Thirty years ago this month, Americans were startled to learn that their underachieving public schools were undermining the future prosperity and security of the nation. "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people," a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned, adding, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
In the ensuing three decades, billions of federal dollars have been spent on efforts to improve public education, including the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top funding for urban inner-city schools. The latest is Common Core, which standardizes curriculum requirements at the national level and used what pundit Hayden Smith calls "$4.35 billion worth of carrots swinging in front of 50 hungry rabbits" to convince 46 states and the District of Columbia to adopt it.
Four holdouts -- Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia -- were considered outliers for turning down the offer. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell recently defended that decision, saying, "We don't need the federal government ... telling us how to run our schools in Virginia." And lawmakers in 18 states -- part of a growing backlash against Common Core's one-size-fits-all nationalized standards and erosion of local and state control -- agree with him. A growing campaign by parents to opt their children out of standardized testing aligned with Common Core is also threatening the program.
Conservatives rightly oppose Common Core's federalization of education standards. Educators fear that it will wind up dragging down exceptional students. But much of the backlash is opposition to the stimulus-funded data-mining provisions, which allow the federal government to create a vast database of personal information not limited to students' academic records -- and share it with government agencies and other organizations without parents' knowledge or consent.
In an article published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Neil Cukier and Victoria Mayer-Schonberger warn that "in a world of big data, it is the most human traits that will need to be fostered -- creativity, intuition, and intellectual ambition -- since human ingenuity is the source of progress." Those traits are much more likely to be cultivated in schools that are open, accountable to parents and run at the local level.