The Common Core and the grassy knoll

President Kennedy may have died 50 years ago this week, but something else was born: The modern conspiracy theory. How could people not watch the shootings not just of JFK but of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and George Wallace during such an otherwise tumultuous era -- and not think that it was more than a coincidence, that it couldn't have just been "a lone nut" in every case.

But like all things, the life span of the modern conspiracy theory craze is finite...and today it's on life support. The number of people who don't believe the Warren Commission's central finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy is beginning to drop.

That's because conspiracy theories are getting it from both sides. The main culprit has been the willingness of people to propagate and accept ridiculous ones -- JFK was killed by his driver, the World Trade Center was hit by holograms, not planes. But the concept is also utilized by elites who play on those silly theories to stifle any debate. Legitimate questions -- was it really a conidence that the guy who killed Lee Harvey Oswald had mob and even Cuba connections up the wazoo? -- get thrown away along with the trash. Fifty years after Dealey Plaza, the powerful can dismiss real debate by labelling it "a conspiracy theory."

Ironically, there was an atrocious example of this over the weekend, regarding the education reform-y testing program known as Common Core. This is something which in many ways is the culmination of the grand testing movement that so far has caused great chaos in American education but has done little to actually boost student achievement. About four years ago, most of the states reached an agreement that nationwide standards and testing for performance and reading in math would produce better high school graduates. It's easy to see how this concept has gained some high-level support: In theory, would would be against pressing our kids to reach a minimum across-the-board standard in key subjects?

Turns out, a lot of people don't trust what you could the ultimate "big government" approach to teaching our kids. And so the plan has been blasted by conservative thinkers and liberal thinkers, by teachers and by parents of poor inner-city kids and parents of upscale suburban kids. The biggest objection is simply this: That kids waste too much of their valuable classroom time already on "drill-and-kill" test prep for high-stakes exams that don't take into account where a child has been and don't really help him or her get where he or she needs to go. The opinion leaders who are watching their "common sense" reform unravel are now freaking out -- led by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, one of the lesser lights of the Obama administration, who accused "white suburban moms" of undermining the centerpiece of his agenda.

Then comes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni to pile on. In a bizarre Sunday column, Bruni claims the the resistance to Common Core is not parents and teachers who are simply exhausted by useless high-stakes testing . No, the real problem is parents who want to "coddle" their little sons and daughters, as he wraps this very real policy debate into a completely unrelated riff about bar-mitzvah swag.

Then he goes for the kill. Anyone who opposes this wonderful idea cooked up by governors and a few think tanks cannot be serious. They must be conspiracy theorists:

What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.

Really? Maybe Frank Bruni should look toward the grassy knoll of corporate education reform, where the real killers of public education are hiding in plain sight. As is the case with all these "education reforms," a well-connected private company is poised to rake in billions of dollars:

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates the national cost for compliance with common core will be between $1 billion to $8 billion and the profits will go almost directly to publishers. According to Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson's K-12 division, Pearson School, "It's a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we're involved in." However, as publishers are preparing to rake in the money, Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer of New York City schools is warning principals to be wary: "There's lots and lots of books that have got fancy, pretty stickers on them saying 'Common Core,' but they actually haven't changed anything in the inside."

Diane Ravitch, the best education thinker in America today, tore into Bruni on her blog, in a well-deserved blast:

Imagine thinking that the burst of thousands of privately managed charters and the spread of vouchers to 17 states in the past 20 years is worthy of concern? Nah, that’s leftwing paranoic thinking. Imagine wondering how strained school budgets can afford billions for new software and hardware, more bandwidth, more teacher evaluations based on tests, more tests, more test prep…..Nah, just more left-wing paranoic thinking.

The bottom line is this -- whether it's the Warren Commission or education reform, the war in Iraq or Obamacare, no one should try to intimidate everyday American citizens from asking the right questions. In the case of Common Core, the people with the closest on-the-ground connection to what happens in the classroom have done the math, and things are not adding up. And their only comeback is -- you're a conspiracy theorist. I guess we need to blame Lee Harvey Oswald...or whoever it really was that killed JFK.