Indiana and the Common Core: Tony Bennett got it right

In a rational world, Tony Bennett, Indiana’s State Superintendent, would be cruising to reelection this fall, with strong support from the Tea Party and other conservatives serving as the wind at his back. Instead he’s bogged down in a two-front war—against his teacher-union-backed opponent, on the one side, and critics of the Common Core State Standards initiative on the other.

Ed Reform Idol
Tony Bennett at the Fordham Institute's "Education Reform Idol" competition. 
Photo by Joe Portnoy.

It’s no surprise that the teacher union would like to be rid of him. But his critics on the right seem to have forgotten that, along with Governor Mitch Daniels, he pushed through the most aggressive school-reform agenda in a generation. Statewide school vouchers. Severe limits on collective bargaining. Rigorous teacher evaluations. Tenure reform. You name it, he and Governor Daniels did it. (With the help of Republican legislators, of course.) Once upon a time, education reformers might point to Massachusetts or Florida as the “most reformed” state in the land. Today it’s Indiana—a distinction that we at the Fordham Institute recognized last year by naming the state “Education Reform Idol.”

Yet not a week goes by without an article or op-ed by a conservative critic nipping at Bennett’s heels because of his support for the Common Core State Standards Initiative, new English and math standards that are poised to dramatically raise expectations for American schools, teachers, and students and to highlight the extent of school failure in America today.

Even more perplexing (and wrong-headed), Bennett’s critics sometimes cite us at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute as opponents of the Hoosier State’s adoption of the standards. That’s completely false. What’s going on here?

Yes, Common Core critics do raise a couple of legitimate concerns. They are right that President Obama has politicized the standards by using federal Race to the Top dollars to coerce their adoption by the states. (Even Phyllis Schlafly acknowledges that the standards effort started out as a state-led initiative before the Obama Administration jumped on the bandwagon.) It doesn’t help that the President continues to take credit for the common standards on the campaign trail.

Bennett knows this, of course, which is why he’s been scolding Obama for wounding the standards initiative by embracing it. “This administration has an insatiable appetite for federal overreach,” he told a recent Tea Party gathering. “The federal government’s involvement in these standards is wrong.” Go, Tony!

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute fully supports Indiana’s decision to adopt the Common Core standards. Period.

The critics are also correct that, when we at the Fordham Institute reviewed the Common Core standards in 2010, we found Indiana’s English language arts standards to be somewhat stronger. (In math, it was too close to call.) There’s no doubt that Indiana, all by itself, had devised some of the best English (and math) standards in the land; indeed, drafters of the Common Core would have done well to plagiarize even more of the Hoosier State’s fine work. Nor would we mind if Indiana used its “15 percent” flexibility to supplement the Common Core with some of the excellent specifics of its old standards. (Its solid reading list, for instance.) However, that doesn’t mean we think that Indiana’s adoption of the Common Core was a mistake.

Let us say this clearly: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute fully supports Indiana’s decision to adopt the Common Core standards. Period.

That’s because the adoption decision wasn’t just about the quality of the standards themselves. That’s important, and for most states it was a no brainer; their existing standards were terrible, and the Common Core is pretty good. For Indiana and a few other states (California and Massachusetts especially), it was a tougher call. Even there, however, we still support adoption because of the ancillary benefits that this will bring to states, communities, educators, even parents. These include:

  • The ability to compare school results across state lines. It’s not enough anymore to know whether your local school is doing better than the one down the street; today’s students are going to be competing against people from other states and around the world. The Common Core will help Hoosier State school districts know whether they are performing at “world class” levels.
  • A much-needed jolt to Indiana’s complacency about school quality. While Indiana had fine standards on the books, the assessments it has used to track student and school performance against those standards aren’t great and the cut scores on those tests have been set low. One consequence: Indiana has been living under the illusion that things were going better than they really have been. That might be why the Hoosier State has racked up some of the weakest gains in the country over the past two decades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  • The potential for significant cost savings. Publishers, foundations, entrepreneurs, and others are in a race to develop better textbooks, study guides, professional development, and more. Any state not participating in the Common Core is going to miss out on this bonanza—most of it paid for by others.
  • Access to the digital learning revolution. As Tom Vander Ark, a onetime Common Core skeptic, argued recently, the standards have unleashed “an avalanche of innovation.” Simply put, digital learning is coming, it’s going to open up a world of choices for students and families, and it’s going to be aligned to the Common Core.

It’s true that these potential benefits might not all materialize. The Common Core assessments could go off track; the new textbooks might not align to the new standards, or could include the same pabulum that most of today’s textbooks feature; digital learning might turn out to be just the latest fad; states may prove weak-kneed on many parts of the implementation. And of course President Obama, if re-elected, might try to tighten the federal embrace of the Common Core.

It’s possible. But the Common Core isn’t going away and nearly every state has declared its intent to try to make these standards work. So should Indiana. In any case, whatever one thinks of the Common Core itself, it’s beyond dispute that Tony Bennett is a committed conservative, a school reform hero, and a courageous public leader. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt?

Note: We work at a nonprofit organization and so by law cannot endorse Tony or urge anyone to vote for him. So let us simply say this: he's a swell guy whose service in his present role is a big plus for Indiana's children and for the cause of education reform in America.

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