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Joy Pullmann discussed her new book, The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids, with our own Ben Weingarten. What follows is a full transcript of their discussion, slightly modified for clarity.
You can also listen to their interview in its entirety below. And be sure to subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store.
Ben Weingarten: Joy, in contrast to a classical liberal arts core education, you write that Common Core, and I quote here, “falls short in building a solid foundation of cultural knowledge and in teaching practical skills.” How did we transition from a proven system that creates citizens who are knowledgeable, critical thinkers — and steeped in core civic principles — with this education system that we see today?
Joy Pullmann: Well, that’s a really big question. And it took 250 years. And of course, there are going to be a lot of factors that go into that. For example, I’m just going to state this and then sideline it, but I do think that one of the big contributors to the growing ruination of American education that nobody wants to talk about is the erosion of the family. I always get annoyed that we talk about all of these inputs, we talk about all of these programs, but nobody talks about the unraveling of the American family. And that obviously has a very serious effect on kids’ ability to learn.
But I have to put that aside because, of course, we’re talking today about Common Core. And so, in that vein, I think another major contributor to the erosion of the quality of American education — and this has been really well-documented — is the centralization of power away from parents and very small, school-level communities.
Local school districts used to be really neighborhood-sized, and nowadays you have sometimes tens of thousands of children inside what is called a district, and that’s really not local control in my opinion.
So we keep basically enacting the same principles since the 1950s, and expecting a different result. And then we’re shocked when the result of increased centralization is worse inefficiency, higher costs, and stupider children.
Ben Weingarten: And you, early on in your book, describe Common Core, and a bone that you have to pick with Common Core about consent of governed issues. You write, and I quote, that “Common Core is as big a change in education as Obamacare is in health care, but unlike Obamacare it needed no votes in Congress to become national policy. It garnered practically no notice from the media before the Obama administration, in concert with largely unelected state bureaucrats and a shadow bureaucracy of private organizations, locked it in nationwide. That meant no public debate before the scheme was imposed upon a country supposedly run with the consent of the governed.” And in reading that, is it fair to think of Common Core as, in essence, an extension of the administrative state?
Joy Pullmann: Absolutely. Absolutely…You hit on one of my favorite topics — I should say, my most hated topics, therefore about which I like to rant the most. But absolutely. Common Core, I think, is basically an expression of the administrative state. And what the administrative state is is a vast, unaccountable, unelected bureaucracy that, because it isn’t accountable, Americans who pay the salaries of all these people cannot fire them, cannot tell them what to do, so on and so forth. And they unite all the faculties of the three branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, very often. So it’s a very un-American system of government that has grown up in this country and that we are now governed by, and Common Core is a representation of that.
Ben Weingarten: How did a curriculum that was euphemistically described as state-led actually become advanced through a combination of big business and big government to essentially nationalize education in America?
Joy Pullmann: Basically through the administrative state.
Let me just hit a couple of the major milestones. In my book, I go through a history of what is called the “standards movement” in education because American education has actually been notably declining since the 1950s. And there have been lots of different measures that people have objectively shown to be the case.
And so, ever since then, Americans have been…Politicians, interest groups, and the like have been proposing ways to remedy this problem. And basically, what we keep doing is…The title of another book by American Enterprise Institute scholar, Frederick Hess, The Same Thing Over and Over. So we keep basically enacting the same principles since the 1950s, and expecting a different result. And then we’re shocked when the result of increased centralization is worse inefficiency, higher costs, and stupider children.
Anyway, if we’re gonna talk about “How did all of this happen?”…I talk in my book, there’s documentation to show that enacting Common Core was deliberately facilitated through non-elected, private, special interest groups in order to give it the appearance of being state-led because in previous attempts at nationalizing American education directly through Congress, the American people rejected it soundly. They just failed.
“Because this was done in private organizations instead of a state house, instead of Congress, the American people have no right of transparency.”
