The Resilience of Common Core

I keep up on Common Core news religiously. In the last few weeks, I’ve amassed a stack of 30 articles and reports, trying to come up with a clever, cogent argument for what they mean when considered together.

With so many tangled veins in the debate—and with so much venom coursing through each—I almost gave up. But this morning, while reading a new account of supposedly mounting state-level opposition, it hit me: at least for the moment, the common element of recent Common Core news is the resilience of the standards themselves.

When I looked across all of the news, I was struck by the cacophony of political sound and fury amounting, in the end, to almost nothing. The coverage reminded me of the well-orchestrated pre-fight hype of a heavyweight championship bout—a match ultimately memorable not for the dramatic or unexpected outcome but for the staged antics at the weigh-in or the endless jawboning from both camps.

My allusion to debate qua entertainment isn’t metaphor. One of the moment’s top CCSS critics is, well, a professional entertainer. Some public supporters haven’t exactly elevated the debate either, resorting to name-calling; see this piece referring to opposition as “incredibly stupid” and the normally levelheaded David Brooks accusing opponents of partaking in a political circus.

Major news outlets have predictably picked up the mano a mano motif. The New York Times ran a front-page story on the GOP’s internecine battle. Time magazine covered the issue as a struggle between parents and the powerful, with lots of airtime for the “opt-out” movement.

We’ve had recent stories about GOP presidential hopefuls using anti–Common Core messages as applause lines in anti-administration speeches. It’s even gotten down to the candidate level, with several articles wondering if Jeb Bush’s CCSS support hurts his potential Oval Office ambitions. Even former White House speechwriter and now WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan weighed in.

With coverage like this, you’d think Common Core’s fate was daily hanging in the balance—that pro and con forces were trading massive victories, swapping gains with each successive battle. But that’s emphatically not happening.

Though much was made of Indiana’s decision to drop the standards, so far it has been the only state to withdraw in four years. Even there, Common Core critics think the replacement standards are so similar to the Core they call them “cloned” and “rebranded.” Today, only six states are not using Common Core.

According to Caitlin Emma, two Indiana GOP candidates vocally opposed to Common Core defeated incumbents in Tuesday’s primary elections. But it looks like electoral consequences might also be confined to the Hoosier state; according to Emma, in Ohio, a key anti–Common Core challenger was defeated by the incumbent. (Other outlets report that the real issues in Indiana were other hot-button topics.)

The only theater of operations in which opponents can claim even partial victory is common assessments. Andrew Ujifusa recently catalogued the state-level trouble facing the two assessment consortia. For example, Tennessee recently broke off its long engagement with PARCC, deciding to open a competition for the production of future tests.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal pulled a u-turn on Common Core, first subtly backing legislation to put a hold on the standards (and possibly draft new ones) and now publicly opposing common assessments. The legislature rebuffed his efforts to officially withdraw from PARCC. Now he’s left threatening to do it unilaterally…but the state superintendent argues he doesn’t have the authority to do so.

But even this anti-testing thrust has only led thirteen states to choose not to participate in either assessment consortium. The loss of these states certainly undermines efforts at generating comparable state results and brings into question the expenditure of $350 million in federal funds for common tests. But nearly three out of every four states are still participating. Otherwise, the biggest recent news related to common assessments is the just-filed lawsuit regarding PARCC’s process for awarding a major contract.

Maybe because the politics are so one-sided (at least so far), recent discussion has increasingly focused on the implementation of the standards. Rick Hess wrote a short piece arguing that opponents need to offer an alternative because, absent CCSS, states still need a set of content standards. Similarly, Mike Petrilli and Michael Brickman just wrote about the huge problems caused when Indiana rejected Common Core without a Plan B.

Implementation is certainly where you’ll find the heads of state superintendents. For example, see this panel discussion among four state chiefs on bringing the standards to life in the classroom. Kathleen Porter-Magee, who’s been writing smartly about implementation for ages now, recently penned a piece about being mindful of how the standards look to teachers, students, and families.

Even researchers seem to have moved on to implementation. The Southern Regional Education Board just produced a thorough report called State Implementation of Common Core State Standards. In a very good Education Next piece, AEI’s Mike McShane points out the numerous implementation land mines state and district leaders need to navigate. In a companion piece, Robert Rothman argues implementation is well underway and already penetrating classrooms.

Common Core supporters should take heart. Though the daily skirmishes—and their coverage in the media—may make it appear that this race is neck and neck, with some perspective, it looks like a rout.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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