Louis C.K. Takes Aim at Common Core -- And We're All Smarter for It

When Louis C.K. started tweeting, the world sat up and listened. No jargon, no excuses, no false promises: just a dad wondering, What's going on here? This stuff is nuts. It makes no sense.
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There is a battle royal being waged across the nation about a set of national academic standards called the Common Core.

On one side, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has warned that the future of the nation depends on these standards. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for writing them, evaluating them, and promoting them, and even handed out millions more to education organizations (including the teachers' unions) to advocate for them.

On the other side are grassroots groups of parents, teachers, and principals who say the standards were written in stealth, imposed by the lure of federal billions, and implemented too rapidly. All testing must be done online, so the standards are a bonanza for the testing industry, the hardware industry, and the software industry.

But the mass media mostly ignored the controversy until a comedian named Louis C.K. tweeted that his daughter used to love math, and now she hates it. Not only does Louis have two daughters in a New York public school, he has 3.3 million followers on Twitter. Suddenly the world woke up, and Louis' tweets were reported in Salon, Politico, and dozens of daily papers and websites.

No one listened when parents complained: Arne Duncan called them "white suburban moms" who were disappointed to discover that their child wasn't so bright after all. No one listened when teachers and principals complained that the new federal tests were confusing and had multiple right answers. No one cared when Pearson, the giant test publisher, put a gag order on teachers forbidding them from revealing the contents of the tests. No one cared that teachers couldn't help their students when they weren't allowed to discuss what they got wrong on the tests.

But when Louis C.K. started tweeting, the world sat up and listened. And he made sense! No jargon, no excuses, no false promises: just a dad wondering, What's going on here? This stuff is nuts. It makes no sense.

He tweeted:

My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014

Just common sense. He tweeted:

Everything important is worth doing carefully. None of this feels careful to me.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Louis' big gripe is the high-stakes testing, and he hates the pressure on the teachers and his children. He tweeted:

Teachers are underpaid. They teach for the love of it. Let them find the good in cc without the testing guns to their and our kids heads.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

He saw that the big winners in the Common Core roll-out were test publisher Pearson, which is paid many millions for its tests, and Bill Gates, who leveraged his grants to create the nation's standards. He took a lot of criticism from others on Twitter for his comments. He tweeted:

I trust a teacher over Pearson or bill hates any day of the week. Don't all be so defensive and don't be such bullies.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Louis posted a photograph of a question that appeared on his daughter's third-grade test. His best tweet of all:

my favorite responses have been adults proudly announcing that they were able to solve these problems from a 3rd grade test.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Should we care what a comedian thinks of Common Core? Don't underestimate what Louis C.K. accomplished. He was able to break through the carefully crafted narrative that had been spun by Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, and other advocates for the new standards. He spoke as a father, not a comedian. What he wrote was not funny. His celebrity gave him a platform. His standing as a parent of public school children gave him credibility.

Louis C.K. has changed the terms of the national debate. From now on, it will be harder for the Common Core salesmen to pretend that the critics are nothing more than extremists. Maybe now we can begin to have a genuine national debate about the Common Core standards and tests instead of an orchestrated campaign to ignore, ridicule, and demean any critics. The standards and tests can be improved, but only if their advocates are willing to listen and think critically.

Louis C.K. may have made that possible. Thanks, Louis.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University

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