The war against the Common Core
The Common Core State Standards Initiative landed in our
midst with four great assets:
- Its content-and-skill expectations for grades
K-12 in English and math are, by almost
everyone’s reckoning, about as rigorous as the best state-specific academic
standards and superior to most.
- It was developed outside the federal government,
voluntarily by states, using private dollars. (The related assessments are
another matter.) And both standards and assessments remain voluntary for
- It opens the way, for the first time, to comparing
student, school and district performance across the land on a credible, common
metric—and gauging their achievement against that of youngsters in other
countries on our shrinking and ever-more-competitive planet.
- Besides comparability, it brings the possibility
that families moving around our highly mobile society will be able to enroll
their kids seamlessly in schools that are teaching the same things at the same
Ever since it landed, the Common Core has been the
object of ceaseless attacks from multiple directions.
Ever since it landed, however, the Common Core has been the
object of ceaseless attacks from multiple directions. The number of zealous assailants
is small and, for a time, it all looked like a tempest in a highly visible
teapot. That may yet turn out to be the case. But the attacks are growing
fiercer; some recent recruits to the attack squad are people who tend to get
taken seriously; and anything can happen in an election year. Remember the classic
Peter Sellers movie, The Mouse That
Roared? The Duchy of Grand Fenwick ended up triumphing over the United
States of America. As you may recall, that happened in large part because the U.S. government
contributed to its own defeat. In the present case, something similar could
well transpire. Please read on.
examining the assaults, however, let’s remind ourselves what the Common Core is
not. It is no guarantee of stronger student achievement or school performance. Huge challenges
await any (serious) academic standards on the implementation, assessment and
accountability fronts. To get traction in classrooms, states that adopt these
standards (and all but four say they’re doing so) must take pains with
curriculum, teacher preparation, assessment, accountability and more. To yield
real rigor (and comparability), the currently-under-development assessments
must avoid numerous pitfalls and incorporate hard-to-achieve consensus on genuinely
challenging issues (such as where to set the “cut score”).
In and of themselves, academic standards merely describe
the end point to be reached and the major stops en route. They don’t get you
there. But it's far better to have an education destination worth reaching,
i.e. rigorous standards set forth with sufficient specificity, clarity, and
rich content to provide real guidance to curriculum designers, classroom
teachers, test developers and more. Few states have managed to do that on their
To be sure, other states could simply copy the best of
those that already exist. But that’s more or less what the Common Core is: an
amalgam of good standards put together by people who know a lot—and care a
lot—about both content and skills.
So why the nonstop attacks against it? As best I can tell,
they arise from six objections and fears.
First, a few earnest critics are convinced that the standards are
substantively flawed, that the algebra sequence (or grade level) is wrong,
the English standards don’t contain enough literature, the emphasis on “math
facts” isn’t as strong as it should be, etc. This sort of thing has accompanied
every past set of standards of every sort, and it’s perfectly legitimate.
Insofar as such criticisms are warranted, the Common Core can be revised,
states can add standards of their own, and jurisdictions that find the common
version truly unsatisfactory can change their minds about using it at all.
Second, the Common Core will be difficult and
expensive to implement. Many organizations are working hard to help states
surmount these genuine challenges. Many philanthropists are kicking money into
the effort. And some groups (Fordham included) are trying to cost it all out.
Nobody denies that doing this right will be hard and costly (though some of
those costs are already embedded in state and district budgets.) Of course, those
who think the country is doing OK today have every reason to shirk that
challenge and stick with what they’re used to.
Third, the Common Core won’t
make any difference in student achievement—but may cause a politically-unacceptable
level of student failure. As noted above, standards per se do not boost
achievement. (Of course, standards per se don’t carry costs or failure rates,
either. They don’t, by themselves, do much of anything!) And failure rates will
worsen only if (a) the new assessments are truly rigorous and (b) schools
neglect preparing their pupils to pass them.
Fourth, states have done as well, or better, on their own,
and switching over to the Common Core will just mess them up. This criticism
from Massachusetts, which has
done a commendable job on its own and where the decision to adopt the Common
Core was truly conflicted. Other states that prefer to go it alone, mostly
notably Texas and Virginia, have simply declined to adopt the Common Core.
Others are free to exit from it (though doing so would, for some, violate
commitments they made in their Race to the Top proposals.)
We retain a deep
(if, in my view, unwarranted) affection for “local control” in American education.
Fifth, “national” is
not the right way to do anything in American education. We retain a deep
(if, in my view, unwarranted) affection for “local control” in this realm and
constitutional responsibility for education is undeniably vested in the states.
Some folks dread
the prospect of a “national curriculum.” (Some simply mistrust the Gates Foundation,
which has bankrolled much of this work.) Others are incapable (perhaps
willfully so) of seeing any distinction between “national” and “federal”,
though we seem to have no difficulty making that distinction elsewhere in
education. (E.g. National Governors Association, S.A.T., A.P., ACT.)
Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with
federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off
the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized,
corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is
probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably
the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary
and the President he serves.
Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama
administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal
embrace, as have some ill-advised
(but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply
greater coziness to follow.
There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for
states to adopt
the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic
Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built
into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as
exactly the same sort of evidence.
(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply
other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)
The third federal entanglement was the Education
Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common
Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set
by Secretary Duncan’s team.
This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own
right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has
become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that
linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and
tests via federal action.
What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however,
has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary
Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated
South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core.
Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars,
post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking
with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if
you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more
flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But
everybody knew what standards he was talking about.
It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the
Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and
comments by its supporters. But in
March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal
of its enemies are those that they have supplied.