Why I’m Not Too Worked Up About Common Core

The history of compulsory schooling in the United States resembles the political history of Latin America, only its successes are fewer and shorter-lived. It is replete with failure, reform, reform of the reform, and more failed reform.

From the Common School Movement in the 1830′s, founded by Horace Mann, to the Common Core of today, there are identical language and themes along with unrealized and misguided aspirations throughout.

If you look at the reforms stretching from National Defense Act of 1957 and the Nation at Risk Report of 1983 to the more recent ones of No Child Left Behind in 2003 and Race to the Top in 2010, you will see what Ralph Ellison describes in the preface to Invisible Man: “mirrors of hard distorting glass.”

Common Core is no different.


If you look deeper, into the policy feeding tubes called “educational research,” you will find a large trough of social science, funded by grants that drive most major universities wild and loopy, all of them with a four to five year expiration dates. Maximum. Increasingly, post-positivistic psychological studies that mimic much of the ideas of the previous behaviorist dog training are in vogue.

This work depends on cheap, brittle, and ill-fitted “theory,” as a “conceptual framework,” and most of the theorists cited are theorizing about theories about other theories. These layers of theory and data and findings and prescriptions are built into a formulaic sandwich pile of research that is as dreadful to read as it sounds. What is most scary about this repetitive and profitable work, that often relies on epistemological assumptions that are outdated in more rigorous fields of study, is that it is being fed in bulk to children and parents and the public at large. And we never talk about reforming “educational research;” it speaks, so long as it is well funded, autocratically.

Add to that the publishers of textbooks, key among them Pearson, and other interested entities, like Sodexo, who poison feed children cheap shit to eat at lunchtime.

It is hard not to include here the entire professionalized class of school workers — including myself, a bonafide Gates Millennium Scholar — who range from counselors and social workers and therapists and Adderall prescribers to teachers and specialists and administrators and policy makers and technologists and smart boards and security cameras and more.


Home, private, and charter schoolers are not excluded from this list. More and more, assumptions about schooling are monolithic and the exceptions are just that. The differences are, with very few exceptions, cosmetic.

The utopian modern vision of compulsory common schooling, imported from Prussia in the 19th century, has never been realized, but it seems to increase in influence even as it is declared to be a failure by every successive generation since.

No one, from right to left, thinks that schooling is doing good on a large scale. Republicans and Democrats agree that schooling is a disaster. One side thinks we should give up the public project entirely, the other side thinks we should to adopt a truly public project for the first time. Each side seems to think that the other side is ruining everything and, in this respect, they are both absolutely correct.


Schooling has never been the same thing as education, but today’s iteration of schooling has become aggressively miseducative.

The first confusion is that we have given up on education and replaced it with a very limited notion of schooling. This confusion has resulted in the idea that “education” is about getting credentials and suitable work and, ultimately, money. The surest sign of a good school and an educated person and rancid success, we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking and feeling, is the one that produces the biggest paycheck.

This is an outright lie. There are more concrete contradictions to this logic than I care to mention here, but the lie has become a powerful and disastrous logic of its own.


So what do I think about Common Core? It’s bad. Not all bad. Nothing bad is all bad. The worst things have a nice personality, a charming smile. Altruism is very hard to root against.

But I find it impossible to get worked up about the Common Core which is, after all, another repetition of the last new idea and the one before that. The standards movement started a long, long time ago and teachers have never really had the agency we think they had and students have never been the most important things to schools. It’s all a matter of diminishing returns, in every direction.

Perhaps the greatest reformers of today are the drop outs and losers and the poor who refuse this message of schoolvation, even as they pay and suffer for it dearly.

The ruling classes have been, for the most part, educated in the same traditional way, in many of the same traditional schools that predate compulsory schools, for centuries. Meanwhile, the rest of us crack our heads trying to figure out how to learn basic skills that becomes more and more automated and basic as our lives degrade into Miley Cyrus and glowing rectangles.


The narrative that schooling isn’t working is a seductive lie. Modern compulsory schooling is working exactly the way it was built to work by the secular, colonial project of the modern West. All these so-called “problems” are like war: they require weaponry and create jobs and something to do and be mad about.

