untried Com­mon Core assess­ments.)
At first Heather thought maybe her igno­rance of Com­mon Core was her fault. Maybe, with her kids (as she imag­ined) safe­ly ensconced in good Catholic schools, she hadn’t paid atten­tion.
That’s when she and Erin start­ed con­tact­ing peo­ple — “and we found out some­thing more shock­ing: Nobody had any idea,” Heather told me.
A friend of Heather’s who is a for­mer reporter for a state news­pa­per and now a teacher didn’t know. Nor did her state sen­a­tor, Scott Schnei­der, even though he sat on the state senate’s Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee. (In Indi­ana, as in most states, Com­mon Core was adopt­ed by the Board of Edu­ca­tion with­out con­sult­ing the leg­is­la­ture.) Nor, evi­dent­ly, did the state’s edu­ca­tion reporters — Heather could find lit­er­al­ly no press cov­er­age of the key moment when Indiana’s Board of Edu­ca­tion aban­doned its fine state stan­dards and well-regard­ed state tests in favor of Com­mon Core.
“They brought in David Cole­man, the archi­tect of the stan­dards, to give a pre­sen­ta­tion, they asked a few ques­tions, there was no debate, no cost analy­sis, just a sales job, and every­body rub­ber-stamped it,” Heather said.
So began an 18-month jour­ney in which these two moth­ers prob­a­bly changed edu­ca­tion his­to­ry.
One rea­son the media ignored the imple­men­ta­tion of Com­mon Core is that the Indi­ana edu­ca­tion debate was dom­i­nat­ed by Gov­er­nor Daniels’s high-pro­file effort to expand school choice. But as my col­league at the Amer­i­can Prin­ci­ples Project (APP) Emmett McGroar­ty point­ed out to me, nation­al­iz­ing cur­ricu­lum stan­dards qui­et­ly knifes the school-choice move­ment in the back. As McGroar­ty puts it, “What dif­fer­ence does it make if you fund dif­fer­ent schools if they all teach the same basic cur­ricu­lum the same basic way?”
Com­mon Core advo­cates con­tin­ue to insist that Com­mon Core does not usurp local con­trol of cur­ricu­lum, but in prac­tice high-stakes tests keyed to the Com­mon Core stan­dards ensure that cur­ricu­lum will fol­low.
Emmett McGroar­ty turns out to have been a very impor­tant per­son in the jour­ney that Heather Crossin and Erin Tut­tle made to take down Com­mon Core.
Heather and Erin were helped by many peo­ple and groups along the way, includ­ing the Pio­neer Institute’s Jamie Gass, the Hoover Institution’s Bill Evers, and the Her­itage Foundation’s Lind­sey Burke. Many Indi­ana orga­ni­za­tions played key roles, begin­ning with the indis­pens­able lead­er­ship of the Indi­ana Tea Par­ty. Oth­er nat­ur­al allies Heather and Erin con­tact­ed and edu­cat­ed in order to build the move­ment include the state chap­ter of Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty, the Indi­ana Fam­i­ly Insti­tute, and the Indi­ana Asso­ci­a­tion of Home Edu­ca­tors.
But Heather told me that what McGroar­ty and his col­league Jane Rob­bins at the Amer­i­can Prin­ci­ples Project did was unique. “I call him the Gen­er­al of this move­ment,” Heather says. “He strate­gizes with peo­ple in every state. Day or night, Sat­ur­day or Sun­day, Emmett’s there if you need him.”
The 2012 white paper, co-spon­sored by the Amer­i­can Prin­ci­ples Project and the Pio­neer Insti­tute, that urged the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil to oppose Com­mon Core became Heather and Erin’s bible. “That white paper is the most impor­tant sum­ma­ry; we gave copies to peo­ple and said, ‘Read this. If you can’t read the whole thing, read the exec­u­tive sum­ma­ry.’ Because it cov­ered all the bases, from the qual­i­ty of the stan­dards to the ille­git­i­mate fed­er­al data col­lec­tion to the fed­er­al government’s involve­ment in pro­mot­ing Com­mon Core,” Heather told me.
