The Common Core of Being: A Conversation about the Philosophical Foundations of "Common Core" in Education

Tod Desmond and Boyce Brown I Education I Theory I February 26th, 2015

"I forgot, said I, that we were jesting, and I spoke with too great intensity...Nothing that is learned under compulsion stays with the mind...Do not, then, my friend, keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play. That will also better enable you to discern the natural capacities of each" (Plato 1994, 536c-537a).

"Do people know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today? It is personal writing. It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal narrative. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly… the only problem with those two forms of writing is that you grow up in this world and you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think" (Coleman 2012).

The first quote is from Plato's Republic. The second is from David Coleman, widely regarded as the architect of Common Core. They exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum: how much coercion should exist in education? Plato explicitly says coercion should be minimal. Coleman implicitly says it should be maximal. When Coleman says that "people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think," one is instantly led to wonder which "people" he is referring to. Given Common Core's obsessive mantra of "college and career readiness" in an age of neoliberal authoritarianism, it is not unreasonable to infer that Coleman is suggesting that education should be used to bend students into conformity with an ideology of global economic competitiveness and a regime of transnational corporate socialism, in which the power of the nation-state is used to socialize the costs and privatize the benefits, a system in which corporations exercise the predominant influence on virtually every major institution of society in America. In this context, Coleman's demonization of personal writing makes sense, as personal writing is a crucial means of fashioning

a radical imagination that foregrounds the necessity for drastically altering the material and symbolic forces that hide behind a counterfeit claim to participatory democracy (Giroux 2014, para. 4).

Standards-based education is the most influential educational policy reform model of the last several decades. Common Core is its latest and most pervasive iteration. The overarching tendency of standards-based education is to establish a set of general performance guidelines that dictate the skills each student should have in each subject at each grade. Common Core nationalizes this impulse. At its peak it was adopted by 46 states. This trend was accelerated when states were incentivized to adopt it to gain points in their applications for federal Race to the Top education funding. Three of the 46 states that had previously adopted it have since dropped out. These are South Carolina, Indiana and Oklahoma. Louisiana is pursuing a lawsuit against it and several other states have or are considering legislative action to withdraw from it. Criticism of the model stems from a variety of reasons, pedagogical, philosophical and political (right and left). The statewide longitudinal data systems program of the United States Department of Education, began in fiscal year 2005 and reauthorized with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 couple "big data" to Common Core through "grants to states to design, develop, and implement statewide P-20 longitudinal data systems to capture, analyze, and use student data from preschool to high school, college, and the workforce" (United States Department of Education 2009, para. 1). Although legally distinct initiatives, they must be considered as acting in tandem with one another for all practical purposes. Common Core must also be considered as a major shift in four centuries of American tradition in the local control over education, yet another extension of compulsory mass schooling.

In this context, there are several salient questions to be asked. Will Common Core and big data in education lead us to a dystopian nightmare of tracking and surveillance from cradle to grave? Or will it lead to the wise and equitable distribution of economic resources in support of individual learning and differentiated instruction? Perhaps both visions are true? Perhaps neither? At the classroom level, data can help teachers adjust teaching strategies to best reach the multiple intelligences and differing developmental stages of their pupils. At the school level, it helps an administrator or teacher see where their school fits in in comparison with others, to also help see where room for improvement lies. At the legislative and policy-making level, it helps tell where resources can be best allocated. Without question, big data has an important and valuable place in education. Nevertheless, numerous concerns must be raised as well. These concerns center largely around the facts that 1) there are so many data points being collected, 2) they are being held for such a long period (typically of P-20), and 3) this robust set of data on individuals is vulnerable to state or non-state actors assaulting it in cyberspace.

These are complicated questions to phrase and still more difficult to answer. Given these difficulties, we should develop a framework for the conversation about the philosophical basis behind Common Core first. This must be a conversation that is simultaneously as comprehensive and focused as possible (and solution-oriented) and also capable of providing the foundations for any educational policy regime that may seek to supplant it.

Considering the paralyzing effects of our nation's ideological divide, we cannot hope to engage one another in a conversation about these issues until we first agree upon definitions for the terms of debate. It must be clearly understood that all attempts to define abstractions such as "the good" in Plato's Republic and "college and career ready" in Common Core are rooted in cosmological assumptions. These assumptions must be articulated. To establish common definitions for basic terms related to public education, we must first agree upon a common cosmology within a well-defined historical context. With all this in mind, we suggest that a national dialogue on Common Core would be most productively convened in the context of Plato's Republic - the prototypical western treatise on education and politics - and James Dator's theory of four generic images of the future. These four images are:

(1) continuation; (2) collapse; (3) disciplined society; and (4) transformational society. The first - continuation - is essentially the official ideology espoused by much of the media, government, academia and other key agenda-setters. It posits that society and the economy can, should and will continue to operate indefinitely into the future just as they have in the past. The collapse scenario says "that continued economic growth is inherently destructive - whether from a social, cultural, environmental, or economic standpoint" - and that "collapse today, unlike in the past, may be global instead of simply local." The disciplined society sees a type of continuation, albeit one that focuses beyond a "static and passive notion of sustainability." Transformational society anticipates technological and/or spiritual breakthroughs from as yet largely unknown sources, which will significantly alter the present condition of society (Dator 2006, para. 9-11; cited in Brown 2013, 483).

Dator concludes that

From our years of work in futures studies we firmly believe that "futures of education" should never be undertaken until the alternative futures of the societies in which future graduates will live have been identified. Then, after a careful consideration and evaluation of the full array of alternatives has been made, plans, policies, and actions that will make educational institutions robust over all futures (rather than only one, mistakenly assumed to be "the most likely") should be undertaken (2014, 3).

Plato's Republic provides an appropriate lattice upon which the vines of this discussion can grow. It summarizes key aspects of the original curricula in the original Academy. It defines fundamental philosophical terms by framing them in a cosmology with many similarities to contemporary academic cosmology. It is an ur-text, the original normative future studies exercise in educational and political design in the western context.


Brown, B. (2013). The assumptions and possible futures of standards-based education. Policy Futures in Education 11: 481-489.

Coleman, D. (2014). Bringing the Common Core to life. Retrieved from

Dator, J. (2006). Campus futures. Planning for Higher Education 34: 45-48.

Dator, J. (2014). Education fit for the futures. UNESCO. Retrieved from

Giroux, H. (2014). Beyond Orwellian nightmares and neoliberal authoritarianism. Truthdig. Retrieved from

Plato. (1994). The collected dialogues of Plato, including the letters. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

United States Department of Education. (2009). Statewide P-20 longitudinal data systems. Author: Washington, DC. Retrieved from