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Michael A. Smith: Common Core a breath of fresh air

  • Published Sunday, June 30, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Leo Strauss coined the phrase reductio ad Hitlerum to describe the logical fallacy of tying one’s opponent to Adolf Hitler by ridiculous means: a special kind of reductio ad absurdum. For example: Hitler was evil. Hitler had a mustache. Therefore, mustaches are evil.

Hitler was one of history’s truly vicious agents, but similar fallacies can be used to tie an idea to anyone one dislikes, such as President Obama.

A new term, reductio ad Obamnium, might best describe the backlash against Common Core standards. Recently, an amendment to defund Common Core failed by only four votes in the Legislature. Advocates vow a renewed effort next year.

Common Core should be a conservative triumph. Initiated by a bipartisan group of governors, it aims to replace the convoluted, overlapping regime of state No Child Left Behind standards. Instead, it proposes a relatively straightforward set of principles, voluntarily and jointly adopted by multiple states.

Supportive Republicans include current and former governors and education secretaries: Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige and Mitch Daniels.

Though no consensus exists to repeal the decade-old No Child law outright, the Obama administration found a work-around: granting the states waivers, upon approval of their own substitutes to the law. Conservatives have long championed such waivers, which portend less federal micromanagement.

I have helped many students wade through the baffling array of professional jargon and detailed control making up many pre-Common Core standards – no two states alike. Viewable at corestandards.org, Common Core is a breath of fresh air. For example, the English literature and social studies standards for high school juniors and seniors can be understood by a reasonable person with no education-school background.

English standards focus on students’ understanding of the texts they have read, including the authors’ use of language. For social studies, students evaluate an argument, separate fact from opinion, and review evidence for a claim.

Common Core opponents see the standards “paving the way to a federal takeover” and “taking control away from parents and communities.” I see little evidence for this in the actual standards. For example, regarding reading materials, the standards suggest a few books that are already classroom staples, but final decisions stay with teachers, communities, school boards or states.

Opponents rarely cite the standards themselves. Nor do they discuss Common Core’s beginnings as a voluntary, bipartisan state effort, its Republican supporters, or the waivers that soften the No Child Left Behind law’s controlling mandates. Only one thing matters: President Obama put his imprimatur on Common Core by including funding for it in the 2009 stimulus bill. Therefore, it must be stopped.

Opposed by the conservative Americans for Prosperity, Common Core is also meeting resistance in Georgia, Utah, California and elsewhere. At this rate, the standards may need revisions to teach future students the identification and avoidance of reductio ad Obamnium.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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