Power  /  Book Review

Common Core Is a Menace to Pluralism and Democracy

But can locally empowered communities really fix our schools' problems?
Library of Congress/Wikimedia

Tampio agrees with many Americans on the left and the right that we are too diverse a nation to adopt a national curriculum. He makes this point explicitly in his discussion of the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History Standards. Efforts to determine the content of American history—and American identity—are inherently political. Because they are political, they should be subject to politics. And because they are subject to politics, citizens should be allowed to decide what schools teach. He thus urges policymakers to “empower local communities to decide their standards for the teaching and learning of history.”

Tampio is a principled pluralist. While he admires John Dewey, he argues that communities should be free to choose curricula that align with their values. It is notable therefore that he offers almost no discussion of school choice: it may be that he is agnostic on charter schools and vouchers. For some Americans, including our current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, our country’s diversity means that we can no longer be schooled together. According to DeVos, “school choice is about recognizing parents’ inherent right to choose what is best for their children” (her words). But Tampio is committed to education as a public good. Throughout the book he seeks to empower citizens as citizens. Communities may choose different curricula and pedagogy, but these choices must be made democratically by local majorities, not privately by family values.

Tampio believes that national standards worsen education, especially when linked to high-stakes testing. He criticizes the way such testing has limited flexibility and forced schools to spend less time on the arts and other subject matter. In his examination of the English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Tampio rejects claims that the CCSS establishes standards but not content. Because of high-stakes tests, principals and teachers have an incentive to focus on raising scores, which “places confines around what teachers and students may do.”

More precisely, the ELA standards mandate “close reading.” While this might have a New Critical ring to it, in reality it is about creating skills-based tests that do not rely on content. The result is that students’ background knowledge, whether gained from study or experience, is deemed irrelevant. All the things that make reading worthwhile would undermine the test’s validity. Therefore, students are not taught to read for knowledge nor to appreciate literature, but instead to achieve literacy, a skill necessary for college and career readiness.

Tampio argues eloquently about the importance of democratic education. After reading his book one cannot help but conclude that, paradoxically, the Common Core raises standards while lowering our expectations of what schools are for.