Duke Pesta: Thank you so much for having me, Julian. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JC: I first came across your work when I saw a video of a presentation you gave on Common Core, and I was so impressed by the case that you made for the dangers of this supposed educational programme, that I was very keen to invite you onto the show; not least because you gave the warning that, although this programme is currently being implemented in the US, the powers behind it certainly intend it to become a global phenomenon. Let me start, Dr. Pesta, by asking you to tell us a little more about yourself, and how it is that you became alerted to the dangers of Common Core.
DP: Well, as a university professor for the last twenty years, I’ve noted (like most of us have) the decreasing standards in American students: the decreasing ability of our American kids to write well, to read well, to do critical thinking, and to engage in discourse at a high level. So, a few years ago, it dawned on me that I would have to get involved in education at younger grades if I was going to make a difference by the time they reached college. About that time, I got involved with a couple of different home schooling programmes. (Home schooling, it seems to me, is promising because it lets mums and dads reclaim some of the educational parameters from the state.) My getting involved with home schooling corresponded almost exactly with the onset and implementation of Common Core. And it was abundantly clear that, among its many other problems, Common Core was eventually going to be an existential threat to the very nature of home schooling. The Big State paradigm that Common Core represents would ultimately not allow mums and dads to continue to educate their kids outside that umbrella. So that’s how I got involved initially.
DP: In its most basic sense, Common Core represents a gross over-reach of federal power into education. The United States education system is different from some European models. Control at the federal level has been blunted over the years. We actually have a 1965 federal statute in the United States that prohibits Federal Government from creating a national curriculum, or national education standards. Common Core is an attempt to circumvent that. It’s the Federal Government commissioning private entities and activists to construct the curriculum and the standards. Right now we only have Common Core standards for English and Math, but one day every aspect of the curriculum will be standardised to Common Core. If they get their way, even things like art, gym, physical education and music will be appropriated by Common Core.
What happened was this. A small number of activists within two Washington DC lobbyist groups crafted the standards behind closed doors. They were paid by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates of Microsoft has put in about $3 billion of his own so far to implement and create the standards, and then of course they were put in the schools. Bill Gates, for all his money, could not have inserted them into the American public school system; that took the Federal Government. And that was through a programme President Obama instituted back in 2009 called Race to the Top, in which the Federal Government basically bribed forty-six states in the Union to take a set of curriculum standards that they really hadn’t even seen yet.
JC: Could you tell us to what extent this programme has been implemented?
DP: Forty-six states initially took it; four held out. In the twelve months or so since we’ve actually been able to see the standards working their way through the schools, four other states have already pulled out. Another two or three will pull out by the end of the summer, and in about forty states in the Union there are over three hundred pieces of legislation at the state level trying to kill, or dramatically curtail, Common Core; but most of that legislation is pending. Right now, forty-two states are currently on the hook for it, and beginning to work the implementation into their schools.
JC: Is it being resisted by teachers’ unions?
DP: It is. Very recently, as of January 2014, the New York State Teachers’ Union has decided to withdraw support for it. That’s big, because New York is one of three states - New York, Kentucky and Florida - in which Common Core was rolled out two years earlier than in all the other states. So there’s a two-year-long track record that the other states don’t have, including two full years of Common Core testing in those states. And it has been an absolute disaster. In the State of New York, for instance, student achievement fell from the 78/79 percentile in reading, math and writing all the way down to the mid 30s. Because of this, and because the New York teachers were beginning to figure out how little control they had over what is taught, and how it’s taught, the New York State Teachers’ Union pulled out in January of this year. And most shockingly, one month ago in May of this year, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (this is President Obama’s own back yard) pulled out and issued the most incredibly stinging rebuke to Common Core that I’ve seen yet.
JC: I understand that The National Education Association says that Common Core is botched.
DP: Yes, the NEA is the largest and most powerful teachers' union in the United States; it has more clout, and spends more money on lobbying than any other union in the country. The NEA came out and called the implementation of Common Core totally botched, and its president, Dennis Van Roekel, said that the standards will not work without a rewrite that includes teacher input. So the NEA is acknowledging that this whole system was put together without any meaningful teacher input whatsoever.
JC: Perhaps the best way to get a good idea of this would be to look at the way in which it came to be formed in more detail in the first place. How did the US get to this point where a programme like this seems to be in danger of swallowing up the whole education system?
DP: If we look at the American Federal Government over the last twenty years, and certainly since President Obama took over, we see an increasing desire on the part of the American political class to nationalise things that historically have been left to the states, Obamacare being the classic example. Right about the time that President Obama was beginning his Obamacare legislation, he was also implementing the seeds of what would become Common Core.
The writing of Common Core has been traced back to a very small group of activists, chief of whom is a man called David Coleman. He was a college room-mate of Arne Duncan, who is currently the US Secretary of Education. David Coleman has a long history of political activism, particularly with President Obama and the current Administration. He has never been elected to anything; he has never been appointed to anything; and he doesn’t have the kind of educational background that would qualify him to oversee the writing of national standards in either English or Math. Nonetheless, he was put in charge of five individuals who oversaw the writing of Common Core. These individuals wrote the Common Core State Standards in English and Math as part of two Washington lobbyist groups: the National Governors Association (NGA), and the Council of Chief Sate School Officers (CCSSO). These two organisations are basically Washington lobbyist organisations, which try influence politicians' decisions. This group was funded, as I mentioned before, to the tune of initially one $150 million in 2009 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. By now, four or five years later, Mr. Gates has spent over $3 billion on lobbying, implementation, and donating to educational groups on the condition that they support the Common Core Standards.
They recognised that the only way this would get into the schools would be if the Federal Government moved, so that’s when President Obama created Race to the Top. That was back in 2009 when we had the economic crisis and the President was stimulating the economy and spending billions of taxpayer dollars on bailing out companies and banks. At the same time he created Race to the Top, which was a federal programme designed to take billions of American taxpayer dollars and hand it out to the states, simply for their education budgets. So, between 2008 and 2011, states were able to apply in various ways to the Federal Government for Race To The Top grant money. For example, back in 2009, the State of New York Education Department received $700 million from the Federal Government. They could spend that money on whatever they wanted, with no strings attached, except one: any state that took Race to the Top money, in any form at all, was obligated to adopt the Common Core State Standards when they were finally written. Most of the states who simply took the money out of desperation for their state education budgets agreed to take Common Core, even though they had not seen it.
