Debating Common Core Is Proof that Educators Have Lost

Recently, many within and among the AFT and NEA communities have been applauding that summer conventions have devoted time to debating the Common Core, some going as far as hailing that debate as proof of democracy in action.

The key problem with those claims is that the Common Core debate has been decided for educators, and not by educators. And thus, debating the Common Core is proof that educators have lost.

AFT, NEA, and the Democratic party (all long associated with supporting public education) are failing that commitment because each is focused primarily on preserving the organization and not seeking the principles that these organizations were intended to honor (see Susan Ohanian).

The entire Common Core charade, in fact, has revealed the worst aspect of partisanship—the need to support Team A over Team B in the pursuit of winning, ethics and principles be damned. Ultimately, that educators are applauding the debate about Common Core is further evidence that who controls the table wins. And thus, I want to repost the following:

Who Controls the Table Wins

NOTE: The current education reform agenda focusing primarily on Common Core remains to be a failure of leadership. Public school teachers, public schools, and public school students are little more than collateral damage in the battle to see who can out-standard and out-test and out-rigor whom. Professional organizations, unions, and political leadership are fighting for a place at the table—not securing the sort of future public schools should offer all children in the U.S.

In her discussion of science fiction (SF), Margaret Atwood examines and confronts the nuances among SF, speculative fiction, fantasy, and utopian/dystopian fiction, and throughout, she highlights the power of these overlapping genres to explore the “What if?” by blending dramatizations of human history with human possibility. These genres have the power as well to force us to re-see now in the imagined context of other times and places. [1]

So in the spirit of “What if?” let’s consider a brief thought experiment.

Let’s imagine an other world where the Discovery Institute—a think tank that promotes, among other agendas, the infusion of Intelligent Design as a scientific alternative to the current state of evolutionary understanding in the sciences—decides to evaluate how evolution is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S., with the stated goal of reforming the content and teaching of evolution by labeling and ranking the current departments of biology based on standards for teaching the origin and evolution of humans designed by the Discovery Institute.

Let’s also imagine that governors and the federal government decide to fund and support this process, and that the Discovery Institute has reached an agreement with a major magazine—let’s say U.S. & News World Report—to publish these reports because the U.S. public holds views rejecting evolution and embracing Creationism that appear to match more closely the Discovery Institute than the current knowledge-base of evolutionary biologists.

Now, let’s imagine what the response of those biologists and their departments would be? Would they clamor to fill the seats at this table set by the Discovery Institute and the political leadership among the states and in the federal government? My speculation is to say no they wouldn’t because biologists trust and work at the table they set for their field, and as a central aspect of their professionalism, they would sit firmly at their table, that is in fact not a fixed or dogmatic setting, but a place where those with expertise and experience in the field create and wrestle with the agenda.

Having the Common Core Debate Is Conceding the Table

As with many works of SF, my thought experiment above is a thin mask for exactly what has occurred in education and education reform over the past three decades and intensified in the last decade.

From the accountability movement begun in the 1980s to the implementation of No Child Left Behind to the call for Common Core State Standards (CC) and to the demonizing of teachers along with the rise of calls for teacher education reform (such as the National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ]), the pattern in the thought experiment above has been identical to what education has experienced except for one key element: Educators, administrators, union leaders, and professional organizations have knocked each other down and tripped over their own feet to grab the seats at the table being established and set by think-tanks, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and politicians.

And here is the essential problem and distinction between K-12 education and higher education. K-12 education is hierarchical, bureaucratic, and blinded by a market ideology (customer service) that de-professionalizes teachers; college education has been historically more apt to embrace academic freedom, professor expertise and autonomy, and field integrity (although these qualities are certainly under assault and eroding).

Calls to join the agendas that are de-professionalizing and marginalizing teachers are concessions to those without expertise and experience establishing the table, and in effect, they’re winning before the discussion ever starts. Hollow rings the refrains that cry out for joining the table because joining the table immediately silences any credible call for questioning the efficacy of the table.

Joining the CC table concedes that education somehow fails due to a lack of standards, that teachers somehow in 2014 need someone else to tell them what to teach.

Joining the CC table to make sure they are implemented “properly” admits teachers are not professionals, not experts as every biologist in U.S. colleges and universities demands for herself or himself.

Joining the teacher education reform movement, participating in NCTQ’s assault on teacher education masked as reform, concedes that a think-tank knows something the entire field of teacher education has yet to determine.

Joining the test-prep mantra and the “no excuses” tables acknowledges and confirms a deficit view of children and transmissional view of knowledge/learning/teaching that dehumanize children and teachers while working against democracy, human agency, and human autonomy.

In my critical examination of school choice, I did not speculate about some other world, but compared the education reform movement to the medical profession. In the late twentieth century doctors fell victim to the market, allowing patients to exert their “customer” muscle when those patients demanded antibiotics. Doctors who acquiesced maintained and gained patients-as-customers; doctors who followed their professional autonomy and did not prescribe antibiotics unless they were warranted lost patients.