And so the people for whom that is a policy priority said…And I quote, and I cite these folks in my book, they said, “Well, Americans, basically they’re too dumb to know what’s good for them. They don’t like the idea of Washington running their local schools. And in fact, Americans still don’t like the idea of Washington running their local schools. National polls continue to show that.”
“So, since Americans are so parochial and not really informed of their best interest to have an education czar running their local schools from Washington, we’re going to do it on their behalf and in their name through a coalition of private interest groups.”
And that’s exactly how Common Core went into place.
There’s three organizations that came together to create Common Core, and they are creatures of the administrative state. They are technically nonprofit organizations, but in the book, I go through their tax returns. They receive a very large amount of money from federal and state taxpayers through both dues and government contracts. They’re quasi-government — they’re basically government sponges. And so these organizations, which have no legal authority — nobody elected them — no Constitution, no law says that they are in charge of education policy anywhere, nevertheless, they took it upon themselves to get together and create Common Core.
And they did this with funding from the Gates Foundation, which, I’ve just been re-running the numbers again, updating them since the book came out, and I think in the book we have a quarter of a billion dollars that Gates spent on enacting and pushing Common Core, and that has increased to a third of a billion dollars, more than $300 million.
So with that money, these three organizations got together, again, a bunch of unelected people to basically write Common Core. They farmed out little pieces of it to committees. They had a long, complicated, drawn-out process.
But the important thing to me, like you mentioned earlier, is the consent part of it. Because this was done in private organizations instead of a state house, instead of Congress, the American people have no right of transparency. Even though we paid for Common Core to be created in part, and even though we have to live under its regime in our public schools, we still don’t know who paid for what, who wrote what words of Common Core, what their credentials are, who vetted it. All of this is opaque. It’s not subject to Freedom of Information, Sunshine Law sorts of requirements.
This is actually really common in public policy nowadays, as you mentioned, because government has gotten so big that it’s very, very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to watchdog it. You would have to have investigative reporters who cared more about uncovering what government is doing in the name and with the money of the people, than they do about running flippy stories about the Kardashian family or whatever.
“The American curriculum is overall a heap of junk, and so are our testing systems.”
Anyway, so they created it, and then they went directly to the Obama administration which Congress had, in all its wisdom, given basically a strings-free pot of money for the education department. And Gates Foundation officials had phone calls, regular check-up phone calls with Obama administration officials, and they put into place this scheme by which they would bribe all the states into it. It was called Race to the Top.
So the Obama administration, during the panic years of 2008 and 2009, when we were having an economic crisis, went to the states and said, “Hey, you might be able to win a couple of hundred thousand, maybe a million dollars from the federal government for education projects, as long as you do all these things to make us happy for a shot at it.” Mind you, a couple hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars sounds like a lot to you and me, we could be set for life if we had that money, but in terms of education funding, it’s a drop in the bucket.
So states were coming to the federal government, hat in hand, to get less than one percent of their annual education funding for a one-time-only program that committed them to much more spending than they got out of it. And only a handful of states ended up being winners anyway.
One of the criteria for just applying for this program included adopting standards that are common to a majority of states, standards being mandates for what tests and curriculum have to contain. And of course the only thing that fit that definition was Common Core. And in fact, Common Core itself was in the original draft regulations that the Obama administration wanted to put out, but at the last minute they changed it to a definition that only fit Common Core, without mentioning it because they were afraid of the political backlash.
Obviously it’s long and complicated, and there’s lots of other things, but those are basically the milestones. The milestones are created under the auspices of private organizations that nobody can see what they’re doing, even though taxpayers pay for their activities. And then second, the Obama administration comes to states, holds a carrot in front of their little noses and says, “Come get it, little donkeys,” and they all came running.