But even more influ­en­tial than its mes­sage devel­op­ment was APP’s will­ing­ness to give in-depth, hands-on, inten­sive help when­ev­er Heather and Erin request­ed it. “Usu­al­ly you call up a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion, and they are real­ly nice, they say they are with you, and they send you some help­ful research and say, ‘Good luck with that,’” Heather explained. But APP did much more. “All along the way APP has been the great­est source of sup­port men­tal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, and with research that a grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion could have had.”
A big break came in June 2012, when the local tea-par­ty coun­cil asked Heather and Erin to devel­op a fly­er that it could use to spread the word to tea-par­ty meet­ings all across the state; the two women turned to Emmett and Jane to help draft it. The first time Heather and Erin were asked to appear on a local radio show (some­thing they had nev­er done before), they asked Emmett if he would fly in and do the show with them. APP staff would fly out to attend ral­lies, do local radio shows with Heather and Erin, help them pre­pare to meet with edi­to­r­i­al boards, and act as sound­ing boards and strate­gists each step of the way as the grass­roots move­ment grew.
In 2012, it looked as if Heather and Erin had failed: Prod­ded by Gov­er­nor Daniels, the Indi­ana leg­is­la­ture vot­ed down a bill to with­draw from Com­mon Core.
Heather was ready to give up. With­out hands-on sup­port, she told me, “For sure, I would have giv­en up. But Emmett told me this was just the begin­ning.”
So Sen­a­tor Schnei­der agreed to intro­duce the bill again, and Heather and Erin went to work criss­cross­ing the state that sum­mer for ral­lies and meet­ings that drew large crowds. The media reluc­tant­ly began to take notice.
And then some­thing mag­i­cal inter­vened: an elec­tion.
Tony Bennett’s reelec­tion as state super­in­ten­dent of pub­lic schools was sup­posed to be a slam dunk. His oppo­nent, Glen­da Ritz, was a Demo­c­rat in a deeply Repub­li­can state, and she had no name recog­ni­tion and almost no mon­ey; she end­ed up being out­spent by more than 5 to 1 as Bennett’s war chest swelled to $1.5 mil­lion with major gifts from Michael Bloomberg’s PAC, Wal­mart heiress Alice Wal­ton, and oth­er nation­al play­ers.
But Ben­nett was also the high­est-pro­file pub­lic defend­er of Com­mon Core, while Ritz was rais­ing con­cerns about it.
When the dust had set­tled on elec­tion day, Ben­nett had lost, bad­ly. It was the upset of the year.
When Michael Petril­li, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Thomas B. Ford­ham Insti­tute (which backs Com­mon Core), found out late on elec­tion night that Ben­nett had been unseat­ed by the unknown, under­fund­ed under­dog Glen­da Ritz, he wasn’t hap­py: “Tony Ben­nett! Sh*t sh*t sh*t sh*t sh*t,” Petril­li told Huff­in­g­ton Post­writer Joy Resmovits. “You can quote me on that.”
Well, some­thing had clear­ly hit the fan.
Bennett’s defeat marked a deci­sive turn­ing point, mak­ing every Indi­ana politi­cian aware how deep vot­er dis­con­tent over Com­mon Core was.
In Indi­ana, as else­where, Com­mon Core pro­po­nents have respond­ed to pub­lic crit­i­cism by accus­ing the par­ents of being stu­pid and unin­formed or pos­si­bly lying. Com­mon Core, they say, is not a cur­ricu­lum; it is not being dri­ven by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment; it will not inter­fere with local con­trol of schools.
