Few topics produce such heated disagreement as education, and no recent policy has been more controversial, than the Common Core, a set of national standards first introduced in 2010. In a lively and engaging new book, Associate Professor of Political Science Nicholas Tampio, Ph.D., argues that the Common Core should be abandoned and education policy returned to state and local control.

Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy (Johns Hopkins, 2018) crafts a nuanced case against standardization that rests on two threads: that the Common Core is ineffective, and that it is undemocratic. Tampio illustrates that the strict requirements of Common Core pedagogy inhibit creative thinking and intellectual curiosity, traits that are essential for long-term success in the contemporary information economy. The Common Core “does not teach young people how to think; it teaches young people how to follow orders,” said Tampio in an interview.

He bases the second leg of his argument on a reading of seminal thinkers such as James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that instituting top-down educational policy over a pluralistic and diverse society was profoundly undemocratic. The result, they foresaw, would be a damaging collective disillusionment with the very idea of civic involvement.

In his introduction, Tampio writes that the Common Core initially sounded to him “like what the tailors told the emperor when selling him his new robe.” He notes that the book has already begun provoking reactions and conversations since its publication on March 1. Common Core received a Wall Street Journal review by Naomi Schaefer Riley, who called the book “concise and readable.”

Perhaps more important, Tampio reports having received dozens of messages from parents who have been following the rise of Common Core with alarm, and who have expressed support for his rebuttals of the initiative.

Such cross-partisan appeal stems from the book’s stimulating mixture of political perspectives to shape its polemic. On the one hand, Tampio criticizes the Common Core as rigid and intellectually demeaning, objections that one might generally expect to hear from the left. “Local education authorities,” Tampio writes, “should have the option to adopt a progressive education model that encourages self-directed learning in a supportive community.”

On the other, Tampio says that such decisions should devolve to state and local control—a typical conservative stance—going so far as to say that the issues of gender identity and sexual education should not be defined by external ideological forces. The public, Tampio said, “still tends to think of federal involvement in the education wars as if it were still 1954”—an allusion to Brown v. Board of Education and the desegregation of public schools.

Today’s policy landscape, as Tampio’s book reveals, is even more complicated.

Michael Lindgren