City Journal
Sol Stern
The Real Common Core Story
A response to Diane Ravitch and others
17 April 2014

I couldn’t miss the eye-catching headline on Diane Ravitch’s influential blog: “Schneider Schools Sol Stern on the Common Core.” Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana teacher, is one of Ravitch’s loyal allies in the education-reform wars. Ravitch thinks she’s a great investigator and often cites her work. Actually, what Schneider excels at is promulgating conspiracy theories and using guilt-by-association to discredit those with whom she disagrees—such as supporters of the Common Core State Standards, whom she accuses of being duped and bribed by a corporate, anti-public school conspiracy led by Bill Gates, with an assist from President Barack Obama.

Schneider’s denunciation of one of my recent articles defending the Common Core characteristically didn’t engage with my arguments, but it did provide a list of my nefarious “connections” and “involvements” with conservative organizations. With trumpets blaring, Schneider announced that the Manhattan Institute, where I am a senior fellow, has “a board of trustees noticeably heavy on hedge fund managers” and that “it should come as no surprise that MI promotes ‘economic choice’; ‘market-oriented policies,’ and ‘free market ideas.’” (Schneider doesn’t seem to have noticed that most supporters of free markets in education actually oppose the Common Core.) She also levies the bizarre allegation that “MI is a cousin to the [conservative] American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).” In another feat of investigative journalism, Schneider offers an inside scoop about me and my wife: “Stern is not a teacher, nor has he ever been a teacher. But he is married to a Manhattan, NY, high school teacher. Not sure if she is under the so-called Common Core State Standards (CCSS).” And I’m not sure what that even means.

Another of my defects, according to Schneider, is that I have written favorably about E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum. She doesn’t explain what’s wrong with the Hirsch curriculum but instead alleges that Core Knowledge “was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify in 2013.” If that were true, it would be considered a hanging offense in Schneider and Ravitch’s leftist circles, because Amplify is a “for-profit” company and Rupert Murdoch is, you know, Rupert Murdoch. But the Murdoch allegation is false. Schneider probably borrowed it from Ravitch, who published it on her blog last year before retracting the claim when confronted with the truth—that the Core Knowledge curriculum was licensed to Amplify for the sole purpose of distributing it to schools around the country (a good thing for American children.)

Normally, it wouldn’t occur to me to respond to Schneider’s fact-deprived attack—except that it appeared on Ravitch’s blog, which reaches tens of thousands of readers on some days. Ravitch is also the leader of a new left-wing education movement that has effectively exploited parental and teacher discontent with the Common Core Standards. It says something significant about the cause Ravitch now champions that she approves of Schneider’s methods and uses them herself in criticizing my politically incorrect views on education reform.

Like Schneider, Ravitch believes that readers need to know the highlights of my life story and my affiliations in order to evaluate properly my position on the Common Core. She begins by noting that we first met when we were fellows at the Manhattan Institute, which is true. She then goes on to assert as an uncontested fact that after serving as “an editor at the leftwing Ramparts” in the 1960s, I “had a political-ideological conversion experience” and “became a zealous conservative.” My transition from leftist radicalism toward a rather moderate conservatism took place gradually over many years and involved several important issues, including the defense of Israel, education, racial politics, and the failures of the welfare state. Tagging me as a “zealous” conservative is a calculated move on Ravitch’s part. I am no more zealous about conservative ideas than Ravitch was when she served in the administration of the first President Bush. Like her, I support gay rights, abortion rights, and other liberal positions. Indeed, if I really were a zealous conservative, I probably wouldn’t support the Common Core.

Dredging up my political loyalties from almost a half-century ago and my subsequent shift in thinking hardly seems relevant to understanding my views on the Common Core. Yet it does reveal Ravitch’s hypocrisy. I plead guilty to having flip-flopped once, from leftism to conservatism. But Ravitch has flip-flopped twice, from liberalism to conservatism and then all the way back beyond liberalism to her embrace of leftist doctrines—including her much-repeated claim that America’s “one percent,” the corporate elite, are now engaged in a conspiracy to dismantle or privatize the nation’s public schools.

Ravitch’s hypocrisy is even more pronounced when you consider her current fulminations against the Common Core Standards. Her two main (but contradictory) complaints are, first, that the standards are part of a “billionaire boys’ club” plot to destroy the public schools and, second, that the Obama administration is using the standards to impose a nationalized curriculum on the public schools. The irony in all of this is that, if I had to name one individual who, from 1988 to 2008, did the most to encourage education policymakers to support national standards and curriculum, it would be Diane Ravitch.

