You can’t fight something with nothing

For the past year, much of the ed-reform world has been concerned about the (seemingly) growing opposition from the right to the Common Core standards. But the closer you look at these critiques of Common Core, the weaker their case appears. Can something as solid as CCSS really be stopped by such an intellectually flimsy attack?

The Pioneer Institute is a leader in the conservative anti–Common Core brigade, launching reports, op-eds, and testimony in a seemingly unending effort to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the standards. They are nothing if not fanatical in their opposition to the Common Core; even when they acknowledge the facts aren’t on their side, they simply refuse to change their story.

Take, for instance, Pioneer’s recently released white paper, written by former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott and entitled, “A Republic of Republics: How the Common Core Undermines State and Local Control over K–12 Education." In terms of criticism of the Common Core, there is very little substantively new in the report—the arguments are all very familiar to anyone who’s been following the backlash over the past several months. What makes the report so curious is that they actually accept four facts about the Common Core that leave little of their argument intact.

Fact #1: Local Control. On page 2, Scott acknowledges that, across all states—even those that have adopted the Common Core—it is state and local leaders, not the federal government, who will make decisions about curriculum and instruction.

Fact #2: Not a National Curriculum. Scott admits that it is “premature to claim that the CCSSI amounts to a national curriculum.” Indeed, he goes as far as to say that the CCSS “are not a curriculum” and that “local curricula will still be defined at the school and district levels.”

Fact #3: Not Federally Mandated. The report notes that while it’s clear the Obama Administration “would like every state to adopt the CCSSI,” “neither [Race to the Top] nor the conditional waivers being provided under NCLB mention the Common Core State Standards Initiative.” Of course, there are lots of things presidents and education secretaries want—and they ordinarily take full advantage of their bully pulpits to push their preferred policies. But preferences and wishes do not a federal curriculum make.

Fact #4: State Led. By acknowledging the groups actually involved in the development of the standards—the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, Achieve, and on—the report tacitly concedes that the federal government had no part in the standards development itself.

Yet, the title still suggests that the Common Core undermines state and local control over K–12 education.

Throughout the report, the author works overtime to raise concerns about Common Core, despite having conceded most of the argument. He questions the fact that the first round of RTT asked states to commit to the CCSS before the expectations were finalized. He worries about the speed with which the RTT-endorsed policies were adopted in state legislatures, and he criticizes Duncan and his team for rejecting waiver applications from states that didn’t do exactly what the administration wanted. (He cites, for example, the fact that California was “denied a waiver because of its unwillingness to tie teacher evaluations to test scores.”)

But these critiques center almost exclusively on RTT, not on the standards themselves. In fact, while Pioneer scholars have long lamented the loss of the Massachusetts ELA and math standards, they seem reluctant to acknowledge the broad support that Common Core adoption had within the Bay State. The State Board of Education, for example, brought together a committee of Massachusetts-based university professors and educators to review the CCSS. That committee voted unanimously to adopt the Common Core and made several suggestions about content from the previous Massachusetts standards they wanted to see incorporated into the CCSS. The State Board listened and made all of the recommended additions.

Similar processes have happened in statehouses and departments of education throughout the country, and most of those hearings and committee recommendations have reinforced support for the Common Core. And that’s largely because so many state education leaders and educators—both at the K–12 level and from colleges and universities—think these standards are an improvement over the expectations they replaced. (Indeed, even Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, Pioneer’s chief content experts, have acknowledged that returning to previous state standards would mean returning to low-quality, “non-rigorous” K–12 expectations.)

Under close examination, the arguments about federal intrusion are, so far, incredibly weak. And if Duncan and his team were to heed Scott’s sound recommendation that they “prohibit any future federal funding from being conditioned on…state adoption of the Common Core,” we could rest assured that the CCSSI will remain, as intended, a state-led effort to improve the quality, content, and rigor of K–12 ELA and math standards.

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