JC: Was this before the Common Core Standards were written?
DP: Absolutely, Julian. Moreover, after the Standards were written and the states had taken Race to the Top money, some state-level education administrators were able to look at the Common Core Standard, but they could not change it, and they could not reject it. So, effectively, what President Obama did was to bribe forty-six states to take a set of curriculum standards they had not seen. Those standards were written by activists with deep ties to the President himself, all behind closed doors, and all paid for by Bill and Melinda Gates. And all of this was done because the Federal Government simply couldn’t do their own national standards; they are legally prohibited from doing so. So they did the next best thing: they enabled people close to them, without any oversight or any way for American citizens electorally to get at them.
That’s the other thing: the copyright for Common Core is held by these two Washington lobbyist groups. So, the educational standards that are now transforming American education almost overnight - (the copyright is not held by the Department of Education or the Congress of the United States, it is not held by the States or the teachers, or the mums and dads) - are utterly unaccountable to the American taxpayer, to the American voter.
JC: And this Common Core set of standards is very much philosophically related to the No Child Left Behind Act that you were talking about before. Does it follow the same kind of philosophy, the outcome-based education approach?
DP: Absolutely. Common Core replaces the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. NCLB was a product of the George W. Bush Administration in 2002. President Bush looked around, as had so many American Presidents before him, and recognised that America’s public schools were struggling and inadequate in many respects. So, in order to transform education, he allowed Senator Ted Kennedy and his people – (neither President Bush, nor his aides, wrote the standards) - to write NCLB. So, NCLB was really the first broad national standards that we had for American schools - broadly national with tentacles reaching into almost every aspect of how schools were set up, run, and how pedagogy was delivered.
DP: It was a disaster. I have never met a teacher, a Principal, a Superintendent of Schools, a mum or dad in this country who has anything but contempt for NCLB. Among the reasons why they despised it was that it’s outcome-based education. You’re not dealing with the kids you have. In America we have a remarkably heterogeneous group of students. It’s not like Finland or Thailand, or some countries that are held up as models of education. Those countries have relative stability and relative homogeneity in their student populations. America, as we know, is incredibly diverse: racially, ethnically, religiously, and certainly monetarily diverse in terms of backgrounds. So, the problem with outcome-based education is that you are not dealing with kids as they are, and specifically addressing their needs; you are trying to get them all to end up in the same place. And, the only way you’re going to get sixty million American kids to the same place is if you have the standards set relatively low. The higher the standard, the fewer the kids who can make it. And that’s what we saw with NCLB for about a dozen years: however high they said the standards were going to be, of necessity they had to keep declining in order to get more kids to meet them. So this is a problem with standards-based education.
Also the only way to measure a standard that broadly is through high-stakes testing, what we call the standardised testing. As many education professionals have pointed out: if you’re simply educating kids to the point that they can take a test, you’re not really educating them at all; you’re just preparing them for the test. And it was really high stakes for the teachers. If you were a teacher who could not get your kid to the standard, then you might not be renewed. If you were a Principal whose school couldn’t get its kids to the standard, you might lose your position, and so consequently we had a horrible situation between 2005 and 2007 where you had Principals, Superintendents, even some teachers, who were taking the children’s standardised tests, throwing them in the garbage and forging new ones simply as a way of protecting their own jobs. That happened in North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, and in New York City. So NCLB was a disaster for a lot of reasons. To cut to the chase, in my estimation Common Core is simply NCLB on steroids. The worst aspects of NCLB: the one-size-fits-all education; the outcome-based education; the meaningless high-stakes testing, all of that is back in Common Core. The only difference being that, because Common Core is so top-down, it is going to eliminate the ability of states and local school boards, and local school districts, to have any meaningful impact on fixing it when it doesn’t work.
JC: Could we come back to the details of how this came into being? The next stage will be to talk about the Validation Committee, which is where content specialists in the areas of English language and mathematics were involved. But I understand that their involvement was very minimal.
DP: There are many problems with the way Common Core was implemented: it was done in secrecy, and there was very little local, state or teacher input. After the standards had been paid for by the Gates Foundation and drafted, they convened a committee of twenty-nine individuals called the Validation Committee, whose job was to validate the standards. They were given carte blanche. They were told: “If the standards are inadequate, unhelpful and don’t work, get rid of them. You have complete carte blanche to do whatever you think is necessary.” Well, unbelievably, of the twenty-nine people that Common Core brought to Washington, there was only one expert in English and one expert in Math. (These were the two sets of standards being validated - English and Math.) Of the twenty-nine people, there was only one actual maths specialist, Professor James Milgram, a Stanford University Math professor. Milgram’s a serious guy. He did most of the mathematical calculations for the Apollo moon shot in the late '60s, so he knows his business. The English professor was a woman, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, also a University professor, now retired and living in Massachusetts, and considered to be the foremost English Language Arts expert in America today. Well, both Stotsky and Milgram voted absolutely No on the Common Core Standards. In fact, so disturbed were they by the Standards that they convinced other people on the Committee to vote No. Milgram said, and I quote: “It’s an absolute joke to think that Common Core math will prepare American children for college, careers, for college math, or for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers.” “An absolute joke”, Milgram called it. Dr. Stotsky said, and I quote: “Common Core English will set our kids two years behind the two years they’re already behind the rest of the world in reading, writing and comprehension.” They managed to convince other people on the Committee too. But what the Validation Committee did was: rather than allow Stotsky and Milgram - the two experts - to rewrite the Standards completely (which is what they wanted to do), the Committee just erased their comments from the entire procedure. Stotsky, Milgram and the others who voted No were, in effect, written out of the Validation Committee document. The remaining members went ahead and validated the document without any input whatsoever, or even any mention at all of the objections of the two experts and the people they had convinced.
JC: This is extraordinary. Can you explain what this Validation Committee is? I mean, is this something that is done at the state level?
