It has been mocked by David Letterman and Steven Colbert. On Twitter, the comedian Louis C. K. complains that his kids used to love math, but now “it makes them cry.” Tea Party conservatives have pummeled it as another menacing tentacle of a vast left-wing conspiracy to “big-brother” America. It’s America’s “Common Core,” elbowing its way into a crowded field of frontrunners among things-to-get-obsessed-about.
Most of us have already endured our fair share of parental rants on Facebook timelines and comical Instagram snaps of inscrutable “common core” math. In truth there are probably few parents of first- through fifth-graders who have not spent a decent amount of evening downtime in fruitless attempts to translate this newest math into something close to what they remember from their own school days.
Unless of course you happen to be parents who grew up in Asia, because the math formulas and questions generating so much hostility and suspicion on the Internet and Fox News reports are not actually Common Core math. What many parents are grappling with is an alternative system of teaching math, hugely successful in Asia, that emphasizes comprehension over memorization. But the persistent outrage over the math curriculum has propelled one of the fundamental misunderstandings about Common Core. It is not a curriculum at all. Common Core is a set of minimum standards that emphasize critical thinking and provide detailed outlines of the reading and math skills students should have mastered at each grade level. The idea is to help unify not how or what kids are taught, but basic, predictable levels of attainment and comprehension. It is not in fact a federal take-over of local school curriculum.
But adopting Common Core—as 46 states have done since 2010—has meant that school districts have profoundly changed their teaching curriculum. Many districts have opted to use this somewhat baffling style of math instruction, at least to us old-timey survivors of “fundamentals” rote learning. They have not been forced by the federal government, as some routinely and erroneously insist, to use a form of Jedi math instruction designed to make parents feel foolish.
The backlash to Common Core has been a political propellant in the Republican mid-term sweep, and a number of red states are now entertaining legislative repeals of the initiative. Presidential hopefuls like Senator Ted Cruz with an eye on 2016 have already put Common Core rhetorically to use energizing their presumptive bases.
Why all the anger and suspicion over Common Core? Primarily, there appears to be something in the republican DNA of the United States that activates when anything government-ish assumes—or even only appears to assume—new responsibilities.
When many otherwise reasonable people seem perfectly willing to believe that Barack Obama, the nation’s first Muslim president, is conspiring to smuggle Ebola and a new generation of Democratic voters over the border from Mexico, there are apparently no government-associated initiatives that are not going to be met with some degree of froth and craziness. The auto-hysterics of contemporary mass media haven’t helped. Common Core has been irresistible to Internet channels and cable and radio talk show hosts who peddle paranoia to boost ratings and ad sales.
But the Common Core initiative has at times been its own worst enemy.
The sudden shift to Common Core-friendly curriculum came as a shock to the national system; many teachers complain they haven’t been adequately trained in new curricula; and the initiative’s own Genesis story—emerging from a murk of Gates Foundation grants, U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsements and a hurried O.K. from the National Governors Association, does little to soothe the conspiracy-minded. Efforts by the Obama administration to accelerate the adoption of Common Core did not help either.
Common Core creates baselines that should be helpful for gauging real improvements in national educational performance and should contribute to developing best practices for all states to emulate toward improving public education. But with the cultural and political winds shifting against it, the initiative may not be around long enough to establish those testable standards. In the end, wounded by its incautious launch and unable to overcome America’s paranoid style, this latest grand experiment may join the waste heap of other “great new ideas” to fix the perpetually reformed U.S. education system.