Sorry, Louis C.K., but You're Wrong About Common Core

Louis C.K.
Louis C.K. attends the “American Hustle” movie premiere in New York on December 8, 2013. Eric Thayer/Reuters

Louis C.K. is angry. Again. Anger is one of the best tools in his vast comedic arsenal, anger so palpable it hardly seems like an act: anger about his weight, his lack of hair, his lack of a girlfriend, the travails of parenting (two daughters), the travails of life in New York, the ease with which he slips into an ice-cream-and-porn routine on his living-room floor. The anger comes from some place genuine and deep, and it has made his FX show, Louie, the finest comedy on cable.

This week, though, Louis C.K.'s anger was not in the service of comedy. On Monday morning, he directed his anger at the test preparation one of his daughters was made to undergo at school. "My kids used to love math," he wrote in a message that was retweeted more than 7,000 times. "Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and Common Core." Subsequent missives laid out his complaints about test-preparation math problems ("Who is writing these? And why?") before concluding that the Common Core curriculum requirements, and the attendant testing, were a "massive stressball [that] hangs over the whole school. The kids' teachers [are] trying to adapt to these badly written notions."

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is one of those rare reforms that is loathed by right and left alike: by conservatives for the wielding of a federal diktat (more than 40 states have adopted the Common Core) that will surely spread to gun ownership next; by liberals for seemingly diminishing the teaching profession by emphasizing data. The Common Core is especially loathed by the teachers' unions, which fear that educators will be judged (and fired) if their students don't perform adequately on the more difficult standardized tests that are a crucial component of Common Core. There are also conspiracy theorists who deem the whole project a massive payout to test maker Pearson.

In many ways, the Common Core has suffered a fate similar to that of the Affordable Care Act: a necessary idea, poorly executed, dropped like a lowing cow into the den of starving lions that is the modern political scene. Like health care reform, it attempts to address a fundamental national problem, but in doing so, only inflames opposition. And, like Obamacare, it remains poorly explained and buggy and thus frightening to just about anyone who has a stake in education reform. Which is to say, the entire nation.

But what's dismaying about Louis C.K.'s anti-Common Core rant is that he is neither a shill for the unions nor a far-left conspiracy theorist who thinks that Education Secretary Arne Duncan (and perhaps the president himself!) is in the pocket of Pearson and the Princeton Review. He is, instead, a New York City public school parent who has the ears and eyeballs of millions across the nation, not to mention his 3 million Twitter followers. And he has used that bully pulpit to malign an earnest effort at education reform, one that is far too young to be judged so harshly.

What makes Louis C.K. so great is that he has the tool Hemingway said was indispensable to all great novelists: a "bulls**t detector." He has it on a bad date, while walking the streets of Greenwich Village with his kids and while performing onstage. And his frustration with some tough homework aside, he must surely smell plenty of bovine excrement in the American educational system: China, South Korea and Germany are leaving us in the chalk dust, most Americans can barely find America on the map, and the only time our schools are in the news is when there's a shooting/stabbing or some kid in Indiana shows up for the seventh-grade dance in a Klan outfit.

I know I smelled it too during my five years in the front of a classroom in New York. And I was lucky: I taught good kids, at a good school, in a bad part of Brooklyn. We sent kids from the projects to colleges like Brown and Emory. And yet we knew we were surrounded by a vast sea of mediocrity. Everyone had stories about the teacher who slept through class, who read the Post to his students, who did unmentionable things. That sense of dismay is why few of the men and women who started teaching with me remain public school educators. The futility left most of us cynical, tired, dry. Everyone always wanted either a nap or a beer.

Will testing our kids to hell and back fix all that? Obviously not. But introducing a set of national standards is a first step toward widespread accountability, toward the clearly worthy goal of having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama. And for those teachers to have to account for what their charges learned. Or didn't, as it were.

Another obvious point: The tests are thus far imperfect, as is how we prepare for them. With that I agree. But staging scenes from Of Mice and Men isn't going to catch us up to China anytime soon. Nor are art projects or iPads. It was dismaying to hear the new New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, recently complain that our students are deprived of "joy" in the classroom. Joy, our twerking young ones know. Trigonometry, not so much. Louis C.K.'s frustration doesn't pass muster as a critique of educational reform. Yes, the problems his daughter was given are tough. That's as it should be.

The saddest thing about all this is that C.K.'s children will be fine, as will mine and, probably, yours. It is kids in the South Bronx or the South Side who would benefit from a little more rigor in the classroom and a little more accountability from their teachers, some of whom think it is enough to merely show up and baby-sit disadvantaged kids. ("Who could teach them?") That's why parents of poor and minority children aren't (generally) complaining. For the most part, the complaints against Common Core and the charter-school movement have come from upper-middle-class parents whose objections are largely ideological, not pedagogical.

It's fun to get angry when you've got nothing to lose.