A Playbook for the Common Core'ites: Part I

I”ve long said that the Common Core strikes me as an intriguing effort that could do much good. So, why am I not on board? Because I think the effort has a good chance of stalling out over the next four or five years. And, because standards and assessments are the backbone of pretty much everything else in K-12 schooling, that could tear down all manner of promising efforts on teacher quality, school improvement, and the rest.

This all leaves me feeling a lot like a kid watching a scary movie through crossed fingers. The past couple weeks, I”ve been struck by how fragile the effort is starting to seem and how clumsily the Common Core”ites seem to be responding to challenges. In the spirit of public service, here”s some advice shouted at the screen. Today, I”ll offer my two cents on why things stand where they do; on Thursday, I”ll offer a few thoughts on what the Common Core”ites can do about it.

The flame jumped the “firebreak”: The giant strategic error for the Common Core advocates was their refusal, from 2009 through much of 2012, to actually take the critics seriously. They treated concerns as a fringe phenomenon, dismissing or ridiculing questions of federal involvement, the quality of the standards, and the rest. Whoops. A politically savvy observer would note that — like opposition to the Iraq War, health care reform, or NCLB — complaints always start at the “fringe.” Like sparks thrown off by a fire, these complaints by themselves are ineffectual. What matters is whether those sparks cross the clearing around the campfire and ignite the forest of more mainstream sentiment. That happened back in mid-2012. Common Core proponents could have reduced the likelihood of the fire jumping by hosing down the firebreak — e.g. by responding concretely to misconceptions, acknowledging concerns, and working hard to reassure those most exposed to the flames. They did none of this until the fire crossed and was burning fiercely on the other side.

Nature abhors a vacuum: Surprising, given the nature of their enterprise, the Common Core advocates have long shown remarkably little interest in taking the time and energy to discuss their exercise with those outside the education policy bubble. (I”ve been given all kinds of good reasons for this — from a dearth of manpower to the need to focus on technical issues — but they don”t change the reality.) Instead, Common Core”ites seemed eager to pocket their Race to the Top-aided wins and just move on to implementation. The problem is that adopting the Common Core doesn”t end the political and popular discussion; instead, it prompts questions about spending, accountability, teacher preparation, governance, and the rest. And it”s now clear that lots of parents, policymakers, and educators never really understood the Common Core, and certainly don”t feel obliged to do what it”ll take to implement it. The paucity of public discussion created a vacuum, and we”re now seeing it filled. Cato”s Neal McCluskey captured this dynamic last week in a public email exchange, explaining: “I”d note that many of the new Common Core opponents are just finding out about Common Core as it hits their schools, unlike supporters who have been working on this for several years. They may simply not have the necessary information, which is likely in part due to the rushed adoption catalyzed by Race to the Top. And a lot of people, from what I can tell, mistakenly attribute things to Common Core – such as data-mining – that should be attributed to Race to the Top. But all those things are intentionally connected, so while the facts may be wrong, the concerns and message are often far from nutty.” Having realized late in the game that changing K-12 standards and assessments for more than 40 million students in more than 40 states might prove controversial, Common Core advocates have opted primarily to ridicule and dismiss skeptics. Not so surprisingly, the Tea Partiers and anti-Common Core”ites haven”t been persuaded.

The Marco Rubio strategy: One problem for the Common Core”ites, at this point, is none of their champions carry much credibility with the Tea Partiers (or with the anti-testing left). This may seem kind of surprising, given the support of prominent conservatives like Jeb Bush and Tony Bennett. But people only accept leadership from leaders who they believe are watching out for their concerns. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has worked double-time to do this when it comes to the immigration bill. There, he”s taken great pains throughout to suggest that he”s the Tea Party”s ambassador to the Gang of Eight, and not vice versa. The problem for Bush et al. is that they”ve appeared throughout the Common Core scrap to be Common Core”ites wooing the right, rather than conservatives making sure the Common Core doesn”t get hijacked by Obama partisans. The other week, for instance, Bush”s foundation issued a document that challenged a number of misperceptions about the Common Core. Fair enough, but it would”ve been a terrific chance to acknowledge some of the legitimate concerns that conservatives have raised and tell “em, “I”m keeping an eye on these things.”

Policy is like a funhouse mirror: This stuff matters because the advocates have a real problem — things they regard as sensible and unexceptional are much more disconcerting to many conservatives. Policy is often like a funhouse mirror. Concerns that strike one side as baseless or silly can seem very real to another. The fact that few education reformers or edu-reporters are conservatives (and fewer still see Tea Partiers as anything more than caricatures) makes it easy for them to dismiss concerns. Federal inducements to adopt the Common Core through Race to the Top or waivers are dismissed as modest nudges that don”t compromise the Core”s “voluntary” nature. Complaints about the $350 million in federal funds for SBAC and PARCC are dismissed as bellyaching about a dollop of critical federal seed money. President Obama bragging in the State of the Union that he pushed states to adopt the Common Core is dismissed as irrelevant bombast. Fears of intrusive data collection are dismissed as paranoia (though these are a bit tougher to dismiss than they were a month ago). Advocates don”t even seem able to process the complaint that standards constructed by CCSSO, NGA, and affiliated technocrats are less a state-led endeavor than an E.U.-like exercise in sprawling, unaccountable bureaucratic gestation.

Start by taking skeptics seriously: Tea Partiers are frustrated when liberals describe support for balanced budgets, limited government, Second Amendment rights, and the repeal of health care reform as racist, violent, xenophobic, callous, and uncaring. Yet, whether or not Tea Partiers feel misunderstood, pundits and journalists repeatedly explain that they need to grow up, start compromising, and get over themselves. That same advice would come in handy for Common Core”ites. They”d do well to push past their impatience with skeptics and disdain for talk of compromise around timelines, implementation, and the rest. Especially with something like the Common Core, where success will turn on the willingness of state boards, legislatures, governors, and educators to follow through, it”s time to start taking the political challenges seriously.

I”ll offer some thoughts as to what proponents might do about all this on Thursday. Meantime, here are three good resources for those who are interested in taking these issues seriously.

1] Check out my colleague Mike McShane”s thoughtful ten-part series on the implementation challenges of the Common Core here.

2] Check out the recent set of extensive AEI white papers on the same topic here.

3] And check out what Fordham”s Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn have been writing on this score, as they”ve spent the past couple years operating as pretty much the only Common Core enthusiasts willing to publicly call out Obama overreach or talk frankly about problems and missteps (as with Fordham”s tough new analysis of the Next Generation Science Standards).

-Rick Hess

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