Inexpert customers determine standards and evaluate professionals in the market paradigm that promotes a simplistic view of choice proclaiming the customer is always right.

When doctors let patients set the table, what was the result? MRSA and a whole new medical dilemma, one that the medical profession had to reclaim by asserting their expertise and experience. [2]

Begging to join the tables built by the self-proclaimed reformers without expertise or experience is abdicating any potential power among teachers unions, teacher professional organizations, and educators.

Instead, teachers—as well as any unions or professional organizations formed in their names—must establish and participate fully in our own tables because who controls the table wins.

The education reform movement, then, is not about educators claiming our place at self-proclaimed reformers’ tables, but about having the professional integrity and autonomy to decide what tables matter based on our expertise.


[1] Originally published at Daily Kos April 15, 2012.

[2] DeBellis, R. J., & Zdanawicz, M. (2000, November). Bacteria battle back: Addressing antibiotic resistance. Boston: Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science. Retrieved from ; Ong, S. et al. (2007, September). Antibiotic use for emergency department patients with upper respiratory infections: Prescribing practices, patient expectations, and patient satisfaction. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 50(3), 213-220.


6 thoughts on “Debating Common Core Is Proof that Educators Have Lost

  1. as always, your ability to bring in references to fields/literature/etc. outside the usual educational suspects is refreshing and enlightening….i couldn’t help but be delighted in your writing…however, i am now totally depressed, and question what i can do next…i fight whenever/wherever i can….i am a BAT, for better or worse in many people’s opinions…i read, everything i can, voraciously….i am dedicating what is left of my life to the cause of saving public schools, for teachers and students, but truthfully, mostly for two beautiful brilliant grandchildren who learn every second they are awake (and perhaps while they dream)…i don’t want their souls destroyed in school….sooo, my question to you, and to the others i respect most (the academics) it this: what do i do now????

  2. btw, two typos in my initial comment, sorry, i don’t know how to edit within this platform…and i also didn’t mean to imply that i don’t value opinions of many others who i have now invited in several places to discuss this with me….i chalk it up to passion….should remember to breathe while i respond…or let my thoughts simmer….thanks for understanding, and i look forward to comments here, and other places…

  3. Great insights into how teachers, students and parents have been removed from the table. I have always loved this renewed interest in public education from billionaire privateers. I have to admit as a teachers union member the worst betrayal of all has been my own union’s leadership. But it was never worse than on Sunday when the AFT delegates voted to support Commn Core. Overwhelmingly. Also putting Duncan on an improvement plan cracked me up. Not that the resolution would have repealed Common Core, but it would have gotten corporate media off of our backs and shown support for the parents fighting against CC$$. But I am a BAT, and we are not sitting under the table begging for scraps. We are here to knock people off their chairs and toss the table over. Keep fighting, we are being heard, and they are trying hard to shut us up. ^o^

  4. Great food for thought here. Teachers need to BE the table. We cannot wait for our union leaders to ever gain a real seat at the what they consider to be the grown-up table. They can do that only by compromising, promising to deliver, and dragging us all along in their wake. To gain what?

  5. Education has lost a battle—not the war. Study history and you will discover it’s never over. Wrong headed thinking always loses in the end even if it pulls down civilization and plunges humanity into another dark age of chaos and anarchy.

    If the fake-education fools in the U.S.m who are calling the shots at the top, destroy everything we’ve built, then once the Phoenix rises from the ashes of what we call civilization today and starts to rebuild, the odds are that the lessons will have been learned and the next time around they will teach children the right way. Maybe those future educators and leaders will learn from the the fake education reformers in the U.S. in addition to what to do right from the educators and leaders of Finland.

    In fact, if the U.S. goes down the toilet, that doesn’t mean Europe or East Asia will follow. Again, history teaches us that civilization continued after the Roman Empire fell plunging Europe into a thousand years of darkness—it continued in China and in the Middle East, and it is arguable that China is going through a Renaissance of sorts rising as the West declines. China is meeting in Brazil this week with the BRICS and on the table is a proposal to set up their own world bank that will use a basket of cash, instead of the dollar, to value their own currencies separate from the rest of the world. I think this is a clear sign that clearer thinking—if not perfect—is in charge in the BRICS countries.

    It might be a good idea to select one of the BRICS and establish residence and a home for your families there—if you can afford it. For instance, we own a flat in Shanghai.

  6. So, wait, Paul. If I’m reading this correctly, you’re saying that playing a rigged game at a table completely controlled by those who’ve rigged the game – the same people who have written the current rules and can change those rules at their whim to further ensure their own advantage – is something only fools would do? What current teacher union leader could possibly be expected to have known?

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