The kicker to me is that the state signed contracts with the federal government, promising that they would do a complete overhaul of all their curriculum and testing, and this was all before even a draft of Common Core was available. They had no idea what they were going to have kids learning in schools. They had no idea what the tests would look like. And they still said, “Sure, sounds good to me. We believe that whatever you promise is gonna come through.” To me that’s unconscionable. It’s completely an abdication of the responsibility of public officials.
Ben Weingarten: Before we delve into the practical consequences of the foisting on the American people of Common Core, in terms of the degradation of methods of teaching, the content of the curriculum, and the standards to which students are held, one fundamental basic question that one has to ask is: The Gates Foundation, for example, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this project. What did they get for it? What was the benefit for them?
Joy Pullmann: That’s an interesting question. In the course of reporting on this and writing the book, I called up the Gates Foundation repeatedly and they refused comment constantly, so I could not get the side of the story from them. What I did in my book and for researching the book was try to find everything the foundation officials including Bill and Melinda Gates themselves had ever said about Common Core. And I honestly do think that they mean well.
The Gates Foundation, as I note in the book, is the world’s largest foundation. It has as much money to spend as do some entire countries. So when Gates comes in and starts throwing money around, basically their money supply is limitless, and so that attracts a lot of attention. It gets politicians, it gets bureaucrats, it gets foundations very excited, because if they just do what Gates wants, they’re going to be cashing in, and that is no joke.
So, I do think Bill Gates looked at the problems in American education, and I do agree with him that there are problems. There are some critics of him and of Common Core who think that all that American education needs is some more money and some more teachers’ aids, and everything will be fine. That’s not me. I don’t think the problem is lack of money.
I do agree that the American curriculum is overall a heap of junk, and so are our testing systems. And I’m also a testing supporter. I believe in a strong rigorous core curriculum.
So there’s a lot of points of disagreement that I have with Bill Gates, but where I think that he and his wife fundamentally went wrong was arrogance, because it is very easy for someone with a trillion dollars to think he can just walk into a school and throw his money all over the place and that’s going to magically fix the problems.
That’s just not the way things are. Human beings are not rational economic actors. Education systems involve people, and so do political systems. You can’t just run roughshod over them or just come in and give them a script to read and assume that, “Okay, if we just get the script…” It’s not like a computer program. In a computer program, and I’ve done a very small amount of coding, if you just get the coding right the program will run. People are not machines. You can’t feed them the Common Core coding and spit out a productive human being. That’s not how it works.
“It is very easy for someone with a trillion dollars to think he can just walk into a school and throw his money all over the place and that’s going to magically fix the problems.”
So I think the fundamental flaw is treating human beings like machines and having the arrogance to think that simply because he has money and obviously a lot of intelligence, everyone in America should follow his political plan for education.
Ben Weingarten: I think what you just described is an inherent weakness, maybe the inherent weakness, in progressive ideology altogether. So, thank you for summarizing that.
Joy Pullmann: Absolutely.
Ben Weingarten: Now jumping to what the substance of the Common Core curriculum actually is…When I was in elementary school, only a couple of decades ago, I recall getting a piece of paper with a hundred arithmetic problems and being timed to solve those problems as fast as I could.
Joy Pullmann: I did the same.
Ben Weingarten: You describe a scenario where it takes eight minutes to do a simple addition problem. How did that happen? What happened to math?
Joy Pullmann: And the little girl gets the answer wrong.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah. How does that happen?
Joy Pullmann: Well, there’s a lot of things within Common Core that lead to that scenario. You and I have been talking a lot about abstract things, like public policy, big ideas and the interaction between philanthropy and government. But in my book I do try to show some respect for the fact that people want to see how this looks in real life. And so, I went to a number of schools where Common Core was in action, and in one instance I went to one that has been held up as an exemplar of putting Common Core in place. And they did. They had very clearly well-organized teachers and administrators, their Common Core plan was very good. They had in fact received a federal grant to get it in gear earlier than a lot of other school districts, so they were really on top of this Common Core thing.
