A few reflections on the Common Core Wars

Monday’s Politico story on the messaging battle over the Common Core has kicked up another round of recriminations, particularly on the Right. What particularly caught my eye was my good friend Rick Hess’s allegation that supporters of the Core (myself among them) were expressing hubris and vanity because we’ve decided that we need our arguments to be more “emotional.”

Ugh. Those are two qualities I certainly don’t want to be associated with. This might be a good time to step back—sans emotion—and take stock of where we’re at.

Get another cup of coffee; this is going to be a long one. I plan to tackle three big topics:

  1. Who’s winning?
  2. Which concerns about the Common Core do I see as legitimate?
  3. How can we supporters of the Core respond constructively to those concerns?

Who’s winning?

The current narrative—pushed by Politico and other media outlets—is that the anti–Common Core forces have momentum on their side. Glenn Beck is making money from movie-ticket and book sales. Republican governors are running scared. Red states are starting to topple.

This is all true, and there’s little doubt that in the “air war” over the Common Core—especially in the conservative media—we’re getting our butts kicked. Furthermore, when it comes to grassroots organizing, the tea-party groups (like FreedomWorks) are much more effective. They have the energy, the passion, and the ground troops.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that somehow, when we look at the scoreboard, the pro–Common Core side is still way out ahead. (Let me be clear: I’m not declaring “mission accomplished.” The politics around this remain precarious, and the scoreboard is anything but frozen.)

But I’d put the score today at 42–4–3–1. Forty-two states are still on board with the standards, though plenty (including Indiana) have rebranded them. Four states (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia) never adopted them in the first place. Three states (North and South Carolina and Missouri) are currently going through a review process that will result in new standards—though, like Indiana’s, they may turn out to be Common Core in new clothes. This leaves just one state, Oklahoma, that has actually repealed the standards. (Of course there’s Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal—or, more precisely, Bobby Jindal’s presidential aspiration—is up against the Republican legislature, the Jindal-appointed state school board, and the Jindal-appointed board of regents. We’ll see how that one ends.)

So for all of the screaming and fighting and bombastic headlines, the opponents of the Common Core have, to date, managed to knock off only Oklahoma, which by many accounts is the most conservative state in the land. That’s worth keeping in mind.

Which concerns about the Common Core are legitimate?

I’ve never argued that decisions to adopt (or retain) the Common Core are a slam dunk or that you have to be dumb or crazy to oppose them. As with any policy issue, there are plenty of pros and cons. Personally, I find that the pros far outweigh the cons, beginning with the original Fordham conclusion that the standards themselves, on their merits, are superior in content and rigor to those that three-quarters of the states were using in 2010. But I don’t pretend that downsides don’t exist. So let’s discuss them.

Legitimate concern #1: The federal role

My experience traveling to red states to testify on the Common Core has shown me that about 98 percent of this debate—on the right, at least—is about federal overreach. (I’m not being particularly perceptive; the “Fed-Ed” buttons at the hearings gave this away.) As a conservative, I too worry about the federal government overstepping its bounds. There are the constitutional concerns. There’s the particular worry about Washington getting involved in curricular issues—book lists and such—which is definitely appropriate (as are the laws proscribing this from happening). There’s the practical matter that, on education at least, the feds tend to screw up so much of what they touch; that’s for a variety of reasons but mostly because they’re too far removed from the actual work of schools. As I’ve long said, the federal government can make states and districts do things they don’t want to do, but it can’t make them do those things well. And in education reform, few things are worth doing without quality.

And there’s no doubt that the federal government has played a role on Common Core—via Race to the Top and via funding for the Common Core–aligned assessments.

Where I grow frustrated with Common Core opponents is when they exaggerate the federal role in this endeavor and minimize the key role played by the states. Take, for example, this “action plan,” disseminated to attendees at the Glenn Beck movie-fest. It urges, “Educate yourself so you can educate others!” And starts with this remarkable statement:

Get to know the US Department of Education’s Blueprint for Reform. This is where the standards were born.

What?!? This is where the standards were born? Sorry, nope, not even close. The standards were born when the Council of Chief State School Officers, under the leadership of former Kentucky state supe Gene Wilhoit, decided to respond to the clarion call (from Fordham, the Hunt Institute, and many others) to do something about the low standards and ridiculously easy tests of the No Child Left Behind era and when state superintendents like Eric Smith of Florida and Chris Koch of Illinois decided that they could develop stronger standards, for less money, if they worked together.

Yes, as Neal McCluskey has doggedly pointed out for years, some Common Core supporters (including some state supes) urged the federal government to create “incentives” for state adoption of these higher standards. Upon reflection, that was a huge mistake. But there’s little doubt that the impetus and energy for this movement started in the states, long before Barack Obama became president.

So I concede that the federal government has played a role. In my view, it’s been a fairly limited role, but I appreciate that, for some conservatives, any federal involvement is too much. And I can relate to the worry that this opens the door to the Obama administration (or the Clinton administration) getting deeper into the day-to-day routines of our schools, something we must vigorously resist. (And not just when it comes to the Common Core, as I’ve written.)