A few days before Sen­a­tor Schneider’s anti–Common Core bill passed, the Indi­ana Cham­ber of Com­merce (which had spent more than $100,000 in ads oppos­ing the bill) lashed out in frus­tra­tion at the out­sized effect Heather and Erin had had on the leg­is­la­ture: “Two moms from Indi­anapo­lis, a hand­ful of their friends and a cou­ple dozen small but vocal Tea Par­ty groups. That’s the entire Indi­ana move­ment that is advo­cat­ing for a halt to the Com­mon Core State Stan­dards,” the Cham­ber of Com­merce fumed.
This is not accu­rate, giv­en the oppo­si­tion by many edu­ca­tion experts, includ­ing Pro­fes­sor Mil­gram, Pro­fes­sor San­dra Stot­sky of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas, Pro­fes­sor Diane Rav­itch of New York Uni­ver­si­ty, Pro­fes­sor Chris Tienken of Seton Hall, and for­mer assis­tant edu­ca­tion sec­re­tary Williamson Evers at Hoover.
But nev­er under­es­ti­mate the pow­er of a moth­er, espe­cial­ly one who is defend­ing her own child’s future.
What start­ed in Indi­ana is not stay­ing in Indi­ana.
Leg­is­la­tion oppos­ing Com­mon Core has been intro­duced in at least sev­en oth­er states, and large crowds are turn­ing out at pub­lic pan­els and ral­lies in states from Ten­nessee to Ida­ho. Last month the Michi­gan state house vot­ed to with­hold imple­men­ta­tion fund­ing, despite Repub­li­can gov­er­nor Rick Snyder’s sup­port for Com­mon Core; the Mis­souri sen­ate this week approved a bill call­ing for statewide hear­ings on Com­mon Core.
In April the RNC passed a res­o­lu­tion oppos­ing Com­mon Core as “inap­pro­pri­ate over­reach to stan­dard­ize and con­trol the edu­ca­tion of our chil­dren.”
On April 20, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Blaine Luetke­mey­er (R., Mo.) sent a let­ter — co-signed by 33 oth­er con­gress­men — to Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can, ask­ing for a detailed account­ing of changes in stu­dent-pri­va­cy poli­cies asso­ci­at­ed with the new nation­al data­base the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion is build­ing as part of its Com­mon Core sup­port. The let­ter point­ed out that the Edu­ca­tion Depart­ment had already made reg­u­la­to­ry changes — with­out con­sult­ing Con­gress — that appear to cir­cum­vent the 1974 law that lim­its the dis­clo­sure to third par­ties of any data col­lect­ed on stu­dents.
“The Com­mon Core places inap­pro­pri­ate lim­i­ta­tions on the influ­ence of states and local­i­ties, while bur­den­ing them with addi­tion­al, unfund­ed expens­es,” Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Luetke­mey­er told me via e-mail.
Sen­a­tor Chuck Grass­ley of Iowa is tak­ing the lead nation­al­ly in shin­ing light on the Oba­ma administration’s key role in pro­mot­ing Com­mon Core. On April 16, Grass­ley was joined by sev­en oth­er GOP sen­a­tors (includ­ing major pres­i­den­tial con­tenders Ted Cruz and Rand Paul), who signed a let­ter call­ing on their col­leagues to stop fund­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of Com­mon Core, which, they point out, appears to vio­late fed­er­al laws that explic­it­ly for­bid the Edu­ca­tion Depart­ment to influ­ence cur­ricu­lum or assem­ble a nation­al data­base. “I vot­ed against the Eco­nom­ic Stim­u­lus Bill that essen­tial­ly gave the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion a blank check that was used for Race to the Top, and I have been very crit­i­cal of how the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion used those funds to push a spe­cif­ic edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy agen­da from Wash­ing­ton on the states with­out spe­cif­ic input from Con­gress,” Sen­a­tor Grass­ley told me via e-mail.
The recent announce­ment by Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, that the AFT wants to delay imple­men­ta­tion of the Com­mon Core tests in New York put a bipar­ti­san nail in the cof­fin of con­sen­sus.
