Is Anybody Up for Defending the Common Core Math Standards?

I’ve been executive editor of Education Next for more than a decade. In that role, one of the things I’ve done is coordinate our “forums” on various topics. Over the years, we’ve done 40-odd forums, and have usually gotten our first-choice authors. When we haven’t gotten them, we’ve almost invariably gotten our second choice. All of which makes it astonishing that, over the past three months, we’ve now asked six individuals involved in the Common Core math standards to pen a piece making the case for their rigor and quality, and each has declined in turn. This is, quite literally, unprecedented.

The request is anything but daunting. We’ve asked these folks to pen 1,500 words explaining why the Common Core math standards are rigorous and well-designed. The authors have been promised compensation and at least six weeks to write the piece. We’re offering the opportunity to make their case in a leading publication with an influential readership.

Not only have we gotten no takers, we’ve gotten gross disinterest. We’ve had to send two or three dozen e-mails, and make a dozen calls, just to get the six demurrals. I mentioned the situation to the chiefs of CCSSO and Achieve, two outfits deeply involved in the Common Core, and asked them to encourage their allies to step up. They indicated that they would. That request seemingly had no impact.

It’s not like we’re asking the invited contributors to tackle a pointless task. Influential figures including UPenn dean Andy Porter, UVA professor Daniel Willingham, and Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott have raised questions about the coherence, rigor, and value of the standards. The counterpoint piece for Ed Next is to be penned by a former Bush administration ED official. If the concerns are misguided, you’d think Common Core’s advocates would be eager to dispel them. Instead, they repeatedly indicated to me that they’re just too busy to find the time.

I’ll be blunt: I don’t believe them. After all, the leading thinkers who have found the time to contribute to Ed Next forums have included such seemingly busy people as Richard Elmore, Kati Haycock, Diane Ravitch, Hank Levin, Andy Rotherham, Joe Williams, Rick Hanushek, Checker Finn, Jay Greene, Bruno Manno, Chris Whittle, Bryan Hassel, Eva Moskowitz, Susan Eaton, and Howard Fuller. Rather, I think the reluctance to contribute is due to hubris, impatience to focus on implementation, political naivete, and disdain for what they see as mean-spirited carping.

Common Core advocates accomplished a remarkable feat in getting 40-odd states to adopt the new standards. Even with the substantial boost provided by Race to the Top and big foundation dollars, that was impressive and unexpected. But if the Common Core-ites believe that early success means they can stop making the case for what they’re doing, I think they’re making a huge mistake. We’ve yet to see good data on this, but I’d be astonished if one American in fifty can tell you what the Common Core actually is and what it involves—hell, I’d be surprised if one in five educators or state legislators can do that.

There are long rows of argument and persuasion still to be hoed. And, if you’re eager to overhaul what gets taught in forty-odd states serving forty million or more students, that’s probably as it should be. If Common Core-ites don’t have the patience or stomach for that task, they should let us know now–and save everyone a whole lot of grief.

The notion that Common Core proponents needn’t make their case is an affront to democratic values. When seeking to make substantial changes to public institutions, the burden is supposed to be on the would-be reformers. After winning a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, civil rights advocates spent decades making and re-making the case for school desegregation. Charter school advocates have spent two decades arguing their case. That’s normal and healthy. The “we’re really busy now” stance of the Common Core-ites is akin to the NAACP having decided in 1956 that it had done plenty to make its case, that everyone understood its arguments, and that it should just buckle down and focus on “implementation.” It’s akin to charter advocates having decided in 1993 that they’d adequately made their case and could move on.

Yet, Common Core advocates seem to have already grown impatient with public give-and-take and eager to declare the issue settled. They want to rush on to designing assessments, overhauling curricula and preparation, and imagining next steps. I sympathize. It’s true that the task ahead is enormous, that the impressive success of the Common Core-ites thus far amounts to running a really fast first two miles in a marathon, but that’s more cause–not less–for taking care to make their case in every quarter and to every audience. After all, success in all the miles ahead will depend crucially on the breadth, depth, and stability of public support.

As I’ve said many times, I’ve much sympathy for the Common Core effort, but am skeptical that it will turn out well. To have even a shot at working as intended, this requires bipartisan support from a range of state officials and buy-in or acquiescence from educators, parents, and voters. If the Common Core’s architects are done explaining its virtues–if they think that eighteen months of explaining its merits to a moderately attentive audience of self-selected elites amidst tumultuous debates over health care reform and the stimulus is sufficient–and that everyone needs to just sit down and get with the program, then I feel comfortable predicting that this whole exercise will end real poorly.

So, here’s a simple plea. Will someone who is involved with and supportive of the Common Core math standards please deign to make the case for them?

-Frederick Hess

(This post also appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

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