DP: Well, the thing that’s so frustrating about all of this is that none of this is actually Federal Government business. The writers of Common Core are a private consortium, so they brought in their own committee. They hired this committee because they wanted to get some expert approval for their standards; they wanted a veneer of thoroughness. You might even admire them for this. It was a good idea: “OK, we’ll put the standards together. Now let’s bring an outside committee in, including a few experts, to look at the Standards we’ve put together and give us the thumbs up.” And they were smart: they picked two good experts. Stotsky and Milgram are pre-eminent in their fields. [But] what they didn’t count on was that Stotsky and Milgram would both say, “Absolutely not”. When the only two experts on the committee said “absolutely not”, then the Common Core people had two options: let them fix it and do it right, or to simply write them out of the committee document and validate the standards that we have. That’s what they did.
JC: Could you tell us about Jason Zimba?
DP: David Coleman is the architect of the Standards, the individual in charge of the five-or-so people most responsible for the writing of the Standards. Jason Zimba is the man most responsible for the Maths Standards. There’s a fascinating story here: Milgram, who is very familiar with Jason Zimba, says that Zimba does not have the mathematical ability to write standards at a national level. In some very recent TV coverage of committee hearing he was at, Zimba publicly admits: “It’s true, Common Core maths is not going to prepare American kids for college level math.” He says, “at best the brightest of the American students after Common Core might be ready to start math at a two-year technical college.”
JC: So it’s not preparing children for three-to-four-year university courses.
DP: Not in the least. No, that’s not the ambition of Common Core whatsoever. Professor Milgram says that Common Core requires the very youngest kids to do math way beyond their ability, but as they get older they do much less math; so it’s completely backward. They’re being assigned things they can’t possibly do at ages five to seven, and then by the time they’re ten to thirteen, they’re doing absolutely remedial math. To give you an example: In every single high-achieving math country, kids routinely start serious algebra at 7th, or even 6th, grade. In NCLB America, our schools kids didn’t begin serious algebra until 8th grade, and under Common Core serious algebra is pushed into high school. That prompts the question, as Milgram pointed out: If your kids don't start algebra until their Freshman Year of high school, how are they going to cope with calculus and advanced math in preparation for college math? They won’t.
JC: Let’s look at some of these Standards. You say that English and Maths are in place so far. Did you say that Science and History are soon to come?
JC: Ok, give us an idea of what English Standards are like. How do they compare to course content previously taught?
DP: Well, there’s one piece of the puzzle missing: neither the English Standards, nor the Math Standards require any specific pedagogy to be adopted. People say, “Let’s just talk about the Standards.” Well, the problem is, the standards were written in conjunction with text book companies like Pearson Publishing; the committee wrote the Standards, and then the text book companies started to provide curriculum and pedagogy to support the Standards. So really, it's impossible to consider the Standards apart from the supporting curriculum.
That having been said, when you look at the Standards and curriculum together, you find that in the Common-Core-related pedagogy up to fifty per cent of the classical literature that kids historically read in English class - literature that exposes them to 2000 years of Judeo-Christian Western history and 250 years of American identity and American experience - is removed. Up to fifty percent of that literature is replaced with informational texts, a huge percentage of which comes directly from Federal Government. So, kids as young as six to eight will now be reading government pamphlets in their English classes, a large majority of which is about man-made global warming and America's responsibility for it. In other words, they’re reading one-sided literature dealing with highly politicised issues at the federal level. They're [even] reading President Obama’s own executive orders. No critical thinking is involved; they’re not reading books or pamphlets that challenge prevailing orthodoxies. All the character and moral development of classical literature is being removed in favour of government propaganda, and it's being handed directly to our kids.
JC: In one of your lectures you say that a lot of sexual content is also included.
DP: Dr. Stotsky, the English specialist who refused to vote, says her two big complaints about the Common Core English Standards are: one, genuine literature is replaced with tendentious political pamphlets; and two, the literature that remains is developmentally inappropriate in terms of violence and sexual content at almost every grade level. Some of the books have highly erotic material. In my lecture I mention Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It's a great book, and Toni Morrison is a great, Nobel-prize-winning African-American novelist, but we wouldn’t assign a book like that to our freshmen in college. It’s about a twelve-year-old girl who is the victim of rape and incest, and over the course of the novel she comes to bond with her rapist, and describes in graphic detail the nature of the sexual encounters. This Common-Core-recommended book has [even] been found in American middle schools. Other books would include Dreaming in Cuban and Black Swan, and the list goes on; they're sexually inappropriate, and way beyond the kids' level.
Then at the lowest levels too - even for kids as young as third, fourth and fifth grade, while not being exposed to outright pornography - they’re getting all sorts of suggestion and risqué statements. I’ll give you one example: there was a Common Core lesson for fourth graders where kids took home a long paragraph and the job was to read the paragraph and determine the situation from the context. And the paragraph was about a young mum who comes home and sets about making the bed and finds a pubic hair in the bed that is not hers, and over the course of seven or eight sentences the kids are forced to conclude that dad is having an adulterous affair in mum’s bed - for kids as young as third and fourth graders. And Stotsky’s point is: Why? Why so little literature altogether, and why is the literature that remains in Common Core so inappropriate?
JC: Well I’m going to ask you exactly Why when I ask you about the role and growth of the State in all this. You also say that there’s a much greater emphasis on writing rather than reading in Common Core. Why is that?
DP: Yes, at every grade level Common Core lowers the overall level of reading by fifty per cent, and elevates the overall level of writing by fifty per cent. So, in every class, including math, kids are writing as much, or more, than they are reading (or doing math). So, they’re not really reading [enough], and one of the reasons for this, as Dr. Stotsky and many others have pointed out, is: If kids are writing more than they're reading, then they’re necessarily going to be writing about whatever is ideologically being presented to them in the classroom. They are not writing about books any more, they’re not writing about character and morality and the large issues that are historically discussed in reading the great books. Now they’re discussing the ideology and the politics that have subsumed the subject matter under Common Core.
JC: ...which, I presume, they are going to find boring. Informational texts hardly engage the imagination.