I walk into a first grade classroom, and I just observed the teacher teaching what has now become infamous on social media, a Common Core math problem. And I also have to say…So, here’s one of those instances where it’s really awkward to criticize something, because I see that there are some merits to this approach. I do. There’s research and there’s experience showing that, when done well, doing abstract math with concrete objects, such as what look like Tetris cubes, foam blocks, plastic blocks, can be very helpful especially for young elementary children in helping them understand that numbers can go with objects, and helping them work through the basic ideas of mathematics. And so, if you do that at a young age and blend that in to your mathematics instruction, it can help kids jet ahead to that advanced math and prepare them for a really high-powered capacity to do that in their college years and in their professional life.
So all of that is to say I am not actually even one of the people who insist that school has to be all worksheets and all math drill, though I also support lots of math fact drills, but the point being that Common Core inflicts upon…A lot of the things that parents are complaining about with the complexity of Common Core math is what they call “problems with implementation.”
Most teachers are not very well versed in math. They have very low math test scores, and of course this isn’t every single one, but on average, your elementary teacher is not only bad at math herself, she hasn’t been taught well how to teach basic math. So she is not well-prepared to help children. That’s not fair to the teachers or the kids.
So then, when you hand teachers a complex, conceptual math curriculum, and when Common Core tells teachers that they have to have kids counting dots, drawing boxes around things, drawing hash marks, using lots and lots of little tiny buttons and things, and then they convey that to their children…What happens is that Common Core treated teaching like it would be if you had a dual Math and Elementary Education PhD, when that’s just not the sort of teachers they’re working with.
“That’s what happens when you have people who have never set foot in the classroom telling every single classroom in the nation what ought to happen inside.”
The average elementary school teacher needs to be given a curriculum that is plug and play…The children need that too. They need a lot of specific focus on doing basic math functions over and over again, because if they do not get addition, multiplication, subtraction and division down solid by middle school, they will never be able to go on to higher math no matter how many times they play with foam blocks.
Anyway, so what Common Core does is tries to jet children ahead to that advanced math, and it doesn’t help teachers along the way. It has very obscure language, and it reverses the order in which you ought to do this good math instruction. Instead of helping teachers to give kids the advanced thing, it tries to do that and utterly fails, and therefore leaves schools in a worse state than they were before Common Core arrived.
Ben Weingarten: What has become of the social sciences under Common Core?
Joy Pullmann: Yeah, that’s a good question, because the Common Core tries to have a lot of things both ways in many, many respects. And so for example, one of those, and I’ll get to your social sciences question in just a second, but one of those is by saying, “Well, we are not telling teachers what to teach, but at the same time we’re going to dramatically change and improve American instruction.” Well, either you are going to tell teachers what to teach and therefore that’s going to improve instruction — because that implies what they’re doing now is not working and it needs to change — or you’re not telling teachers what to teach and nothing changes. So you can’t have those both ways.
So another way in which Common Core does exactly that is in the social sciences. So technically, or in popular parlance, Common Core is supposed to apply only to math, and in English literature reading. But actually, the English portion of Common Core includes in its title and the rest of its documents a sprinkling of things that are outside the realm of English literature. So the title of it includes…I don’t have it in front of me, but something to the effect of “The Common Core English Language Art Standards and for the Social Sciences and Technical Subjects.” Common Core’s English assumes to expand and cover the rest of the curriculum as well. So the ways that Common Core says to treat, they call it texts, anything that you can read, so that would be maybe your science textbook, it would be maybe your history anthology. It wants you “Common Coring” those subjects as well, and Common Core extends its domain over those subjects.
And so, it does that, and I talk about this in the book, but really…My book focuses on not the content of Common Core as much as it does trying to get a broad overview that’s accessible to a lay audience of it. So the best one for this is called The Story-Killers by Terrence Moore, a principal of a public school that used the classical method down in Atlanta, Georgia. He talks in his book about how Common Core in English literature…it both says that you’re supposed to be using Common Core English techniques in your science and history, social science classes, and it also says in English classes you should be pulling in historical social science, science, and technical subject materials to study in English class.
