By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
In the September 12 issue of this column, a correspondent called our attention to an article by Paul Kengor in the August issue of Crisis magazine, in which Kengor cites information he was given by a friend whom he calls an “expert in the field of education.” Kengor’s friend believes that there is a potential problem in the Common Core curriculum being promoted by the Obama administration, beyond the threat of federal control over our public schools most mentioned by Common Core’s critics. Kengor’s friend believes that Common Core will permit “outside vendors and providers” hired to manage student data to share that data in a manner that parents would not be willing to accept if they were aware of the situation.
Federal education authorities argue collecting this data is necessary to analyze student achievement and to improve instruction. But according to Kengor’s friend, it is likely to be misused, leaked to questionable groups both in and out of government. Kengor’s friend mentions specifically our children’s “test scores, Social Security numbers, attendance records, records of interaction with school counselors, identification of learning disabilities, and even disciplinary records.”
Not everyone is as alarmed as Kengor and his friend. Dr. William R. Snaer, a retired pediatric dentist who has written on various issues for The Wanderer, believes there is a need to take a breath and examine this issue in a calm and reasoned manner. He starts by observing that taking as factual the allegations of an anonymous “expert in the field of education” reminds him of what his grandmother used to call “borrowing trouble.”
Snaer continues: “In 2011, the U. S. Department of Education amended the regulations for the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). These changes loosened the restrictions on sharing student data, by including non-governmental personnel as ‘authorized representatives’ of state educational entities. Fear of such data-sharing is the basis for the concerns expressed by the correspondent to Fitzpatrick’s column. It’s possible that the FERPA changes need some congressional oversight, but that has nothing to do with Common Core. The same student records were in place ten years ago, and they’ll be in place ten years from now, even if we adopt the Algerian Educational Standards.”
Dr. Snaer realizes that taking this position will result in criticism from his “usual political allies on the right,” but believes that is a price that has to be paid. He is convinced that there has been “careless piling on directed at Common Core energized by a mix of conspiracy types.” Some of these groups “think it is an extension of a United Nations plan for world government implicit in the UN’s Agenda 21; some think it is a plot of big business, and some hold the contradictory view that it is being driven by socialists.
“Supporters of Common Core try to point out that the initiative began at the state level, a product of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But this makes no difference with the critics, who do not realize that the individual states design the curricula that teach students to meet the standards called for in Common Core. Unhappily, the U.S. Department of Education fed the opposition fires by making Common Core’s standards a requirement for participation in Race to the Top, giving the impression it was federally spawned.
“Admittedly, it’s hard to examine the Common Core standards. The online presentation is complex and apparently incomplete. This allows snap judgments, such as that of a Southern California talk-show host who recently asserted that Common Core does not include American history. Another common rumor is that it excludes fiction. There is no truth to any of this.
“It should be kept in mind that Common Core’s standards evolved in large measure from the work of E.D. Hirsch Jr. In 1987 in his book, Cultural Literacy, he made the point that, to be a functioning citizen, there were basic items about which one must have at least a cursory understanding. He listed 5,000 items, and invited educators to bump any of them with more worthy nominees. Instead of collaboration, he received ridicule and hostility.
“He deserved better treatment, especially from those who hold to the conservative position that our schools’ mission is to preserve the best of the intellectual and moral heritage of Western society. Hirsch’s book made the point that a person’s knowledge continually builds on his accumulated foundation of knowledge. So, when Hirsch developed his ‘core knowledge’ curriculum, it stressed content-rich non-fiction reading that exposes students to some of those 5,000 items while they are perfecting their reading skills. By 2010, 770 schools and 414 preschools in 45 states and the District of Columbia were using all or part of the ‘core knowledge’ curriculum.
“One would think that conservatives and others with traditional values would welcome a program that seeks to shore up and extend these reforms, as does Common Core. Every survey reveals that a spectacular percentage of high school graduates don’t know who Winston Churchill was, and can’t place the Civil War within 50 years of the correct dates. There is no magic bullet, but supporting a content-rich curriculum is a step in the right direction. Muddying the waters with conspiracy theories and false fears is counterproductive.”
On another topic: the cost of a college education. The complaints keep rolling in. But is there any factual data that demonstrates that our colleges are not doing all they can to keep costs down? On September 7, John C. Goodman, on the web site Townhall (townhall.com), offered some examples to buttress the case of those who think that irresponsible spending is widespread in academia. He points to a recently built “resplendent $136 million student residence with leaded glass windows and a cavernous oak dining hall” at Princeton University; the “2,358 administrative staff in the president’s office alone” at the University of California; NYU’s $90 million “forgivable and low-interest loans” to administrators and faculty to buy vacation homes on Fire Island and in the Hamptons; the Tudor mansion for the president of Ohio State, which includes “$673,000 in art decor and a $532 shower curtain.”
We must keep in mind that the taxpayers subsidize these expenses through the student loan program, which pays the tuition, which paid for the $532 shower curtain. According to Goodman, “By 1981, the feds were spending $7 billion on student loans alone, an amount that doubled during the 1980s and nearly tripled in each of the following two decades, and is about $105 billion today. Taxpayers now stand behind nearly $1 trillion in student loans.”
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.