As a deputy education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, Ravitch’s main assignment was to use the federal government’s bully pulpit to push for national standards. She subsequently wrote a book for the Brookings Institution titled National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide. Ravitch insists that there is no inconsistency here, since she had only supported “voluntary” standards, whereas the Common Core, she says, represents a federal mandate (because the Obama administration awarded funds to some states for adopting the standards). But adopting the Common Core remains voluntary. Five states initially declined to adopt, and more are likely to discard them in the near future. None will suffer federal penalties for doing so.

Moreover, Ravitch has never confronted the most glaring contradiction stemming from her long-time advocacy of national standards. On November 7, 2005, she published a widely discussed (and brilliant) op-ed in the New York Times declaring that “Americans must recognize that we need national standards, national tests and a national curriculum.” (Emphasis added.) Ravitch expressed frustration with the failure of President George W. Bush to follow up on the efforts of the previous Bush and Clinton administrations to move toward national standards and national tests. Because of the Republican Party’s “philosophy of localism,” wrote Ravitch, Bush “adopted a strategy of ‘50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests,’” which failed to bring about improvements in the schools. Ravitch cited the poor results of that year’s federal NAEP tests to support her contention that the “varying state standards and tests are inadequate,” and that there would be no improvement in students’ academic performance as long as the administration continued to follow “a strategy of letting the states choose their own standards and tests.” Nor, Ravitch concluded, “will we reach that goal [of academic improvement] if we pretend that mathematics taught in Alaska or Iowa is profoundly different from the mathematics taught in Maine or Florida, or for that matter, in Japan and Hungary.” Ravitch never used the word “voluntary” to qualify her support for national standards and tests, so it’s hard to take seriously the rationalization she has since offered for opposing the Common Core.

But even more remarkable was Ravitch’s unequivocal endorsement of a national curriculum. The curriculum issue has always been the third rail in any discussion of national education standards in the United States. (Most other industrialized nations have national curriculums.) That’s not only because of the Republican Party’s “philosophy of localism” in education, as Ravitch noted, but also because U.S. education law clearly prohibits the federal government from “exercising control” over the development of curriculum by states or school districts. With that restriction in mind, the authors of the Common Core included specific language saying that the standards were not to be regarded as a curriculum and, moreover, that each state should develop its own grade-by-grade curriculum materials aligned with the standards.

With her endorsement of a national curriculum, as well as national standards and tests, Ravitch was arguably even more “zealous” than other champions of standards reform at the time. And because of her reputation as one of the nation’s most esteemed education scholars, her Times article provided encouragement to the Washington-based organizations—including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—that were beginning to push for the adoption of national standards, and whose efforts led a few years later to the creation of the Common Core. Borrowing from Ravitch, these groups argued that the United States couldn’t improve the public schools if it continued to follow a strategy of “50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests.”

In her recent blog post, Ravitch wrote that she wasn’t “sure that Stern understands the Common Core standards.” Specifically, she faulted me for “think[ing] that the Common Core implements the ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr.” I have never made such a claim. What I did write, almost two years ago, was that the Common Core Standards deserved support—among other reasons, because they were “creating a historic opportunity to introduce Hirsch’s curriculum to many more schools and classrooms.” So far, some progress has been made along those lines: New York State has made the Core Knowledge English Language Arts curriculum for the early grades available to all schools; 71 New York City elementary schools are using the Core Knowledge curriculum; the Louisiana Education Department has designated Core Knowledge as the preferred curriculum for the state’s elementary schools; and Amplify will soon distribute the Core Knowledge curriculum on electronic tablets to classrooms around the country.

In my writing, I have suggested that education reformers of all stripes could help convince states and districts to adopt Core Knowledge or some variant of the Hirsch curriculum as part of their implementation of the Common Core Standards. I had once hoped that Diane Ravitch would do so—despite her generally negative opinion of the Common Core—because for almost her entire professional life, she has been a fervent advocate of Core Knowledge and, more recently, an advocate for a national curriculum in the United States. Instead, she has decided that it would be better for American education if the Common Core were brought down entirely. And after a quarter-century of supporting Core Knowledge (including serving on its board), Ravitch has suddenly discovered that Hirsch’s early-grade curriculum is “developmentally inappropriate” for young children.

If Diane Ravitch and other anti-Common Core campaigners on both the left and right succeed in their destructive mission, we will go right back to “50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests.” Ravitch and her allies can then celebrate their political victory—but the children in America’s schools will be the losers.

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.

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