Legitimate concern #2: The standards aren’t perfect

Opponents are right: they aren’t perfect. We said as much back in 2010. But they’re pretty darn good and much better than what most states had before. Yes, they can absolutely be improved. That’s why we’re supportive of what states like Florida have done to augment the standards.

There’s a worry, for example, that some schools will interpret the standards as a ceiling instead of a floor, especially in math, where they end at Algebra II. Creating additional standards for high-achieving math students who are gunning for selective colleges and/or STEM careers makes a ton of sense. Likewise, some people feel strongly that cursive writing should continue to be taught. Fair enough—states can add standards for that (and some have done so).

But opponents have grossly exaggerated the imperfections of the standards. Take Sandy Stotsky’s continued criticism of the English language arts standards and her charge that they push elementary schools to squeeze out literature. That’s total baloney—the “plain language” of the standards says that the early grades should focus primarily on literary texts. Some critiques of the standards, then, I find to be more fact-based than others.

Legitimate concern #3: Confusing, convoluted textbooks

Finally, I have complete sympathy for Louis C.K. and other parents whose kids are bringing home math homework that is indecipherable. My own view is that the standards themselves aren’t the problem and that well-designed textbooks (like Singapore Math) can and do teach the Common Core in a straightforward way. But some publishers have totally botched it, misreading the standards and/or creating materials that are vastly more complicated than they need to be. (Sounds familiar.)

This doesn’t help the parents (or their kids) who are subjected to such materials and struggling with math homework. When those parents complain to the teachers, and when the teachers say it’s because of Common Core and that the Common Core was mandated by some far-away state official (or even the feds, or Bill Gates, or Pearson…), the result is frustration, a feeling of powerlessness, and eventually anger. All totally understandable.

So we supporters shouldn’t dismiss these legitimate concerns out of hand. What can we do about them? Is it about better “messaging”? Or is it about substance?

How to respond to the legitimate concerns

In my view, the federalism concern is the one that carries the most urgency, since it’s driving almost all of the backlash on the right. (And while the teacher unions and other parts of the left are restive, that hasn’t translated into actual threats of repeal in any blue states.)

But frankly, it’s also the hardest one to fix. We can’t go back and undo Race to the Top; we can’t take away the millions of federal dollars that have already flowed to PARCC and Smarter Balanced. And, as has become painfully clear, Arne Duncan and his minions—not to mention the White House—seem all but uncontrollable in their passion to make Common Core resemble their creation even when it wasn’t.

Secretary Duncan could still take a lot of heat out of opponents’ arguments by declaring that the federal government is going to stay a million miles away from the Common Core. Yet he may be about to make matters worse. Will the Department now revoke Oklahoma’s ESEA waiver because the state no longer has “college- and career-ready standards”—even though this requirement is never mentioned in ESEA and is probably illegal if not unconstitutional?

Duncan and his supporters will argue that they’re just setting parameters around ESEA flexibility, much as Margaret Spellings did, but that’s not the point. Even if they have the authority to revoke Oklahoma’s waiver or those of other states that pull back from the Common Core, they should have the good sense not to do so. By punishing Oklahoma (or any other jurisdiction) for repudiating the Common Core, they would cement the view—and the reality—that the federal government is driving this train.

Another looming disaster is the Department’s plans to “peer review” the new assessments under development—PARCC and Smarter Balanced but also the other exams that some states plan to use to assess student performance in relation to the Common Core. In this case, they have statutory authority to make sure a state’s tests are aligned to its standards and are reliable and valid. And some in the Department are said to see this as an opportunity to ensure that the new tests are of high quality. That may be, but again, they should use good judgment and punt on the whole thing or simply turn it over to the state superintendents, because of the obvious political sensitivities.

***

Addressing the other legitimate concerns is more within the control of those outside of the federal government. States should follow Florida’s lead and add to the Common Core to make them even better. And all of us need to get busy helping districts make better decisions around textbooks and the like. It’s taken a while for truly aligned Common Core materials to come onto the market, but it’s finally happening. In coming months, Fordham will point to some good examples of textbooks and other instructional materials that are aligned and high quality; other organizations are also gearing up (better late than never) to review curricular materials. This should help; there’s no reason any school should use a textbook that teaches math (or any subject) in a convoluted way.

We’ll also need to help parents and teachers understand that they aren’t powerless in the face of bad textbooks—that their own local communities still have the authority to decide which instructional materials will be used and that they don’t have to settle for schlock.

***

Note that I haven’t made the case that we supporters mostly need to work on our “messaging.” It’s certainly true that much of the energy coming from the Right is stemming from emotional arguments (including justified anger at Barack Obama over a whole host of issues). Getting our own supporters equally fired up is worth pursuing, not via warm and fuzzy TV ads but by reminding the country what this fight is all about: fixing an education system that continues to tell kids they are doing fine until they find themselves in remedial courses or without a decent paying job.

Mostly, though, we need to address the legitimate concerns with action. As the NGA’s Richard Laine likes to say, the best advocacy strategy is solid implementation. My earnest hope is that the politicians—from Arne Duncan to Bobby Jindal and everyone in between—stop misbehaving and give educators the room to focus on the real work at hand: selecting good curricular materials, improving teaching and learning, and getting ready for the much more rigorous tests that will be given nine months from now. All we are saying is give peace a chance.

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