DP: Well, a favourite if mine that I mention in lectures is for high school freshmen, and it's entitled Recommended Levels of Insulation, a report released in 2010 by the EPA and the Department of Energy. It's a long, regulatory manual about the environmentally correct way to insulate your building. Do you think that’s the kind of thing to excite your thirteen-year old daughter into reading?
JC: And that's going to be fifty per cent of what they’ll be doing in English classes?
JC: Wow! Let's move on to maths. I want to mention an example that seems to be taking the Internet by storm: a short video clip of a Curriculum Director called Amanda August talking about Common Core maths. [In the clip] she seems to say that, under Common Core, it’s OK if children say “three times four equals eleven”. And this is going viral on the Internet. But I do think that's unfair given the context of the quote. Here's her quote:
“But even under the new Common Core, even if they say three times four is eleven, if they’re able to explain their reasoning, and explain how they came up with their answer really in words and oral explanations, and they showed it in the picture, but they just got the final number wrong... we’re really more focusing on the how and the why.”
Then a parent says, “We’ll be correcting them, right?” And then she goes on:
“Oh, absolutely, absolutely. We want our students to compute correctly, but the emphasis is really moving towards explanation: the How and the Why etc.”
Now, considering the context of that quote, it seems clear to me that the intention with Common Core math here is not to reward children for wrong answers, but to get them to understand what they’re doing. Now that seems to me like a good idea on the surface, but having looked at some of the examples out there about how this kind of thing is being done, I do have severe reservations about it, which I am hoping we’ll get into in just a moment. So, now that I’ve contextualised that quotation, could you give us an idea of how Common Core maths is conceived and what kind of problems you have with it?
DP: Well, I think your contextualisation of Ms August’s quote is a good one. It is true that she emphasises that we want kids ultimately to be able to give the right answer. The reason, though, that quote has gone viral is because, despite her parsing of it, it's the way Common Core math is being done. The emphasis is on process math; the emphasis is on computer math. For example: one of the primary ways that elementary school math is being taught under Common Core is the so-called Pair and Share programme. (By the way, teachers are now being re-labelled “facilitators” under Common Core, in order to remove some responsibility from them.) The job of the facilitators in Common Core maths in these elementary schools is: Rather than teach kids mathematical concepts, and work through problems on the blackboard, you put kids in groups of two and three, and you hand them math problems. The main purpose of that assignment is to get every kid in that group to agree on what they think is the right answer, not necessarily to get the right answer. The bulk of the reward for the assignment comes through agreement, not necessarily correctness. We have a situation here in New York – I’ve got the actual exam – where a little third grade boy gives the correct answer of “forty-two” to the math problem of “six times seven”. He gets it marked wrong, and in red pencil the teacher writes: “the other two children in your peer group agreed on a different answer.” So they were given credit for the answer, but because the little boy, who actually got the number right, was not able to convince the other two kids he was right, he got it marked wrong. There are a lot of examples like that.
JC: At what age do you say this is taking place?
DP: As early as third grade.
JC: I immediately associate that with adult education. You talked about the “facilitator” and the quasi-Marxist idea that group consensus is of paramount importance. The same idea now seems to have penetrated right down to this very early age.
DP: I love the fact that you call it quasi-Marxist; that's what it is. Professor Milgram calls it Communal Math with an emphasis on commune. Let’s face it, we know that not every kid is going to be outstanding at math. Most kids can get the basic concepts. I was one of those kids, but no matter what you did, you were never going to turn me into a math prodigy; but so what? The purpose of Common Core math now is to make every American kid comfortable with a low level of math, because from a social justice perspective, Julian, it is just not fair that some kids can do better and get ahead. Similarly, we won’t allow kids to fall too far behind, although with the standards this low that’s unlikely. Think about it, this all explains why we’re not getting to algebra until ninth grade; we're much more concerned about keeping it low and basic so that every kid can feel comfortable.
JC: I’m wondering if this Pair and Share thing isn't really about maths at all. Perhaps the most important thing is to produce consensus within the group so that people are not thinking about things independently at all; they’re just thinking what the group is thinking, as dictated, of course, by the facilitator.
I call it statism. Common Core serves to convince our American school children that they belong first and foremost to the Government, not to their mums and dads, not to their local communities, not to the faith systems in which they were raised; they are agents who owe their allegiance, and whatever success they will enjoy, to the Federal Government.
JC: When you say it's leftist thing, I presume you don’t mean in the party-political sense in which that might be identified with the Democrats as against the Republicans?
DP: No, I think you’re right. I think this transcends Republican or Democrat. The divide between Democrats and Republicans in the United States is vanishing rapidly. What you’re beginning to see is a distinction between the political class, and the rest of us. The one thing the political class seems to have figured out over the last ten or twenty years is that it's 'business as usual' for the Democrats and Republicans to preserve the prerogatives and status of the political class at the expense of the rest of us. (That's exactly why the House, Senate and President all exempted themselves from Obamacare, whereas everybody else in the country now has to labour under the National Health Care Law.) It's governing with double standards.
JC: Turning back to some of the maths worksheets I saw online, some were very unhelpful. They seem to stress too strongly that children should show their working out on paper - not in the traditional sense, where it doesn’t really matter how you got there, as long as the teacher can see how you arrived at your answer - but rather that the children have to follow a really tedious, prescriptive method of arriving at an answer, often involving drawing boxes and colouring things in. That seems more important than computation itself, which seems to go well beyond anyhting Amanda August was saying. What’s the idea with all that?
DP: Yes, that's why I like to use the Amanda August clip because, despite the tepid way she defends herself there, that’s exactly right. In Common Core math it is much more important that you do all that extraneous stuff. You have to draw the right sketches and [follow] the lugubrious process; even getting the right answer isn’t that important. Another example I can give you is of a little boy who was sent to us. He had an addition question and the answer was “one hundred and eleven”, so the little boy wrote “111”. Yet again he got it marked wrong because the math assignment called for him to draw rather than write numbers. He had to draw one hundred and eleven circles. It’s unbelievable.
JC: That is absolutely incredible. So the only thing that’s important in this is that you are doing as you’re told; you’re not to have any individuality in this whatsoever?
