The funny thing about eras is that it’s hard to know which one you are in until it is coming to an end. As the fighting among conservatives heats up over the Common Core, the era of standards-driven reform that has defined conservative education policy for the past three decades is brought into sharper relief.
But the approach that President Reagan and his secretary of education Bill Bennett helped set in motion in the 1980s is under increasing assault from a resurgent libertarian movement and the coopting of many of the most popular ideas by a reform-minded Democratic president and his own energetic secretary of education. Is 2014 the year the conservative push for curricular and instructional excellence comes to an end?
Those looking for answers would be wise to track the increasingly acerbic discussion over the Common Core State Standards. What began as a conversation about the quality, content, and rigor of the standards has evolved into an increasingly polarized political debate that is fracturing support for one of the most enduring conservative reforms.
Just last week, University of Arkansas professor and longtime conservative education-policy researcher Jay Greene admitted that his position on standards and accountability has changed. “Simply put,” Greene acknowledge, “I am no longer a supporter of top-down school accountability regimes.” (Though Greene also acknowledged that, “until we have expanded choice further, I see no practical alternative to continuing state testing for schools not subject to meaningful choice accountability.”)
This represents a remarkable shift for Greene, who once lambasted the education establishment’s pushback against rigorous standards and accountability and who cheered that, thanks to the No Child Left Behind–era accountability reforms, “high school graduates are more likely to be academically qualified to attend college than those of a decade ago, before the accountability movement took hold.”
Greene is not alone. Other conservatives who were once at the forefront are now wavering in their support for standards in general—and the Common Core in particular.
Much of the anti–Common Core ire is aimed at the Obama administration and its activist education secretary, Arne Duncan. Critics believe that by incentivizing CCSS adoption through Race to the Top and by continuing to express public support for the standards, Duncan and his team are essentially usurping control over curriculum and instruction from the states.
Take, for example, the latest piece published on NRO by AEI education-policy-studies director Rick Hess. In the piece, Hess criticizes Mike Petrilli and me for what he saw as a failure to muster the appropriate degree of righteous indignation for a speech that Duncan gave on the White House lawn last week. Hess believes that the speech—in which Duncan urges college and university professors to adopt the Common Core—is a smoking gun. No longer can Common Core supporters argue that the Common Core was created by states for states. Now we’ve fallen further down the slippery slope into federal control over K–12 education. Specifically, he argues,
Five years into the “state-led” Common Core debate, the secretary of education is at the White House telling the leaders of institutions reliant on federal aid that they need to get out there and back the Common Core and . . . what? The folks who spent so much time selling this as “voluntary” aren’t even modestly troubled.
Are we troubled by prescriptive federal-education mandates? Of course. Do we wish Duncan would stop? Absolutely. And we’ve said so. Many times.
But we are also supportive of standards- and accountability-driven reform. And before we write off the future of standards and accountability in the conservative vision of school reform, it’s worth remembering a few countervailing facts.
For starters, conservatives have always had to balance a desire to advance school reform with a wariness of federal overreach. In fact, it seems curious to criticize Mike Petrilli, in particular, for not being skeptical enough about the federal role in K–12 education when he has been one of the leading critics of the Obama administration’s heavy-handed Race to the Top prescriptions. As early as 2009, Petrilli was on the record chastising Obama and Duncan on this point. “The Obama Administration had a choice,” Petrilli argued:
It could have asked states for their best ideas for achieving big objectives, like improving teacher quality or turning around low-performing schools. Instead, it has published a list of 19 of its best ideas, few of which are truly ‘evidence-based,’ regardless of what President Obama says, and told states to adopt as many of them as possible if they want to get the money.
Perhaps ironically, some fellow conservative thought leaders were critical of Petrilli’s “hands-off” RTT proposal. As Andy Smarick, for instance, reasoned,
I think Mike's preferred method—asking states to pursue their own best ideas with lots of federal money—has a name: "The pre-NCLB era where the status quo was preserved, adult interests were served, and the achievement gap flourished."
In other posts, Smarick went further and argued that he hoped states would respond to RTT pressure by adopting favored reforms—like lifting charter caps and adopting teacher-evaluation policies.
As recently as 2012, Hess himself acknowledged that “some” praise of the competitive grant program was warranted. After all, Hess explained,
Race to the Top offered state leaders the leverage they needed to uproot restrictive, rent-seeking policies favored by unions-such as caps on the number of charter schools or statutory data "firewalls" that prohibited states from using student achievement data to evaluate teachers. Indeed, Race to the Top encouraged 13 states to pass charter school laws or raise charter caps, and 11 knocked down their data firewalls.
While Hess does raise questions about the particulars of RTT, he doesn’t seem to raise a serious question of whether RTT represented an unwelcome federal mandate that Republicans should explicitly oppose. In fact, when rereading articles and posts from the early days of Race to the Top, there seems to be a clear distinction between conservative commentators—many of whom seemed comfortable with the Feds incentivizing policy change—and libertarians, who believe that education policy should begin and end with choice.
Indeed, conservative leaders celebrated when states lifted charter caps in response to Race to the Top incentives, cheered when Maine adopted its first-ever charter law in order to be competitive for RTT dollars, and supported states that moved the needle on teacher evaluation.
In other words, in more than a few corners of the debate over K–12 education policy, one’s opinion of the legitimacy of a federal incentive seems to depend more on one’s support for the policies it is advancing than on the way the federal involvement is carried out. Federal involvement that breaks the union opposition to charter schools: good. Federal involvement that encourages states to adopt rigorous standards: not so much.
While it’s clear that there has been a shift in thinking by some conservative education leaders in recent years about how much federal intervention they can tolerate, it’s unclear exactly why that shift took place.
An inconvenient truth is that the grand tradition of using the bully pulpit to push for curriculum reform began with the Reagan administration under his second education secretary, William J. Bennett. Bennett used that bully pulpit to forcefully push for a combination of changes—curriculum reform, accountability, and choice—that he believed could help drive excellence in U.S. schools. In fact, Bennett went as far as using his position as Secretary of Education to promote a particular—and narrowly defined—vision for curriculum. In a 1988 report entitled James Madison Elementary School: A Curriculum for American Students, Bennett described a fictitious elementary school, James Madison, in order to make an explicit call for a particular vision for curriculum and instruction in K–12 public schools. The report was the third in a series that Bennett used to describe his vision for a content-rich K–12 curriculum for American public schools.
At the same time, conservatives have rightly struggled to make Bennett’s vision a reality without overstepping the bounds of federal authority. And, as evidenced by the heavily prescriptive mandates of No Child Left Behind, we haven’t always struck the right balance even when conservatives are calling the shots. Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, had it right when she warned,
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and as parents we don’t want the federal government to tell teachers what textbooks to use and how to teach.
But vigilance doesn’t mean walking away from the historically conservative push for rigorous standards and strong accountability for results (including choice-based accountability). The reality is that states still control their own standards-setting. (That is why undoing the Common Core would require forty-six separate, state-led actions.) And the Common Core do not dictate the books students will read, the curriculum teachers will follow, or the way schools will help ensure all students reach their potential.
Instead, vigilance means we must continue to encourage strong leadership in the states on standards and accountability, paired with a vigorous push for increased parental choice so that parents can take action when armed with the information these accountability systems provide.
More than that, we must resist the centrifugal forces that threaten to pull apart the core policies that together have made the conservative reform movement so successful. Narrowing the scope of this tradition by removing standards and accountability from the theory of change would be a remarkably shortsighted decision with far-reaching consequences for everyone seeking reform.
This article originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on the National Review Online.