Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy by Nicholas Tampio, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 216 pages

The federal government has been involved in public education since before the Constitution was ratified. In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (renewed in 1789), the federal government mandated that land in new territories be set aside for the purpose of public education. This ensured that state legislators would have education on their minds when managing the land and distributing funds.

After the Civil War, the federal government pushed to expand public education in the South. The federal impact was most fully felt, however, after World War II. That was when the feds mandated desegregation, leading some states to shut down their schools rather than allow all Americans to attend the same schools. And then, under President Lyndon Johnson, the government started providing federal funds for schools that served underprivileged children.

For most of its history, then, the federal government’s role was to encourage investment and promote equality. It did not enter the classroom. This changed during the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school prayer and the reading of the Bible. Suddenly, the federal government’s role had shifted from the background to foreground.

Yet no federal policies have reached so deeply into classrooms as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. Both pressed states to hold schools accountable to national benchmarks. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, established literacy and math standards for K-12 classes in order to ensure that all Americans graduate “college and career ready.” While not technically a federal project, Obama incentivized states to embrace CCSS by linking federal funding to its adoption.

Nicholas Tampio, a political science professor at Fordham, became involved in education when he saw the impact of national standards on his son’s classroom. In his new book, Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy, he offers an important contribution to the conversation on education policy. Trained as a political theorist, Tampio lays out the best arguments for national standards, such as uniformity, equity, and economic preparation, and then provides thoughtful rebuttals. He encourages readers to think through all sides of these arguments for themselves.

At the heart of Tampio’s book is his democratic commitment to pluralism. “Large, pluralistic democracies such as the United States should not adopt national education standards,” Tampio proclaims. Instead democracies must promote “diverse ways of living and thinking” by empowering local citizens and professional teachers to make real choices about what and how to teach. By imposing national standards designed by a small set of elites, the Common Core not only bypassed democratic procedures but, Tampio concludes, “has made education and civic life worse.”

Tampio worries that national standards are dangerous because of what James Madison long ago described as the problem of factions. Drawing from Madison’s famous discussion in the Federalist Papers, Tampio argues that the Common Core was designed by a faction of powerful interests. True enough. The problem is that Madison at the time was advocating for the Constitution’s adoption because he believed that an extended republic would be less likely to fall prey to factions than localities. Madison’s logic was simple—the smaller the community, the easier it is for a faction to get a majority. Tampio does not explain why Madison’s worries about local tyranny are not relevant. Desegregation, after all, required the federal government’s use of legal and actual force in the face of massive resistance.

Tampio offers a stronger argument for decentralization when he promotes the specific goods of localism and pluralism. Localism encourages what he calls “the good of participation.” Drawing from Alexis de Tocqueville, Tampio argues that “top-down education reforms alienate parents from the schools and civic life in general.” Local control is therefore a fundamental principle in a democracy and a practical one, too: “keeping education local means that schooling tends to be more vibrant, people feel more connected to their communities, and children learn what democracy means by seeing it in practice every day.”

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.

Schools in a democracy have a tough job. They are supposed to liberate individuals’ capabilities, prepare people to be active and ethical citizens, and reproduce the social order, while balancing expert guidance against citizen governance. These goals are in tension. Liberating individuals can mean freeing them from the very social order that people expect schools to reproduce. Thus, religious conservatives want to protect their children from secular liberalism, while multiculturalists want to protect minorities from assimilation. Schools empower students to be critical thinkers, but they must also encourage patriotism. We want to prepare the young for economic success, but also persuade them that there’s more to life than getting ahead.

Tampio makes clear that the current round of reforms are failing us, that they’re sucking the life out of classrooms and taking power away from teachers, citizens, and parents. But where to go next? We are at a crossroads in the history of American education. The future may well look different from the past. Perhaps we can take a cue from Aristotle. Moderation is a virtue. Too much patriotism is dangerous, but so is too little. Critical thinking is a good thing, but if divorced from worthy ends, it becomes instrumental. (That is why it is perilous to reduce our aspirations for public education to “college and career readiness.”) With Madison, we can see localism as virtue and vice. There is no silver bullet, despite the ambitions of the Common Core’s drafters. Indeed, Tampio cautions against the temptation to find one answer. Instead, democratic education, like democracy, is an ongoing project.

Johann Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University and author of Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017).