DP: Absolutely, Professor Milgram makes this point. What really staggers me about this - and I've been a teacher for twenty years - [is this]: I can understand that some kids learn differently from other kids, and that some kids might actually benefit by using visual aids to help them learn math, but the problem with Common Core math is that the standard way of doing math (adding in columns, subtracting, multiplying and dividing in the way we’ve done it for hundreds of years)... in Common Core kids are not only not exposed to it, they are not allowed to do it. If you try to add up a Common Core math question by doing it the way you and I learned how to do it, you will get it marked wrong even if you get the right number. The only way you will get credit in Common Core is if you avoid the previous ways of doing them, and do them exclusively the Common Core way. As Professor Milgram points out, there’s no justifiable reason for doing this. If you did both, maybe you could make an argument for it. [Again] as Milgram points out, this leads to a situation in which American mums and dads can no longer help their kids, even at the lowest levels, with their math homework, because there’s no one way of doing it. That’s the other thing that’s so frustrating: if every time Common Core math was done, it was done the same way - 'a square equals a hundred', or 'a cube equals a thousand' - even somebody as poor at math as I could figure it out, but it’s always something different. Sometimes it’s dots, dashes, cubes and cones; other times, believe it or not, it’s drawing animals. We have a situation where at one elementary school the kids are only allowed to add and subtract by drawing cows. You have to draw enough cows so as to count the legs to get the answer, but if you don’t draw the cows you don’t get credit for the answer, even if the answer’s right.
JC: Is this just in the first couple of years of elementary school, or does it go further than that?
DP: It goes all the way through.
JC: That’s incredible. My own daughter has some experience of this. In the first couple of years, here in the UK, she had to do this business of colouring in boxes in order to give the answer to the teacher, and she found that incredibly tedious. After the first year of doing that, she absolutely hated it, but the idea of that continuing throughout elementary school seems extraordinary.
DP: It does, and it goes on into the high school experience as well. To give you one more example: under Common Core, American schools will now be teaching geometry in a way that nobody has ever done it before. There’s only one place in the world where our geometry curriculum has ever been used. The Russians tried it for about six months a couple of years ago, and the Russian schools found it such a disaster that in the middle of a semester they yanked it out. That’s the system now we’ve adopted for American schools.
JC: What is that system?
DP: It’s a new way of doing geometry. We’ve done plain geometry for two thousand years. Now they’ve created an utterly obtuse way of doing it that rivals what they’re doing with all these boxes and shading at the lower levels.
JC: I also wanted to mention about this new way of adding and subtracting. My daughter had something of that in her school as well, where you don’t do it the traditional way by carrying from one column to another; [instead] you add up all the units first, then the tens, followed by the hundreds, and then you do an operation at the end to put it all back together. It's incredibly laborious. She doesn’t even know how to do it the traditional way. As you said, why can’t she know both?
DP: Right, and that system of tens is also part of what’s being rotated into Common Core. And if you want to branch out and allow kids to try to grasp it another way - the rather intuitive way we learned to do it's [not available]. [Also] almost every textbook in every school uses a different set of markers, or a different set of illustrations, or a different set of exercises to get to the answer. And, as Professor Milgram points out, the only thing you can ever say about this math curriculum is that it clearly forces kids to rely only on the schools. I’ve got CPAs (Certified Public Accountants), medical doctors, and math professors in my state who cannot help their kids with their math homework. And, as Milgram says, that is not a flaw, that’s a feature for the Common Core people, that the only way the kids can get help is through the Government schools. They can’t get help from mum and dad or from grandpa; they can’t hire private tutors to help them. The only ones who have the key to this very arcane math is the federal school; that’s what’s so shocking about it.
JC: It would seem to prohibit children from excelling in this situation, so what happens to things like Gifted and Talented programmes? Is a child allowed to show that they are finding it so easy they can push on with the work for the following year?
DP: In the last two years in this country we’ve lost more Gifted and Talented programmes than in the previous forty years combined, because when you have this kind of rigid standards-based-outcome system, it is as devastating to the system if kids accelerate standards as it is if they fall behind them. If you think about it, for a scheme like Common Core you’d much rather have kids fall short of the standard, because you can always lower the standard, at which point you bring more kids to the standard. But if you’ve got a bunch of kids who are capable of accelerating, and do accelerate the standards... well, doesn’t that raise the standard? And if you raise the standard then you’re losing more kids at the bottom. We actually now have Americans schools, entire school districts, in this country, that are threatening kids, mums and dads not to have their kids work ahead in math. The entire Urvine School District in Orange County, California, has a threat on its website. Apparently, mums and dads in California were freaking out because their fourth graders could not add and subtract independently of all this drawing, so they started hiring tutors for their kids to advance in math. Well, the school found out about this and issued a warning on their public website, and a threat to these mums and dads. Basically, the threat was: No matter what you do, no matter what math your kids do and submit, your child will remain in the class-appropriate math. It doesn’t matter how far ahead he works, it doesn’t matter how capable he is, your child will stay with his peers doing what they do. I can’t think of anything more contradictory to the genuine spirit of education that American schools are warning mums and dads to keep their kids where they are.
JC: But that’s just one case. Has that happened in many other places too?
DP: There are school districts all across the country with those warnings on their websites. You must understand that when this kind of outcome-based system is put in place, so rigidly controlled, with such obvious sociological and tendentious aims to it, kids who go ahead screw that up. Kids that excel break the paradigm; that cannot be allowed to happen.
JC: So the end result must be massive disaffection across the system.
DP: Right, and we’re seeing that. We’re not even two years into this yet, and we're seeing kids now in this country as young as second and third grade (six and seven- year-olds), who suffer from test anxiety. The clinical psychiatrists, psychologists, and child development specialists, who are dealing with this kind of childhood trauma, [say that] not only are kids being exposed to concepts too early, but they’re also being exposed to the graphic sex and violence we talked about. These kids are being developmentally poisoned at young ages. Think what this means, Julian. What does it mean to a kid in third grade, who is capable of doing geometry or higher math by the age of eight, to spend the next four years sitting in the same classroom, drawing the same squares and triangles as everybody else [for the purposes of learning] basic addition and subtraction?
JC: I can’t see how anybody could think this is going to help the cohesion of society. It seems to me that it would do exactly the opposite.
