What is Common Core? How did it start–and who drove it? Are the standards high? How will it change our understanding of authentic college-level work? Are Common Core proponents well-intentioned? Or are they DC office-sitters who’ve rarely had any direct impact on a school or classroom but who really believe that they deserve control of key levers of education policy? What is the purpose of education? These are the kinds of questions that make up the greater part of the storyline of Building the Machine, a documentary film produced by the Home School Legal Defense Association.
- The director, Ian Reid, shows a real ability to tell a story and the technical chops to keep it visually interesting. The timing and intersection of sound and visuals are pretty darn good. Kudos.
- Ben Botkin‘s accompanying music has a Hans Zimmer/Batman feel to it. It works well with the film. (Check out his other music here.)
As a documentary, you have to start with a basic question: Is it fair? The view of Cathy Duffy, who provides reviews of home school materials, is pretty indicative of what I hear from people; that is, the filmmakers show a lot of respect for proponents of Common Core:
I very much appreciate that those who created this movie contacted supporters of the Common Core to get their perspective. The few that responded are included so that we can understand that while they are well-intentioned, their philosophical outlook seems very much at odds with that of those who prefer smaller government and individual freedom. The movie allows them to present their arguments without trying to portray them as evil or silly.
Given that 16 of the 18 proponents of Common Core contacted refused to appear on film, that’s a pretty remarkable attempt at objectivity.
What about the storyline — the actual substance? Mike McShane makes a solid observation about the film at AEI’s blog site:
The most powerful four minutes of the 40 minute film occurs at the halfway point. It shows Sandra Stotsky (off screen) grilling Jason Zimba, the architect of the Mathematics standards, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Zimba admits that, far from the cry of high quality, internationally benchmarked, and world-class, the standards offer “a minimal definition college-readiness,” that would not apply to selective colleges (or even most R1 universities, it appears) or for students that want to major in a STEM subject.
As he said it, I leaned back on my couch and inhaled the way I do when I see a power forward streaking across the baseline while a point guard lofts an alley-oop. Here comes the hammer. It tee’d up engineer Ze’ev Wurman to say “you’re touching exactly on the weak spot of the Common Core.” He then proceeds to demolish the idea that a single standard could apply for both college and career readiness, and enumerates the unintended consequences of conflating those two goals into one expected outcome. If you don’t like the Common Core and only have four minutes, this is the meat of the film.
That’s spot on, but the film is actually more than that. It’s an effective primer for 30 minutes, whereafter it does, as McShane later suggests, dedicate too much of its closing argument circling around the theme of how unique kids are. We all know that — and given the need to pace short documentaries even more economically than a film, the final section feels a misdirected, oddly shaped limb grafted onto a strong trunk.
I’ll close with two beefs with the film — one that goes to the feel of the documentary and the other is admittedly a little harsh on supposed “ed reformers.” The first beef is that the opening of the film points to a weakness in the story. The film starts with two fictitious moms, Jen and Suzanne, who are discussing an upcoming PTA meeting to discuss something called Common Core. There are so many real moms–named Heather, Erin, Crystal, Laura, Yvonne, Mary, and so many others–who are articulate, who care about their kids and their country, who won’t stand for anything less than a defining role in the intellectual path for their child or children. They would have done a splendid job talking about their concerns, and their passion and at this point depth of knowledge would have been great, even inspiring for viewers.
There are so many real moms–named Heather, Erin, Crystal, Laura, Yvonne, Mary, and so many others–who are articulate, who care about their kids and their country, who won’t stand for anything less than a defining role in the intellectual path for their child or children. They would have done a splendid job talking about their concerns, and their passion and at this point depth of knowledge would have been great, even inspiring for viewers.
My second beef is that the filmmakers left so many real and substantive issues against Common Core on the cutting room floor. The film’s delving into the flawed process and the motives behind many of the financial backers of the Common Core (Pearson, McGraw-Hill and the Gates Foundation) are strong on the pacing and build-up, but on the substance they are far too kind. I understand HSLDA’s need to try and stand above the fray, but they pulled a number of punches and left the viewer feeling like the sides of the argument are, if not evenly matched, pretty close.
Look, only a fool (or a self-proclaimed saint) would assert that the amount of money being thrown around and the level of potential conflicts of interest are not worthy of debate–and, more importantly, being clear about. Supporters of the Common Core agenda who also receive funding from these backers may not be bought and paid for, but their work deserves skepticism and deeper scrutiny. Anybody outside of the DC vortex would nod at how obvious that is. Why isn’t the inability of your average Joe to FOIA the two non-profits that hold the copyright to the Core (and who have been largely funded by the Gates Foundation) worthy of debate? Why isn’t it worth pointing out that some in the “ed reform” crowd have grown complacent on the need to uphold the public trust, to the point of doing their best imitation of the dumbdumb Hear-No-Evil, See-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil monkeys.
Turn the tables and imagine that unions and friends of unions were funding this whole operation; imagine that you had no access to information; imagine that the unions stood a good chance of benefiting from the policies they were advancing. Would a good “ed reformer” cry foul? Well, yes, that self-proclaimed ed reformer would. So, let’s be intellectually consistent (ahem, honest) here. We are talking about public schools, so we need a real public, transparent process, not some sham replica of that. These private entities and companies have not only signed onto a flawed process, they were part of the discussions on how to avoid rehashing the failed national standards effort of the 1990s. As Bill Evers pithily notes in the film, they needed “an immaculate conception.”
We are talking about public schools, so we need a real public, transparent process, not some sham replica of that.
The financial backers of Common Core are bankrolling a disinformation campaign that calls the Core an innocuous standards-setting effort, nothing that will really defining in any serious way local curricula; of course, the clip in the film from Bill Gates where he notes that “the standards are just the starting point… We’ll only know if this effort has succeeded, when the curriculum and tests are aligned to these standards.” screams something different. They insist that this was a truly “state-led” effort, world-class in terms of rigor, a floor and not a mandate, as legal, and as not costing anything. You can get more on these issues in the two videos below.
I continue to be amazed at the level to which “ed reform” policy personalities have been co-opted in this effort. Go back 25 years and Bill Bennett would have called the list of acronyms around Common Core–the NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, AFT, NCEE–the DC edu-blob. None of these major backers and prime movers of Common Core has exactly supported the goals of the ed reform crowd, things like much more school choice and the decentralization of policymaking authority. So why the big embrace? Insert smile emoticon. Bill Bennett was right back then.
Bill Bennett’s mentor, John Silber, would have noted in his wry Texas drawl that his “bullSh!t detector” sensed something wrong in all this.
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