Making a stand against Common Core and dull non-debates

A couple of reality checks in the aftermath of the foolish arrest of Robert Small at that forum last week on the new Common Core curriculum standards for public education — one about style, one about substance.

First, about the form of this forum: I've attended many of these, and the experience is often eye-glazing. A panel of government officials or experts sits at a table and, after opening remarks, they take questions from the audience.

The most engaging forums allow audience members to stand and ask a question. But that kind of forum, in the style of the New England town meeting, is increasingly a thing of the past.

Today, public forums are controlled, time-limited affairs; they hardly ever turn raucous or run to midnight. Civility is great, and we all deserve to be home in time for "Monday Night Football." But sometimes civility and efficiency get in the way of open, challenging and edifying debate.

The dullest forums are those that require questions to be submitted in writing, which is the format state education officials chose last week in Towson.

(In fairness, a lot of information about the way things work — in government, business, education — is mundane, dull and ordinary. Facts can be pretty blah things. A big part of public forums is the transmission from officials to citizens of facts, so they're not the stinger-a-minute snarkfests that entertainment-hungry Americans have come to expect from talk radio and talking-head cable.)

While the written-question style of forum is time-efficient and comfortable for the people running the show, the audience tends to grumble. There's an assumption that filtering takes place. If you're a public education official committed to implementing Common Core, you're less inclined to take a critical-sounding question. I'm not saying that happened at the Towson forum; I'm saying the audience in any forum of this type suspects the officials on stage are being selective about what questions they pull from the pile.

So I appreciate Small's moment as a protest against that style of formal, predictable discourse. He broke protocol and stood to ask a question, though his question sounded more like a statement. (One of the reasons for the written-question format: Audience members tend to launch into speeches.)

Small should not have been pulled from the meeting, much less arrested. He should have been directed to ask a question, then asked to sit down.

Had that happened, we probably never would have heard about him.

But that might have been Small's mission in breaking protocol — to draw attention to his complaint with Common Core.

And that's cool, except he's late. Education officials aren't really entertaining debate. Common Core is being implemented. The time for debate seems to have been a couple of years ago.

Let's be honest about this: Unless you had a child in the public education system and were paying attention, you weren't aware of Common Core until the last few months, and only then because of news about the hiccups in its implementation. If someone were to ask you about American education policy, you would more likely mention the federal No Child Left Behind law than Common Core.

So the purpose of the Towson forum, hosted by the Maryland State Department of Education, was to introduce Common Core to the public and answer questions about it — not to debate it.

The Common Core standards came out of a collaboration of educators, experts and researchers to provide a clear national standard for what kids are expected to learn. In the words of the Common Core website: "The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers."

Forty-five states have adopted Common Core.

Small's concern is that it dumbs down public education, to the point where he said that it will better prepare kids for community college than for Harvard. That's not what the developers of Common Core say. They say the new curriculum and standards raise the bar to give the nation a new generation of smart, young adults who think critically and solve problems.

Other critics are what I call the usual suspects — conservative condemners of anything new and innovative, skeptics of any "common" purpose coming from any authority, especially the federal government. They are the same people who condemn Obamacare and keep trying to subvert its implementation.

I'm not certain Common Core is the best thing for the next generation of Americans. But I know this: Someone needs to develop curricula and set standards for the 21st century. We entrust professional educators — people who in my experience love teaching and care deeply about kids — to make those decisions.

Most of us do not have time or interest to be involved in that complex process. Right or wrong, Small also took a stand for that — to be a parent actively engaged in what kids are taught. That voice needs to be heard, not arrested — and preferably before it's all over but the shouting.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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