DP: That’s exactly it. It depends on how you define cohesion. We used to define cohesion as allowing kids to be educated, to discover their talents, and to go and make a life and career. I think those days are gone. I think now – [in the eyes of ]the Federal Government that runs America – cohesion means socialism: everybody at the same level all the time; nobody standing out too far from their peers; everybody having a low level of competence and knowledge; and nobody allowed to excel. Consider the benefit of this for the Government: if everybody is only minimally functional, then people are much more likely to be dependent upon the Government, and look to the Government to take control of things that otherwise free people would have handled for themselves.
JC: So, people won't be finding their natural place in the order of things; they’ll be obeying Government diktat, so they can play the part of a compliant drone in the beehive.
DP: Absolutely. Why else are we replacing children’s literature with Government pamphlets? I’ll give you one more example. In American high schools, up until very recently, we didn’t begin counselling kids about careers until the last four years of high school. Twenty to thirty years ago, when a kid got to high school we would start charting their progress a bit through exams, to assess what might be best for their future. Under Common Core that career tracking and testing now begins in kindergarten.
JC: So this is student profiling?
JC: Beverly Eckman, a previous TMR guest, was very concerned about this. She said this was happening before Common Core.
DP: Yes, everything we’ve talked about today, Julian, precedes Common Core. The difference between Common Core and what came before is that now it is so top-down federal. The things that were tentative and provisional are now absolute. It’s all being driven downhill by this federal program, and yes, it’s profiling kids. Bill Gates is a huge proponent of this. Just two weeks ago he said that it's not enough to data-mine and biometrically log our children from kindergarten through high school; now he wants to do it for college kids. We should be hooking our college kids up to classroom MRIs and measuring their brain waves, and their pulse. The biometric aspect of this is shocking. They don’t just want to gather our kids' exam data, they actually want to link test and exam data to a whole set of biological data. They want to subject them to blood-pressure cuffs and posture-analysis seats, and to film them as they look at their computer screens, in order to record their emotional reactions to what they’re reading. They want to start with kids as young as five years old, and track them all the way through high school and possibly even college. The US Federal Government has already said they intend to make kids' education files available to potential employers one day.
JC: But isn't Bill Gates just talking science fiction here?
DP: No, it's happening already. And Bill Gates has already gone to the United Nations and pledged billions of dollars to support UN efforts to try to put this into schools at a global level as well. People don’t realise that Common Core is a mechanism that’s been built up to support the kind of elaborate data mining and record keeping that the Federal Government wants. In other words, there would have been no Common Core had there not first been the grandiose plan to control and document our kids biologically, physiologically and intellectually. Common Core is just the vehicle to drive that idea.
JC: From what you say, that driving idea goes way beyond school, to the point of encompassing the whole of future society. It seems a very technocratic vision about controlling the whole of society.
DP: Right, and that’s why somebody like Bill Gates is at the head of it. It’s been a long-time dream of his. I’ll give another example: if you look at the twenty-seven-thousand-page healthcare law that was recently passed, you will find hundreds of [statements] that empower schools to become data-gathering institutions in the name of health care. So now, everything that goes on in our kids’ schools is educational health, which means the healthcare law requires schools to begin gathering data.
JC: In the lecture, you mentioned PBIS (Positive Behaviour Intervention and Support). Judging by their website they seem very innocuous: focused on helping teachers to cope with behaviour issues in the classroom. But you [complained about their system for normalising the practice of] teachers inputting information into computers about the children on a daily basis.
DP: Absolutely. It’s innocuous in the sense that we want our kids to behave. (Isn't it staggering that, in the Twenty-First Century, one of our biggest problems is that American school kids can't sit still and learn? But that’s a separate issue.) But the PBIS system is [also] insidious. We now have American teachers spending as much, or more, time in their classrooms logging, charting and tracking student behaviour than actually teaching subjects to the kids. None of this necessarily improves their behaviour.
Here’s where it gets insidious. Say you've got a kid who can’t, or won’t, do Common Core math. Maybe he knows how to do it a different way, or the Common Core way isn't intuitive to him. With PBIS, that is now a behavioural and attitudinal problem; it's no longer just a pedagogical problem. And they don't just keep files on the kid's marks and grades, now they're [tracking] attitude, willingness to comply, and [behaviour in] communal-group settings. Are they isolated? Are they loners? Do they see themselves as above the group? Are they unwilling to subordinate themselves to the group? This is Orwellian.
JC: Absolutely, I was thinking of Nineteen Eighty-Four as you were speaking. So, you’re teaching in a way that leads children to disaffection, and then you’re logging that as anti-social behaviour.
DP: Absolutely. Now, remember, not only will the Federal Government have all this information; when it's time for your kid to get a job, if your kid is dyslexic in the fourth grade, or has ADHD and is on Aterol or Ritalin, all that [information] will be available to employers. It's staggering to think that in a terribly competitive job market they’re going to be looking back to what happened in some obscure semester in seventh grade to determine who gets the job; but that’s all part of this Orwellian – and you said it, technocratic – vision.
JC: Would you say that the massive facility in Bluffdale, Utah, is [conceived as] part of this system?
DP: Absolutely; that’s not even a matter for speculation. All the information collected on our kids is going to be stored in this huge multi-billion dollar facility the Federal Government just completed last year in the deserts of Utah. So shocking is this, Julian, that the people of Utah are trying to pass legislation to cut water off to the building as a way of trying to fight back against the Federal Government. (And what's more: for all President Obama’s bluster about environmentalism, this building requires four million gallons of water a day to cool its computers.)
JC: So, this isn’t about national security in the traditional sense. It's [national security] in the sense of guarding the elite from the rest of the population.
DP: I think you’re exactly right. About two years ago the President made a suggestion. (Mind you, he’s never repeated it, so it may be a dead issue.) Nevertheless, a couple of years ago he made the suggestion in a press conference that maybe the US should consider creating a group of twenty-eight, what he called, elite universities. This would be Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and Duke. Maybe, he suggested, we should designate those as elite institutions. That would mean that your kids, and my kids, wouldn’t be able to go there. No kids could, unless they were picked by the Government to go there. Students picked by the Government would get free tuition, room and board. Now, the kick is this: What would be the Government's criteria for choosing them? It’s not about grades any more. I guarantee you the Bush and Obama kids would go; I'm not sure about my kids and yours.
