USA Today ran a story Saturday entitled, “Common Core Standards Driving a Wedge in Education Circles.” The article comes after a week of exceptionally bad press for standards- and accountability-driven reform, capped off by the tale of a talking pineapple and his apparently cannibalistic friends.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was just two short years ago that a remarkably broad and bipartisan coalition that united union leaders and market reformers helped secure passage of the new standards.

What a difference a couple years makes.

What’s interesting, though, is that, with some limited exceptions, the debate over the Common Core standards has very little to do with the standards themselves. In fact, on all sides of the ed reform aisle, people seem to agree that these particular standards are rigorous, clear, and better than the vast majority of the state standards that were in place previously.

Instead, the debate over the Common Core is now caught up in a larger fight about the merits of education reform writ large. In this increasingly toxic environment, Common Core has become one more conspiracy to uncover, one more grand scheme for the fringe on the right and left to fight against.

Every day brings a new line of attack, each less comprehensible than the last. Some believe the standards are part of a giant corporate plot, the main goal of which is to pad the pockets of testing companies. Others believe they’re part of a grand scheme—led by “corporate reformers”—to privatize public education. (As if it’s impossible to believe that many well-intentioned educators are trying to leverage the considerable resources at their disposal—some given by corporate philanthropy—for the good of our students.)

The view of the the Common Core in America's classrooms is much more pragmatic than it is among wonks.
 Photo by frankjuarex.

Still others blame standards and testing for what amounts to the end of democracy. (In a particularly hyperbolic post, Susan Ohanian claims “the reality is that if people who care about public education don't find a way to fight [the Common Core standards], public schools are dead—and so is democracy.”) To round it out, we have those who believe it’s part of the long-term effort by the federal government to take over everything in the states that isn’t nailed down.

It’s reasonable to wonder if the entire education reform debate has turned nihilistic. But then you realize that this fight is really a debate among policy elites. At the classroom level, the conversation remains much more pragmatic—with discussions centering on the pros and cons of the content in the standards themselves, or about the best way to help students achieve the goals.

And for many classroom teachers, the basic appeal of these standards remains as strong as it’s ever been. Even teachers whose instinct is to reject the standards and what they represent often reluctantly agree that the expectations laid out in the Common Core are worth aspiring to. In an online forum, for instance, one ELA teacher put a challenge out to all teachers. She said:

…if you want to criticize David Coleman and the CCSS, then do so. But, do not criticize until you have read the standards, specifically Appendix A. I challenge all teachers that criticism of the CCSS be not personal or political; but be based on solid assertions and well-informed evidence.

Well said. The critics who are trying to politicize the standards would do well to heed this teacher’s sage advice. The question now is whether this brand of classroom-level pragmatism will hold or whether this fighting among an elite chattering class will drive the whole debate in an even more contentious and destructive direction.

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