And more moms are fol­low­ing the trail Heather Crossin and Erin Tut­tle blazed.
One major objec­tion to the Com­mon Core stan­dards is that they are not evi­dence-based. Their effect on aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment is sim­ply unknown, because they have not been field-test­ed any­where in the world.

But moms have a more ele­men­tal objec­tion: The whole oper­a­tion is a fed­er­al pow­er grab over their children’s edu­ca­tion. Once a state adopts Com­mon Core, its cur­ricu­lum goals and assess­ments are effec­tive­ly nation­al­ized. And the nation­al stan­dards are effec­tive­ly pri­va­tized, because they are writ­ten, owned, and copy­right­ed by two pri­vate trade orga­ni­za­tions.

Leg­is­la­tors are incred­u­lous when they learn the stan­dards and assess­ments are writ­ten by two pri­vate trade orga­ni­za­tions — the Nation­al Gov­er­nors Asso­ci­a­tion Cen­ter for Best Prac­tices and the Coun­cil of Chief State School Offi­cers. This cre­ates con­cern why pub­lic edu­ca­tion is now con­trolled by two pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions,” says Gretchen Logue, a Mis­souri edu­ca­tion activist and one of the co-founders of Truth in Amer­i­can Edu­ca­tion, a net­work of activists and orga­ni­za­tions oppos­ing Com­mon Core. “They also don’t like that the stan­dards and assess­ments are copy­right­ed and can­not be changed or mod­i­fied by the states.”
So why are so many good con­ser­v­a­tives, from Jeb Bush to Rick Sny­der, sup­port­ing Com­mon Core? Many con­ser­v­a­tives signed on to a clever strat­e­gy that asked them to endorse, not the spe­cif­ic stan­dards, but the idea of high “inter­na­tion­al­ly bench­marked” nation­al stan­dards. It is a prin­ci­ple of psy­cho­log­i­cal per­sua­sion that, once you act, in how­ev­er small a man­ner, you will feel cog­ni­tive­ly com­pelled to jus­ti­fy your action. Many busi­ness lead­ers with no expe­ri­ence or exper­tise in edu­ca­tion reform have come on board.
This is as good an expla­na­tion as any for why so many con­ser­v­a­tives are aggres­sive­ly pro­mot­ing a set of nation­al stan­dards about which we know, for sure, four things:
a) They are not inter­na­tion­al­ly bench­marked. In fact, for math in par­tic­u­lar, they are exact­ly con­trary to the kind of nation­al stan­dards used in high-per­form­ing coun­tries.
b) The two major experts on con­tent who were on the Val­i­da­tion Com­mit­tee review­ing the stan­dards backed out and repu­di­at­ed them when they saw what the stan­dards actu­al­ly are.
c) State leg­is­la­tures and par­ents were cut out of the loop in eval­u­at­ing the stan­dards them­selves or the cost of imple­ment­ing them.
d) The Com­mon Core stan­dards are owned by pri­vate trade orga­ni­za­tions, which par­ents can­not influ­ence.
These objec­tions, among oth­ers, led Diane Rav­itch to call on her blog for back­ing out of Com­mon Core, as the stan­dards were “flawed by the process with which they have been foist­ed upon the nation.”
Rav­itch went on: “The Com­mon Core stan­dards have been adopt­ed in 46 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia with­out any field test. They are being imposed on the chil­dren of the nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect stu­dents, teach­ers or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all try­ing an unknown new pro­gram at the same time.”
I asked Heather how she felt on that his­toric day she saw the very first anti–Common Core bill in the nation pass. “I was elat­ed!” she told me. “We were up against so many pow­er­ful groups with so much mon­ey. We fought against all odds, tons of mon­ey, a slew of paid lob­by­ists. All we had was the truth, the facts, and a pas­sion to pro­tect the future of our chil­dren. Our vic­to­ry is proof that our Amer­i­can sys­tem of gov­ern­ment still works.”