Conservatives and the Common Core

Though few Americans have ever heard of the “Common Core,” it’s causing a ruckus in education circles and turmoil in the Republican Party. Prompted by tea-party activists, a couple of talk-radio hosts and bloggers, a handful of disgruntled academics, and several conservative think tanks, the Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution blasting the Common Core as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Several red states that previously adopted it for their schools are on the verge of backing out. Indiana is struggling over exit strategies.

What, you ask, is this all about?

Thirty years after a blue-ribbon panel declared the United States to be “a nation at risk” due to the weak performance and shoddy results of our public education system, one of the two great reforms to have enveloped that system is the setting of explicit academic standards in core subjects, standards that make clear what math youngsters should know by the end of fifth grade, what reading-and-writing skills they must acquire by tenth grade, and so on. (The other great reform: widespread acceptance of school choice.)

Up to now, individual states have set their own academic standards. Some did this well, but according to reviews undertaken by Fordham and others, most stumbled badly, putting forth vague expectations that lack content and rigor and often promote left-wing dogma. And even the good ones differ so much from state to state that school and student performance cannot be compared around the country, much less with other lands.

Public education is indisputably the responsibility of states—embedded deeply in their constitutions—but preparing young Americans to succeed in a mobile society on a shrinking and more competitive planet calls for some commonality of education expectations across the land, expectations that, if met, truly prepare young people for college and good jobs.

Many state leaders understand this and, beginning five years ago, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (to which most state superintendents belong) launched a foundation-funded project called the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which gave birth to a set of commendably strong standards for English language arts and math from Kindergarten through high school. Our reviewers found them superior to the academic expectations set by three-quarters of states—and essentially on par with the rest.

But would states actually embrace them in place of their own? This was—and remains—totally voluntary, but decisions grew more complicated when the Obama administration started pushing states toward such adoptions by jawboning, hectoring, and luring them with dollars and regulatory waivers.

Whether it was the standards’ intrinsic merit, administration pressure, or the potential advantages of commonality—not just comparability but also cheaper textbooks and tests that need not be tailored to each state’s specifications—forty-five states plus D.C., several territories, and the Pentagon’s school network signed on. (Texas and Virginia are the big exceptions.) The top-priority education initiative in most of those places today is preparing teachers, parents, and others for these demanding standards—and for the likelihood that scores will plummet on the tougher tests now under development.

Then came the backlash. Some arose on the left from foes of testing and teacher groups wary of being evaluated against sterner criteria. Some arose from parents and educators fretful that heavier emphasis on English language arts and math will eclipse music, art, and the rest of a balanced curriculum.

The heavy artillery, however, came from the right. In true tea-party style, the Common Core was presented as a federal plot—worse, an Obama plot, in cahoots with the Gates Foundation, maybe even the United Nations—to take over American schools, end local control, undermine state sovereignty, and abolish school choice. Some decried the Common Core as a lowering of standards because, for example, it doesn’t mandate algebra in eighth grade. (Never mind that few eighth graders study real algebra today.) Others prophesied that Jane Austen and Mark Twain would be replaced by close study of auto-repair manuals. (The list of recommended readings that accompanies the Common Core is excellent—but bad choices by teachers or curriculum directors can subvert any standards.)

Many respected conservatives back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, Chris Christie, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They understand that academic standards are just the beginning, describing a destination but not how to get there. They understand, too, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and that a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of common expectations. As good conservatives, they realize that the Common Core in the long run should save dollars, enhance accountability, hasten development of powerful instructional technologies, strengthen American competitiveness, give a boost to the country’s shared civic culture, and (by supplying parents with better information about school performance) advance school choice.

They also recognize, however, that the Common Core is voluntary and that states unserious about implementing it are better off not pretending to embrace it.

Some day, we’ll know whether schools and students in the Common Core states do better than those in places that opt to go it alone. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll do worse.

Education reform is hard. Admiral Rickover once compared it to “moving a graveyard.” Standards-setting is just part of it—and common standards aren’t inherently better. (Newly released standards for science appear to have serious shortcomings.) But when a group of state leaders, many of them Republicans, can come together to set expectations for the curricular core that surpass what most of them set on their own, conservatives ought to applaud, not lash out.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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