Common Core and Unionitis

Common Core, Common Core, Common Core -- it's all I hear these days, as if it were a new monster at the door of the schoolhouse, as if it had never occurred to anyone that we were losing control of our children's education, as if no one had ever before noticed that school texts were full of propaganda. Of course it's a dangerous thing to let the federal T-rex into the classroom -- I'm not debating that -- of course no good can come of it; no good has come of it. (Remember No Child Left Behind?) Common Core is definitely not the cure for what ails our schools, but it's not the chief problem, either.

And we do need a cure -- nothing in our society is more infested with disease than our schools, but we can't eradicate the infection by just changing the schools because the entire society is suffering from the same malady -- more concern with equality than with merit and freedom, more concern with ease than with effort.

I have been fighting this pedagogical cancer since the mid-70's when I began my teaching career and my children were knee-deep in their own grade-school experience. Schools weren't what I thought they'd be. Textbooks were watered-down, touchy-feely emptiness. Courses held titles like "Humor in American Lit" or "Gothic Novels." The latter was complete with a wax corpse in a coffin around which students gathered for class discussions. My children were subjected to a course called "Personal and Social Development" run by a woman who admitted that she had ruined her own four children and didn't want that to happen to anyone else's kids. The course did its best to ridicule parental authority and made the clergy all look like corrupted halfwits. Our daughter had one teacher who taught a unit on "the occult -- to help children find out who they are." And this was in Lincoln, Nebraska -- not exactly a hotbed of radical nonsense.

Now, 40 years later, Common Core has served as a fever spike -- a painful symptom that is finally making the body aware of its peril; it is not the pathogen.

Study after study concludes that the one factor that makes a difference in the success or failure of students is the teacher.

• Changing curriculum doesn't matter. Whole language didn't do a better job of teaching kids to read than the old phonics approach. The New Math didn't produce a bumper crop of Einsteins.

• Shrinking class size, improving materials, making capital improvements has little influence.

• Changing the standards doesn't matter. One year our high school decided to opt for an "outcome based" approach. Students were required to turn in every single piece of homework and pass every single test in order to get credit. This merely resulted in teachers having to accept papers in June that had been assigned in October or having to allow students to retake tests ad infinitum. Another year the school board mandated that we quit giving "D's." Evidently they assumed that all the students would therefore scramble up to the next level, but they didn't. Administration then pressured teachers into not giving "F's," so the end result was to inflate the "C." And no one learned any more than they had before.

Only the teacher seems to make a difference. So why don't we have astounding teachers? Remember the year Bill Clinton promised to hire another 100,000 new instructors? Where did he think he was going to find these people? And why did he think it was a quantity problem when it was clear that we had a quality problem? We didn't have enough good teachers.

The biggest reason for that is the unionization of the profession. From the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the "factorization" of the schools, teachers have been treated like a mass of unskilled laborers, not as talented and highly skilled professionals, which eventually resulted in their unionization and in their dedication to the idea of equality. Equal pay, equal tenure, equal failure.

This is what I've seen happen:

• Administrators hire teachers, but they cannot fire them. I once watched my principal spend ten years trying to remove a particularly inept and ineffectual foreign language teacher -- and I knew how bad he was; I'd had to share a classroom with him and I'd seen the chaos first hand. So he stayed on damaging both his students and his fellow teachers and nothing could be done. In New York City it is so expensive to fire a bad teacher that the district finds it cheaper to warehouse them than to remove them. They wile away the hours sitting around in empty classrooms reading and playing computer games, all the while collecting salaries commensurate with the earnings of truly talented and dedicated teachers.

• This has a terrible effect on morale -- of both teachers and students. We can all remember the horror of having to sit under the tutelage of incompetent, stupid teachers -- my 11th grade English teacher comes to mind -- he mostly just told dirty jokes and picked at the hairs growing out of the wart on the end of his nose. (The memory of him did make Chaucer's Miller come to life when I read Canterbury Tales years later; I suppose that's something.) It is embarrassing to teach next door to such a non-teacher, next door to a colleague who only shows bad videos or hands out photocopied worksheets like Ditto in the movie Teachers. I once had to teach in the same room with a man who purportedly taught "Business Law." His curriculum consisted of showing Judge Wapner reruns -- it was humiliating to watch.

• If the administration makes too many bad hiring decisions the school gets hopelessly mired in the mud of despair. Students quit caring, parents give up and, since the good teachers go elsewhere, those left slog along going through the motions, too uninspired to ever be inspiring and the union continues to protect them.

• But school must go on. No school can afford to publically fail all the students who don't learn. That looks bad. So the next move is to create the appearance of success. Hence the vapid textbooks, the switch to easier and easier curricula. This is all done under the guise of "raising the bar." In our school we "raised the bar" by forcing lower level students into honors level classes, which pushed the teachers of those classes to either fail half their students or lower their expectations, which sent even the capable students on to the next year's classes unprepared, and so the cycle continued until everyone was equally mediocre, which of course was just fine with the unions; equal mediocrity is apparently the goal.

• Administrators -- oftentimes themselves ex-teachers who didn't do well in the classroom -- try to put a Band Aid on the bleeding by starting new program after new program; they can't just get rid of the bad teachers, so they thrash about instituting change after change after change exhausting and distracting and hog-tying the good, true teachers and doing nothing to improve those who can't or won't give the job its due.

• In the last 20 years local school districts, especially in urban areas, have so floundered, falling ever further behind, that states have stepped into "assist" and "equally fund" local school districts, homogenizing curriculum by setting state standards and eating up class time with standardized testing. Nothing has been done to attract the truly brilliant and talented to the teaching profession. I was chatting one day with a new administrator and suddenly she said, "You're way too smart to be a teacher. What are you doing here?" I was thoroughly gobsmacked. How can one be too smart to be a teacher?!

So nothing has been done to rid schools of the incompetent or to encourage the capable. (Unions fight tooth and nail the idea of merit pay.) In fact the grip of the unions has provided such secure, steady employment for so many who teach because they "can't do" that we've spent the last half-century attracting the wrong people to the sacred job of teaching our children. And now our schools are manned by the second generation, by those who themselves are the product of our dumbed-down educational system.

Enter Common Core. Yes, it must be stopped, but stopping it won't make things better; it will only put the brakes on education's downward spiral. What's needed to rectify the situation is a complete attitude adjustment. We have to face that fact that not everyone is equally a teacher and that not all kids are equally students. Both parents and schools must work together to provide an equal chance for every child to become an educated person, and that chance has be centered on consistent opportunity for contact with excellent teachers, teachers who can stand on their own success and don't have to be propped up by a union, teachers who are attracted by the respect, both emotional and financial, that the society affords them. 

If you experience technical problems, please write to