If you continue to believe in the nearly 200 year-old need to institutionalize human beings to produce a docile, domesticated class of sedate, productive, and self-protected candidates for economic actualization, things like school choice or democratic pedagogy — or education itself — don’t matter.

And that is why I am not too worked up about the Common Core.

I won’t get too worked up about whatever replaces it, either.



  • Bob

    You mention that compulsory schooling came from Prussia in the 19th century (when did it begin in Prussia?). What do you make of guilds during the middle ages that essentially forced the children of certain craftsmen to learn the craft of their father? Is this not compulsory as well?

    • SamRocha

      Depending on what hook you want to hang it on, it can go as far back as the 1760′s and late as the 1810′s. Horace Mann took at least two trips there during the 1830′s to check it out, so most American historians date it generally in the early 1800′s, based in part on Mann’s observations.

      Strictly speaking, guilds and other forms of “compulsory” things are not the same as compulsory schooling. They are in a generic sense, but the sense I use it in implies being state-sponsored, mandated, and enforced. It is schooling under penalty of (nation-state) law. If you want some historical treatments of this, feel free to drop me an e-mail and I can send you to a bunch of books. I also just published a philosophical study of compulsion as preventative defense, which I am also happy to share.

      • Bob

        In part I am trying to get at the issue of what schooling is compulsory rather than thinking about the question of compulsion. You seem in this article to be focusing on how the Common Core which is compulsively given to children is all apart of the same theme. What about compulsory European schooling that includes trade schools?

        • SamRocha

          There is a very well-researched historical record on this question, Bob. It coincides, overlaps, or anticipates the birth of the modern nation-state and a many other institutions. But the key sign of compulsory schooling are truancy laws. It is similar to taxation in this regard. The first laws in the US were ratified in the 1950′s, in Massachusetts and New York.

          I should add, however, that I am not only, in this post, talking about compulsory schooling, I am talking more generally about a ideology of schooling. Ivan Illich’s book, “Deschooling Society,” is, perhaps, the best take on that wider issue.

  • Almario Javier

    To play the devil’s advocate:

    There are things I do not like about Common Core (mainly its age-inappropriate content in English and parts of Social Studies), but I really think there needs to be at least a national curriculum of some sort. I mean, do we really want to fall behind the Red Chinese? You mention the Prussians and Germans started this in the 19th Century – you know why? Because they wanted to gain an advantage over the French and British. That’s why there were similar pushes in the 50′s – we didn’t want to be less technically competent than the Red Menace.

    Seriously, though, whatever the merits of deschooling, or recentering schooling to be about education once again, I just don’t see us being able to do it, unless we want to be the laughing stock of the Great Powers. It’s essentially an educational arms race, only, because education in itself can’t destroy the Earth several times over, provides no real incentive for any Great Power to back down.

    • SamRocha

      Yes indeed. The Napoleonic Wars in particular were a major influence on Prussia, but the Prussian University was also a factor. Historical details aside, you’re point is well taken, and I think until the arms race, many of the schooling agendas made sense for their (limited) purposes. At this point, however, I am not so sure that the purposes are clear, nor are the justifications for the present-day reforms. For instance, there are at least two competing narratives that run together in the rhetoric of so-called “educational reform”: the first is equality, the second is economic and national competition. The former is from the left, the latter from the right. In both cases the actual ideas are poor fits for the intended outcomes.

      But you’re right, I am after something bigger than just political or economic outcomes. Deschooling as concept is less about the abolition of modern compulsory schooling and more about making another (powerful) critique of modernity. This is where the extremes of right and left, actually share some solidarity against the liberal moderation of the center. But that’s something I should, perhaps, take up in a another post. Thanks!

  • David_Naas

    As one who was able to go to college thanks to an NDEA grant (National Defense Education Act — the Rooshians put up a satellite, we gotta do something !!) may I say, schooling we will always have with us, because those half-educated entities known as “politicians” do not understand “education”, only “training”.
    Education, on the other hand, is something that a person must desire for one’s own self, and it takes a lifetime.