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February 14, 2011
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The new “Common Core” math and reading standards have come under a firestorm of criticism from tea-party activists and commentators like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin. Beck calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.” As education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks, we feel compelled to set the record straight.
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Here’s what the Common Core State Standards are: They describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.
The Common Core standards are also not a curriculum; it’s up to state and local leaders to choose aligned curricula. The Fordham Institute has carefully examined the new expectations and compared them with existing state standards: They found that for most states, Common Core is a great improvement in rigor and cohesiveness.
For decades, students in different states have been held to radically different expectations. Several years ago, a small group of governors joined together in an effort to better align expectations for student learning. In 2007, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers joined together and hired independent curriculum experts to devise the new “common” standards. Drafts were circulated among the states, comments received, and the standards adjusted. Now, forty-five states and the District of Columbia have signed up to implement these new expectations.
Now let’s address the false claims circulated by the most vocal Common Core critics.
The Common Core is not “ObamaCore,” as some suggest. While President Obama often tries to claim credit, the truth is the Common Core was well underway before he took office in January 2009. Some argue that states were coerced into adopting Common Core by the Obama administration as a requirement for applying to its Race to the Top grant competition (and NCLB waiver program). But the guidelines for both make clear that adoption of “college and career readiness standards” doesn’t necessarily mean adoption of Common Core. At least a handful of states had K–12 content standards that were equally good, and the administration would have been hard-pressed to argue otherwise.
Education policymaking—and 90 percent of funding—remains centered at the state and local level, even though No Child Left Behind (George W. Bush’s signature education law) linked federal Title 1 dollars directly to state education policy. What’s more, states who failed to comply with NCLB risked losing millions in compensatory education funding. Whatever “strings” have been attached to the adoption of college and career readiness standards by the Obama administration are far less consequential. And none were explicitly tied to the CCSS.
Perhaps the clearest evidence that states can still set their own standards is the fact that—so far—five states have opted out of Common Core. More may follow, and states won’t lose a dime if they do.
Critics have also complained that Common Core forces English teachers to abandon classical literature in favor of dry government manuals. This claim reflects a profound and perhaps deliberate misunderstanding of Common Core literacy standards. Yes, the Common Core encourage increased exposure to informational texts and literary nonfiction, but they also explicitly clarify that English teachers alone are not expected to shoulder that burden.
The goal of the Common Core nonfiction standards is to expose all children to challenging, content-rich texts that build vocabulary and background knowledge, a strategy grounded in what education scholar E. D. Hirsch has shown: a broad, content-rich curriculum can reduce the achievement gap between the middle class and the poor.
These “informational texts” include foundational texts of American history—the Gettysburg Address, Common Sense, and works of thought leaders like Emerson and Thoreau. Given the evidence that most American students cannot identify the decade in which the Civil War occurred, one would think that enhancing student knowledge of our nation’s rich history would be welcome.
But facts be damned when there are standards to undermine! Headlines blare, “Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark the End of Literature.” Reporters lament that To Kill a Mockingbird is being stripped from the “U.S. school curriculum.” Never mind that there is no “U.S. school curriculum” from which beloved literary classics were being dropped—or that To Kill a Mockingbird actually appears on the list of “exemplar” texts supported by the standards.
Perhaps the most curious Common Core criticism comes on the math side, with opponents arguing that the standards are squishy, progressive, and lacking in rigorous content. While the math standards do articulate ten “practices,” mathematical content dominates the K–12 expectations. Unlike many of the replaced state standards, Common Core demands automaticity (memorization) with basic math facts, mastery of standard algorithms, and understanding of critical arithmetic. These essential foundational math skills are not only required but prioritized, particularly in the early grades. The math standards focus in depth on fewer topics that coherently build over time.
The Common Core standards are not a panacea; much depends on the curricula that states and districts select to implement them. And states seeking to add content or districts hoping to accelerate learning are encouraged to do so. Like all standards, the Common Core are the floor, not the ceiling. But by setting a clearer and more rigorous floor, Common Core offers American students the opportunity for a far more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K–12 education.
For decades, conservatives have fought to hold students accountable for high standards and an academic curriculum imbued with great works of Western civilization and the American republic. This is our chance to make it happen.
Kathleen Porter-Magee is the Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Sol Stern is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.
A version of this piece appeared in the National Review Online.