Ten arguments against Common Core presidential hopefuls should avoid

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Literacy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're quickly sinking into the quicksand of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your thirteen-year-old kids for policy advice—and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes, since it will look like you sent your thirteen-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.  

1. Previous educational standards were better.

Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (it's as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low, they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a tee-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met those standards and still needed basic reading, writing, and math instruction in the workplace or university—expensive places to obtain an elementary or secondary education. Anyone who argues against the CCSS should be able to explain why they want lower educational standards or else embrace a viable alternative. (Note to campaign managers: Parents who are paying for remedial college classes or employers who are struggling to hire high school graduates with basic skills may become particularly testy over this argument). 

2. Teachers didn’t write them.

Yeah, and I’ve long been opposed to the Declaration of Independence because it was written by a slaveholder and the Gettysburg Address because its author was in the pocket of big business before assuming the presidency. This argument elevates the ad hominem over the ad verbum. All that should matter is whether the standards are sound; if they are, a House committee could have written them and they’d be a good idea. And if they are not sound, how many years of teaching experience would the authors require for you to campaign on them? Many teachers worked on these standards, but who cares? The standards could still be useful even if that weren’t the case.

3. They promote the theories of evolution and global warming.

Yikes. This is an interesting argument because everyone hates being tricked into supporting what they morally oppose. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold any water: The Common Core only deals with reading, writing, and math—and not with science, history, or any other school content or social issue. You may get away with this one, but there is always the risk that someone in the audience has actually read the standards.

4. The Common Core isn’t research-based.

That sounds like a good argument too—pin the standards on the science deniers. But what if someone wonders what a research-based goal would look like? I know I want my marriage to be happy, my kids to be productive, and my country to be secure. I don’t know why I’d need a study to tell me that I wanted those things. In medicine, they use research to figure out the best treatments—not whether we want everyone to be healthy. Standards aren't teaching methods; they aren’t approaches to instruction. When the critics say that some states should have tried these out first to find out if they're any good, it's like saying that some states should aim for 4 percent unemployment and others for 8 percent—so that we can know whether we want people to find jobs.

5. They require too much testing.

Common Core requires no more (or less) testing than any other educational standards. Since the early 1990s, federal law has required states to adopt their own educational goals and evaluate student progress against them. However, there’s nothing special about Common Core in that regard. If CCSS disappeared, states would still have standards, and they’d still have to monitor student progress—just as they have for the past twenty years. If you do choose to make this argument despite the facts, be careful in Alaska, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. None of them have Common Core, but they all have educational standards and are testing their students against those standards.

6. They are the reason for all of the test prep.

This is a great argument, and yet I doubt whether many of you have the thespian skills to pull it off. Test prep, though unsavory, has nothing to do with Common Core. Educators have long devoted unconscionable amounts of time and resources to test prep, with barely a peep from any of you. Now, getting all worked up about kids being engaged in test prep instead of education will require all the faux sincerity of Captain Renault (“Gambling in Casablanca? I’m shocked!”). What would happen to test prep if there were no Common Core? Look to Texas or Virginia for your answer, rather than to the airy pronouncements of your supposedly shocked and offended advisors.

7. Publishers are making money from them.

Publishers do make money from these standards. And if history is a guide, when we move on to the next big thing in education, they’ll make money off that, too. Government policies do help companies make money. But if that's an issue, then we ought to shut down the Defense Department, Medicare, Social Security, the oil depletion allowance, and pretty much everything else that government does—since all those nasty programs encourage the buying of goods and services from American companies. (Note to Jeb Bush: Perhaps your opponents' arguments against Common Core are really just a ruse to get schools to change their curricula more quickly and make even more money for the publishers.)

8. The U.S. Constitution bans national curricula.

This one is a particularly tempting argument, especially if you are a lawyer. The Constitution does relegate authority for education to the states, after all. The problem is that the federal government has always incented states in the area of education. Even a conservative Supreme Court has recently indicated that it will not even hear cases aimed at determining whether states must comply with federal law when they accept federal funding; they see it as settled law. Going before this Supreme Court to argue that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay knew nothing about the Constitution would likely be a tough slog (Justices Roberts and Alito can be sticklers about that kind of thing). The federal government has the right to require funded states to have standards—whatever standards they may choose to adopt—and there is nothing in Common Core that curtails that right in any way. You'll end up in the weeds. Avoid this one.

9. Common Core violates states’ rights.

This would be kind of a funny argument coming from people who are running not for governor, but for president. "If elected, I’ll not allow states to adopt Common Core." That makes it sound like under your presidency, educational goals would be under your authority. That won't be palatable even from such staunch conservatives as a President Cruz or a President Paul. The states, being sovereign entities, have the authority to coordinate with each other as much as they choose. This is true in transportation, criminal justice, economics, natural resources, etc. This argument snatches that authority from the states, and doing so in the name of states’ rights would be too tricky a game by half. Where is George Orwell when we need him?

10. These are President Obama’s standards.

Let's face it: It's always a good idea to run against an incumbent whose popularity is on the decline. And getting voters to believe that these standards represent “Obamacore” should be easy. When they were being written, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised funding to develop new tests for the new standards (a “shovel-ready project,” in the parlance of the times), and when running for president, Senator Obama campaigned on the idea that we needed higher standards and a lot more testing. Making voters believe that the Common Core belongs to the administration should be easy; if you can create enough of a haze of suspicion, voters might never figure out that these standards were written with no federal funding and no federal involvement. Of course, this will be an easier argument for some than for others. (Note to Bobby Jindal: You seem sincere in making this argument, but you'll probably need to explain why President Obama was able to operate you like a sock puppet on this issue for three years without you ever being aware of where his hand was. I would avoid using the term “brainwashing”—see George Romney, 1968. Perhaps you could get away with claiming that President Obama just gave yours a light rinse.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you all luck and hope this advice is useful to each of you. 

Tim Shanahan is a distinguished professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.