Michael A. MacDowell: Common Core and Common Sense


By Michael A. MacDowell

It is difficult to pick up a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast nowadays that fails to mention the Common Core curriculum. Conservative and liberal pundits alike complain about it. Let’s examine some of the issues surrounding the educational system’s elementary, middle and high school reading and math standards to see if all of the criticism is warranted.

Common Core is a set of shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English/language arts and mathematics at each grade level so they can be prepared to succeed in college, career and life. It’s hard to disagree in general with this goal. However, there are some concerns that are worth considering.

Some educators, parents and others indicate that an overemphasis on language arts and mathematics will make other disciplines irrelevant. Most local school districts, teachers and organizations, though, already have designed innovative ways to teach Common Core while offering others subjects in the context of real-life circumstances.

The Council for Economic Education, with support from the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation, Moody’s and Verizon, designed “Math in the Real World,’’ a new online curriculum that teaches worthwhile concepts such as compound interest, risk aversion and price determination using mathematics (www.councilforeconomiceducation.org/tag/math-in-the-real-world). There are thousands of other examples.

Perhaps the most often-heard complaint about Common Core is the testing that measures if students are maintaining the required knowledge and skills. Testing concerns educators who worry they’re spending too much class time preparing for tests, administering them or “teaching to the test,” as they say.

Some states and school districts have gone overboard on testing. But how can educators and other vested parties know what works without the ability to measure students’ mastery of skills? After all, parents and taxpayers both have the right to know if children are progressing at a reasonable rate and whether or not tax dollars are being used wisely.

Educators also dislike Common Core testing because sometimes the results are used to partially determine how individual schools and teachers are performing and rewarded. Educators object because students often differ in their readiness for school and their willingness to learn.  This makes invidious comparisons between schools and districts misleading.

Most national and states tests usually remove the impact of variables beyond a teacher’s or school district’s control in analyzing test scores. Schools that feature predominantly low-income students and other demographic variables that may cause students to do poorly on tests are considered in the results. This gap-closing technique mitigates most of the problems opponents often use as an argument against Common Core.

Another often-heard argument against the Common Core is that it will “federalize” schools. This is a reasonable concern. America has a tradition of local school governance. Volunteer school boards provide guidance to local teachers, and administrators approve a curriculum based on a generally agreed-upon set of outcomes. Rational people can certainly create specific school district curriculum based on the Common Core. They can and should adjust that curriculum to fit their local needs and values.

On the other hand, we should be worried if federalization of schools means a federal bureaucracy overseeing and running our schools. One needs to only examine the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education to see how federal management of education can be harmful. The bureau spends nearly 56 percent more per student than the average American public school, yet facilities and student achievement lag far behind other schools. Federal auditors say schools run by the bureau “lack strategic planning and have a dearth of financial experts to manage contracts and employees,” according to the Washington Post

How is this awful situation to be fixed?  Apparently the same way the traditional federal government fixes most problems: By throwing more money at it. President Obama has asked Congress for a significant increase in the budget to address its shortcomings, according to the bureau’s Nedra Darling.

While the federalization of public schools is a bad idea, the Common Core is not designed to give government more control of our educational system. It merely codifies what society believes to be the knowledge and skills students need to be productive and successful. We should not dismiss the Common Core curriculum based on the arguments raised by a variety of vested-interest groups on the right and the left.

Instead, we should use the reasoning skills we gained in school to analyze what these various groups are saying. We should then determine what’s appropriate for our local schools and not take a backseat to those who would use arguments against the Common Core to bend our schools to fit their particular interests.


Michael A. MacDowell is president emeritus of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., where he occasionally taught economics. He is the managing director of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation.