Boardman: Common Core is the latest piñata in our ongoing cultural wars |

Boardman: Common Core is the latest piñata in our ongoing cultural wars

George Boardman

A conservative dog-and-pony show ended its six-city tour of California in Grass Valley last week, breaking out the rhetorical sticks to take a whack at our new educational pinata, Common Core Standards.

While the event was promoted as an examination of both sides of the issue, a packed house at the Elk's Lodge learned about the alleged evils of Common Core, with some viewing the program as a federal takeover of local education and a further erosion of our civil liberties.

In one of the stranger political couplings of the year, conservatives are being joined in their opposition by leaders of major teachers' unions who don't like the new, more difficult tests aligned to the standards that are being used to evaluate both students and teachers.

Backers of Common Core say the program is a set of learning standards — not a curriculum — designed to encourage more critical thinking and less memorization — just the ticket for success in the 21st century. They point out that the concept has received bipartisan support and has the backing of powerful elements of the business community.

Part of the opposition comes from the fact that Barack Obama supports it — "Obamacore" is said to be a sure-fire laugh generator in some quarters — and the embrace of the program by big business, a big negative among some conservatives. Bill Gates, the well-known college dropout, is viewed with suspicion in this context.

Supporters of Common Core, which outlines skills that students in each grade should master but leaves curriculum decisions to states and school districts, say it's up to the states to decide whether to adopt the standards.

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Opponents say Obama's attempt to reward states that adopt the standards with grants and waivers amounts to a back-door grab for federal control over what is taught in schools.

"Standards inevitably influence the curricula being taught to meet those standards," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a leading opponent.

The way conservatives talk, you would think our current system of local control and state standards are really educating our children. When the major decisions about funding and curriculum are made in Sacramento — and you're lucky if you can get one person to run for every school seat — you have to wonder where the control is.

We have reached the point where people are high-fiving each other because California's high school graduation rate is up to 80 percent. That means that only one-fifth of our students are falling through the cracks.

Not that a high school degree is actually worth much. Graduates who choose to enter the work force have few skills that are useful to employers, and the number of college freshmen who have to take remedial courses in math and English suggests there's a lot of educating that doesn't get done at the high school level.

Our colleges and universities don't produce enough engineers, scientists, computer professionals and mathematicians to meet the needs of our 21st century economy, so we end up importing them from other countries — many of them countries that have strict national education standards. Do you think they know something we don't?

Our last attempt to improve the education of our children, the piñata known as the No Child Left Behind Act, was designed to have all students be on grade level in math and reading by 2014 and to hold schools accountable for the results. Those goals weren't met, and reform efforts have bogged down in part because of opposition to teacher evaluation programs.

Teachers have a point when they contend that test scores can't be the main measure of a teacher's performance. As every educator knows, teachers have little chance of educating children if their parents don't value a good education and don't encourage their children to do well.

But teachers' unions don't seem to be interested in applying any performance standards. As things stand now in California, it's almost impossible to get rid of an incompetent teacher who has tenure.

The education establishment hasn't done much to smooth the transition to Common Core, adapting its usual "Trust us, we're education professionals, we know what we're doing" approach. The Nevada County Office of Education did little outreach to the public until Common Core Concerns started promoting last week's event, and then it responded with an essay signed by two staff members. So much for leadership from the top.

But the conservative opposition is hardly taking the high ground. Take the April newsletter of CABPRO, an outfit that apparently has trouble figuring out who is leading the organization.

The newsletter features a cover photo of NS-Frauen-Warte, a Nazi magazine that encouraged women to be exemplary housewives and mothers, over the headline "Common(ist) Core." So you decide: fascist or communist, Common Core is a "systematic brain-washing of our children so they will meekly accept government control over their lives," according to CABPRO.

Lost in all of this are the children, the people we all claim to be most concerned about. With friends like these, children hardly need enemies.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays in The Union.

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