JC: Presumably, 'right thinking' would get you there.
DP: That’s right. Even the fact that he suggested it tells you something. You brought up the idea that this is to protect the political class. Isn't it a bit like that in England, Julian? Isn't it harder to get to college there? Isn't it easier with if you have a pedigree and long-standing family tradition? There aren’t nearly as many colleges and universities in England per capita as there are in the US, so isn't it true that not everybody gets to go?
JC: Well, it's certainly true that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have a lot of places reserved for (or weighted in favour of) a certain class of people.
DP: I think the idea that the elite universities are grooming schools for the political elite is making its way to the US too. [With this way of thinking], the vast majority of us need a proletarian, utilitarian education; we should give up the idea of having careers. This is especially heart-breaking for America: Give up the idea that you can be anything you want to be; we’re going to educate everybody in a utilitarian fashion to qualify them only for rudimentary drone work. Meanwhile the political elite will be able to choose. And you know what gets me? Think about Bill Gates: here’s a guy who dropped out of Harvard because it wasn't ‘useful’ to him, opened up a little shop in a garage and made a billion dollars. If Bill Gates gets his way, there will never be another Bill Gates in America.
JC: Yes, but did you suggest that this idea is migrating to the US from Europe, or from the UK?
DP: Well, I think the American system has [admired] Europe for its strong educational segregation between the ruling class and the rest of us. That’s much more a European idea than an American one (at least in the last hundred years). Particularly since WWII, the upwardly mobility of American kids, and their ability to go to college, has been unparalleled in world history. [But now], as the Federal Government is seeking to move in a more socialist direction, it needs a very doctrinaire and ideologically conformist group of educated people to run the show.
JC: Well, a very elitist attitude was present at the beginning of the Twentieth Century [in the US]. James Corbett brings up the example of Woodrow Wilson in a 1909 address to the New York High School Teachers’ Association, who said: “We want to do two things in modern society: we want one class of persons to have a liberal education; we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific, difficult, manual tasks.” And then he goes on: “We are either trying to make liberally-educated persons out of them, or we’re trying to make skilful servants of society along mechanical lines.” That was over a hundred years ago. At least he was thinking along those lines.
DP: Of course. It’s interesting you mention him, because among conservatives in the United States, Woodrow Wilson is seen as one of the arch minds leading America down a more socialist road. He’s the guy at the turn of the Twentieth Century everybody points to: a college professor; terribly elitist; a eugenicist, and of course, part of the failed League of Nations. That strain has always been part of American culture. For the first one hundred and fifty years you weren’t going to Harvard University unless you were one of the elite Massachusetts families. We understand that.
I’m talking, though, more of the democratisation that came in the period between the two world wars, corresponding with the emergence of America as a world superpower with all its wealth and newfound status. One of the interesting things that happened in America was that a college or university opened on nearly every street corner, and over the last thirty to forty years our politicians have been insisting that every American kid should have the right to a college education. College is terrible oversold in America. We have kids in college who don’t want to be there, [and who] aren’t really equipped to be there; but the culture seems imply that they're failures if they don't go. We’re getting shortages of craftsmen and welders, people who can do really high-skilled, but not necessarily academic, work. We’re running out of those people, while kids are languishing in American Universities racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and not being able to find jobs when they graduate.
JC: Let's return to the question of sexuality education. Can you tell us how and why this is being done within Common Core?
DP: Why is there so much oddly inappropriate sex in the Common Core? One answer is that just when Common Core was being implemented, the Federal Government was creating the National Sexuality Education Standards (which are available online). The subtitle of that document is ‘Core Content’, and it's for kids from as young as five years old through to twelfth grade in high school. The National Sexuality Standards, which were finally published in 2012, are pretty shocking: they embrace a paradigm aimed at exposing kids to graphic adult sexual concepts.
What's interesting about the Sexuality Standards is that they were not designed to stand alone; they were not meant to be taught in health or biology classes. In fact if you open Page 6 of the National Sexuality Standards, you will see that one of the things that they consulted, when they wrote the National Sexuality Standards, was Common Core Standards for English and Math. Why? Well, the obvious answer is that in order to get kids to that level of knowledge about sexual issues, the only way to do it is to make it part of every aspect of the curriculum. Why is there so much sex in Common Core English? Because you have to teach the Sexuality Standards in Common Core English. The same is true for Common Core Math, History and Science.
JC: So this is further evidence that subject areas are subordinate to political goals.
DP: Absolutely. Why else? Why are so many Common Core Math problems [sexually] graphic? Remember when we were kids? It used to be: one train travels to the west so many miles, another train travels east. Now they’re talking about complicated issues like polyamory and transsexuality in Math lessons.
JC: Do they justified this in terms of encouraging respect for different lifestyles?
DP: Absolutely. I've given almost two hundred talks, in all to about ninety thousand Americans, and everyone thinks that to teach five-year-olds about transsexuals or homosexuality is to go beyond what these kids can process. Even people who have no issues with those subjects think so. But that’s exactly what the National Sexuality Standards do, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing in Common Core classrooms. The State is actually forcing kids to deal with sexual issues beyond their ability. This puts parents in a very difficult situation. Do you teach your own version of sexuality to your five-year old to balance out what’s going on in the Public Schools? If you do that, then the public schools have won, because you’re teaching sex to five-year-olds. If you don’t, then what? You see what an untenable situation this is.
JC: Another guest, Dr. Paul Cullen, said similar things about the World Health Organisation’s Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe. For ages four to six we have “respect for differences in lifestyle”, and “respect for different norms regarding sexuality”, etc. Do you know if there’s an influence there from the UN on this?
DP: I would be stunned if there wasn’t. The people who wrote the standards tell you where they got them. They don’t mention the United Nations, [but] they do mention the Centers for Disease Control and other umbrella organisations. A lot of this is being driven by the UN. I mean, there’s a reason why Bill Gates has gone to the UN about this. I think that what’s happening is that we're seeing further erosion of the ability of nation states to make independent decisions, [and this is being done] in the name of social justice and radical tolerance (which is not real tolerance) at the global level.