And not only does this really do a bad job of giving to children what they need in an English class in order to be prepared to be an American citizen — a productive American citizen — which would be exposure to the core literary canon that is part of Western Civilization. It also used crummy college literature analysis techniques, and throws them at middle schoolers and at high schoolers.
This is another instance of, like in math, Common Core gives to children and teachers something that they’re not very well-equipped to do, and it spreads them really thin, and just doesn’t really support their ability to do something that sounds really highfalutin and high-minded. But again it falls apart when you try.
For example, on Common Core’s reading list which has been roundly unlocked, it includes regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. I talked with an awarded, many-years-long English teacher, stellar, very good reviews. Her kids were just acing the tests that they were taking…beautiful, beautiful works of literature that she’s exposing to the kids in their classroom. She was forced to chop units on King Arthur in order to give the kids crappy modern social science from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which has been debunked by lots of actual scientists. He’s just a popular journalist, and his work is not even good social science. She was forced to get rid of King Arthur legends in order to teach your kids like that. Again, that’s what happens when you have people who have never set foot in the classroom telling every single classroom in the nation what ought to happen inside.
Ben Weingarten: You referenced the idea of essentially educating “citizens” in the classical sense of the word, and the importance of the Western canon, and the great works of literature and fundamental subject matter knowledge that one must gain to function and think critically in society. And you also talk at the end of your book about John Dewey, and the progressive education system and how that has permeated our education system over the last century. Could it be that those who support Common Core know that it’s defective in terms of what is actually imparted to children, but feel that they are creating the perfect population of people to fit the ideal progressive man?
Joy Pullmann: Oh, what an interesting question. I think largely, no, but maybe a little bit of yes. I believe in good faith argumentation. I have clashed publicly with a lot of supporters of Common Core, and I do think that they do sincerely believe that supporting Common Core is going to help children. I’ve talked with a lot of teachers who are Common Core supporters, it’s the same thing. I do not think that they have nefarious aims. I think that Common Core may align with a lot of their previous political ideologies, or just their general philosophical view of the world, which nowadays tends to be culturally positioned left, but again, I think that they mean well.
But the slight part where I say “maybe a little bit of yes” in there is because I’m thinking of the testimony that a fellow, who is one of the lead writers of Common Core, gave before the Massachusetts State Board of Education, basically in which he admitted that Common Core does not really prepare children for a good college. It prepares them…because Common Core promises to people, you hear the branding, and you hear, “college- and career-ready.” Every single child, ready for college or career. And you think, “Wow, that is a great thing,” that every child will be going out of high school, set up to succeed in life. That’s really great branding.
Common Core really is built on an impossible lie, that all children are suited for the same sorts of endeavors in life.
But the fellow who helped write Common Core itself, in his public testimony revealed that that branding is deception. You tell parents in the public “college,” and then what he says in his public testimony is, “Well, I know that it’s not…Common Core does not deliver the math necessary to get into a selective college, but it’s good enough for a community college.” And of course I’m paraphrasing. I have the actual quotes in my book, but that’s basically what he says. He is displaying right there, “It’s good enough for your kids,” which I think is fundamentally unfair.
I do not think college is for everyone. I apply this to my own children. If I have a son or daughter who grows up and says, “I want to be an auto repair mechanic. I want to be a garbage man.” That is great. Those are great jobs. That is a great way to serve your neighbors and contribute to your community. So this isn’t something that I’m saying to other people that I don’t apply to my own family.
What he is realizing there is basically the truth of my claim, that it is impossible to create a program of education that has everyone heading to college, that brings everyone up to the same level. This is a fact that American society has always recognized. So Common Core really is built on an impossible lie, that all children are suited for the same sorts of endeavors in life. Everybody is not going to be happy reading books all day in college, which is what you should be doing if you go there.
I had students in middle and high school classes who are very smart, and today are earning more money than I am, even though they’re younger than me and they don’t have a college degree, because they chose professions that are in high demand. They’re skilled laborers. And those kids, when I was teaching them, we enjoyed classic literature together…Anyway, I did not envision for them that college was the end-all and be-all for their life. They are happy and productive people not having gone.
The problem of folks creating Common Core is that they’re trying to say that equality is sameness, and the way that they carry that out in life proves the falsehood of that. They are saying that kids are only equal if we all stuff them in college staring at philosophy, or staring at college-level math, and it’s not a denigration of their person to say that not all people are thrilled by that, or they can contribute in many other ways. That’s just a recognition of the real diversity in humanity, and it’s not saying that they’re lesser citizens. They’re equally American citizens who just have different talents.
This is one of those things where you say, in the name of social justice, in the name of equality for all, we are increasing inequality, we are decreasing the cohesiveness of American culture because we’re reducing the ability of kids to have exposure to that great literature that is a part of our heritage, and that establishes our identity as Americans. And it’s a bad thing for society no matter how well it’s been intended.
Ben Weingarten: The silver lining to Common Core is that Americans have sought out alternative models of education. What did you find there in doing your research for this book?
Joy Pullmann: A large part of my book has a very sad and disillusioning message, because it basically says Common Core…especially in the era of Trump, I have come to see that Common Core taught me a lot about what was underneath what ultimately led to Donald Trump becoming President. And the disillusionment, the lack of voice that Americans feel about the political process, that’s all there. It was all there before anyone ever thought that Donald Trump might ever be President.
And so, the book is also a personal journey, and a journey with a lot of these other moms and dads who are trying to get Common Core out of their kid’s classroom, and finding that their local schools that they trusted, their local representatives that they trusted, their state houses are all corrupt. It’s impossible. We don’t have representation in return for our taxation. This isn’t just me saying cynical, random stuff. This is something Dr. Charles Murray talks about in his latest book, We The People, about how the administrative state has broken America. And Common Core is a part of that discussion.
I believe in realism and looking at things accurately, but I do actually have optimism, because even though it is a tragic thing that so many American children are getting less than they could have because of Common Core, or their school systems, their teaching environments have been thrown into chaos because they’ve been forced to revamp everything that they do in order to convert to a completely untried, unproven amalgamation of ideas by a bunch of crackpots who have never taught a child in their life…So that is disheartening, and it’s wrong, and it’s unjust. But that’s not the only part of the story.
When people feel pain, it gives them motivation to move, as anyone who’s ever had maybe a scary health diagnosis has learned. All of a sudden, you start exercising and eating right, when you should have been doing that all before. It’s the same thing with Common Core. When parents found their kids coming home at night crying about their math homework, when they saw them coming home just reading garbage in their textbooks, absolute garbage, when they could be reading classic fairy tales, they could be reading eyewitness accounts of people who were there with General George Washington, and so on and so forth. There’s so much better that schools could do for children that they’re not, and they’re wasting their times on trivialities. When parents see that, their love for their children motivates them to look for something better.
And if I’m disillusioned with the system, I have a lot of faith still in the American people, because when I go around the country, and I see moms and dads who — yeah, they’ve lost their faith in these institutions of America — they aren’t going crazy, they aren’t riding in the streets. Instead, they’re doing the quiet work of getting an education for their kids, and that has trickle down effects that ultimately benefit their communities. Families are starting homeschool co-ops. They are putting their kids in good private schools. I talked to a number of families for whom Common Core motivated them to completely start brand-new private schools.
There is a lot of good happening out in “flyover country” that we don’t hear everyday in the maelstrom of national 24/7 cable news, which just drives me…The older I get, the more and more it drives me crazy. But Middle America has…There’s a lot of mess there, but there’s also a lot of good, and I found that in researching this book. And if pain motivates people to get better, well, that is a silver lining.