We’ve got a document in this country signed by more than two hundred and fifty clinical psychologists - child development specialists of every political stripe, [both] Democrat and Republican – saying: “This is not just developmentally inappropriate, it's bordering on child abuse.” We've got very young kids in this country with serious test anxiety; elementary school kids refusing to go to school because of Common Core; sixth-and-seventh-graders, who are burning and cutting themselves because of the trauma of what they’re being exposed to in their Public School systems.
JC: I have another question. In your lecture you said that the biggest obstacle to these developments is those people who hold the Judeo-Christian worldview. They have a foundation for concepts of Right and Wrong, and so they’re not so open to this managerial manipulation. Would you say that Christians, Jews, Muslims and anybody else who holds to such transcendent values are especially targets for this?
DP: I think so. In American schools we have a long history of this. Consider unrepentant Pentagon bomber Bill Ayres from the '70s, who became an education professor - (to say nothing of the Saul Alinskys of the world). After his failed terrorist bombing, he managed to avoid prison and become a professor of education where, for the last thirty years, and in his own words, he’s been bringing Communism into the elementary schools. Bill Ayres, Saul Alinsky and people going way back to Horace Mann and John Dewey, the founders of American public education, are Marxists. They have pointed out for about a hundred years that Judeo-Christian values are the biggest threat to communist statist control.
One of the reasons why socialist state programmes are so heavily sex-based (as we saw in the Soviet Union and Mao Tse-tung’s China) is because if you can get kids to become sexually libertine at young ages, it’s thenvery easy to dislodge any subsequent moral remnants of Christianity within them. Before you can completely bring kids around to statist indoctrination, you do need to divorce them from scruple, from notions of chastity and modesty.
I believe tolerance is the Potemkin village: In the name of “tolerance” we're going to teach your four and five-years-olds radical sexual postures, ideologies and worldviews, so that they will tolerate everything. What you’re really doing, I think, is levelling moral distinctions. It’s a tolerance movement. If tolerance is the only virtue we have left in a post-modern world, then that means everything else has been levelled. As long as you’re a tolerant person, you accept everything, and therefore you can do no wrong. That's why they're removing the classic literature that helped with ethical and moral decision-making.
JC: This is a redefinition of tolerance. Classically, you tolerate someone who has different views from yours by agreeing to differ. But here it seems that you are not allowed to be different from anybody else: all differences in culture and understanding are unacceptable.
DP: I like the way you phrase that. Tolerance is one of the great Christian virtues. But, interestingly, all the Christian virtues only exist if other ones exist: so tolerance, as a virtue, only exists if you can still have chastity. If you can still have chastity, modesty, or humility, then tolerance has a place. You said it exactly right. We don’t have to tolerate improper behaviour, but we do need to tolerate people whose ideas are different. But the tolerance movement as got rid of all those other virtues. Chastity [now] means you’re biased against people who are promiscuous; humility means you see yourself as better than people who are proud. The modern tolerance movement has eliminated every other virtue, and [now] tolerance means everybody’s got to be the same all the time.
JC: So you get rid of any differences between opposites as it were?
DP: That’s right.
JC: Well, I see a leaning towards mysticism there, but that would be another discussion. I have one last question. You say this needs to be acted upon quickly, because once it's established, it’s going to be impossible to change. So, what do you suggest people do, particularly in the US, to combat this?
DP: Well, looking back over the last hundred years, it is impossible to name a single US federal entitlement, or a single federal takeover of anything meaningful that has ever been freed back to the people. So, my point is: This is digging its roots. There’s a reason it’s in the schools before anybody heard of it. They paid for this and slipped it into the schools with a two-year head start without anybody knowing about it, because they knew that once it's established it's going to be hard to remove. So, killing Common Core is important.
[But] even if we kill Common Core tomorrow, the disease is still there. Common Core is just an ugly tumour which you can see. It has to be cut out, [but] you won't be getting rid of the sex and the bogus pedagogy that’s already in our schools. The textbooks will still be there. If you kill Common Core, all you will do is to hold off federal control for a while. That’s a big deal, because if you can kill that aspect of it, then (assuming enough Americans are now motivated to pay attention to schooling) you go further and try to pull some of the rest of it out. In my estimation, if you don’t kill Common Core, federal control will be so intrusive that you will never shake free of it.
JC: And you won’t be able to modify any of this?
DP: No, not from the ground up. The voices of mums, dads and even individual teachers will be utterly meaningless. And we know that the most important way to educate a kid is through the student-parents-teacher traingle, but Common Core absolutely invalidates that triangle making it the least important component of education. The higher you go, the more centralised you go, and the more important that becomes. In other words, the dynamic that works: to let a good teacher deal with a smart kid backed by a mum and dad who care, that becomes utterly meaningless, and all that matters now is what emanates from brains in Washington DC. That’s not going to be good for anybody.
JC: The state as Uberparent - the teacher as manager.
DP: Well, let’s be generous and use their word: teachers are nothing more than ‘facilitators’ for the State ideology.
JC: Well, you've given us a lot of information, but is there anything else that you would like to add?
DP: Well, American education thrived by trying to differ from continental Europe. Now we would do better to look at some of the more sober aspects of European education as a way of trying to right our ship. In a weird way, Julian, I believe the American system has now surpassed the Europeans in terms of indoctrination and control. (I’ve [also] talked to a lot of Canadians who are absolutely terrified that this is going to creep north of the border.) I'm looking to Europe and Canada to try and help us modulate some of our excesses. It would be nice to see that happen.
JC: You have a couple of websites. One for your main organisation, and one for Freedom Project Education.
JC: Thank you very much, Dr. Pesta, I’m grateful to you for joining us on the programme. As I said, you’ve given us a great deal of information and analysis about Common Core, and you have made it abundantly clear, at least to me, that this is something that really does need to be resisted with great tenacity. I think it behoves us all to share this information so that people will become aware of just how dangerous this programme is. God forbid that it should come this way too.
DP: It’s been my pleasure.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by Dr. Pesta in this interview are his responsibility alone; they do not necessarily reflect those of The Mind Renewed.