The Euro and the Common Core

If you hope the Euro crashes, that this week’s Brussels summit fails, and that European commerce returns to francs, marks, lira, drachma, and pesetas, you may be one of those rare Americans who also seeks the demise of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in U.S. education. Crazy analogy? Please read on.

To be sure, the Euro already exists in the real world—you can hold one in your hands and buy things with it—and its demise would likely trigger a worldwide economic crisis, whereas the Common Core so far exists only on paper and all of its implementation challenges lie ahead. If it fails to gain traction, the sky won’t fall; we’ll simply stick with the status quo.

If you find the status quo in American K-12 education acceptable, bully for you. I find it akin to the condition of Europe and its economy after World War II: weak, battered, and fragmented, in need of a major tune-up and tone-up. It needs more focus, too—and greater capacity to help states pull in the same direction instead of pulling apart.

Recognizing those woes, and sensing that their war-torn nations would be better served by joining forces, the post-war years saw a half-dozen visionary European leaders striving to construct something more coherent and viable. In 1957, six core countries signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the “common market,” or the European Union as it’s been known since 1967, which has slowly grown to include twenty-seven countries allied in a federation of shared economic and political interests. (Several more are “candidates” for admission.) Almost all of western and central Europe now participates, save Norway and Switzerland. Within the EU, a subset of seventeen countries (not including Britain, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, etc.) share the common currency known (since 1999) as the Euro.

Like Europe in 1950, the nation remains at grave risk, educationally and economically.

Today finds the Euro (and, by association, the European Union) in jeopardy, because participating countries have handled their economies in radically different ways. Worsened by the 2008 recession, the real-estate collapse, and the banking crisis, some of them (Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and maybe more) have needed major outside help to keep going, while the better managed, less-indebted, and more prosperous nations (above all Germany and France) have been reluctant to “bail out” their embattled counterparts. That may change in the coming weeks—if the “Merkozy” plan to rewrite the treaties and reshape Europe’s political and economic structures finds favor across the continent.

Our states are not educationally inter-dependent in the same way, of course, and some may implement the Common Core well while others don’t. Unless Congress or the Education Department makes a dumb move and entangles the Common Core with ESEA reauthorization and federal funding, participation in it will remain voluntary and its implementation will likely be uneven.

That unevenness will be harder to sustain, however, when common assessments come on line, particularly if the multi-state consortia developing those assessments can actually (as their RTTT grant says they must) agree on common “cut scores” to denote student proficiency—and “college-career readiness”—in every participating state.

Those cut scores will be more like the Euro, a sort of common currency that moves across state borders much as EU passport holders are able to move across national borders. It will certainly make for easier comparisons of student and school performance than we’ve ever had before and is apt to forge various new uniformities in curriculum, teacher preparation, textbooks, and more. (It will also be a huge benefit to providers of virtual education for whom district and state borders have been an irksome and archaic obstacle.)

Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska have not wanted to participate at all. Like Norway and Switzerland, they prefer to go it alone. So be it. The Common Core enterprise, like the EU, is voluntary and its main selling point is that participants will be better off in various ways than will the outliers.

The small but noisy band of Common Core critics and kvetchers, however, clearly wants the whole enterprise to go away. They mistrust claims of voluntarism and find the potential loss of state sovereignty a bigger threat to America’s educational wellbeing than today’s uneven standards and slipshod academic performance. They use scary language akin to the New York Times correspondent describing the major changes in treaties and governance that Merkel and Sarkozy hope the entire EU will agree to: “The changes…would effectively subordinate economic sovereignty to collective discipline enforced by European technocrats in Brussels.”

That’s what Common Core critics fear will happen here. They worry especially that the U.S. equivalent of “Brussels technocrats” (i.e. Uncle Sam) will end up taking over—and they’re mindful that no durable governance mechanism yet exists for maintaining the Common Core, managing the new assessments over time, keeping it all voluntary while keeping the states in charge. Nor has anyone made a serious move to create such a mechanism. (When we at Fordham suggested that something of the sort is needed, we were admonished by NGA and CCSSO to butt out.)

The critics’ angst is not baseless. The absence of a Common Core management mechanism for the long term—for the standards and especially for the assessments—is a problem and creates a vacuum that the “Brussels technocrats” may well be tempted to fill. It’s also true that uneven implementation by states, like uneven implementation of sound economic policy by the countries of Europe, could lead to a Merkozy-like call for greater centralization.

But is that grounds to abort the whole project—for states to pull back from it and presidential aspirants to denounce it? Depends, I think, on your view of the status quo and the risks you are willing to take to see it altered. Like Europe in 1950, the nation remains at grave risk, educationally and economically, and almost nobody looking at our long term prospects thinks we can climb out of this ditch without a major boost in educational effectiveness and productivity.

No, the Common Core does not assure that boost. Plenty of other things need to change, too—and every one of them has critics, kvetchers, and hostile interest groups. (So did the European Union: DeGaulle, for example, really didn’t want Britain allowed in.) It may be that Massachusetts and a few other states can do as well or better on their own. Perhaps the “Chiefs for Change” will eventually have fifty members. Or perhaps it’s acceptable for Arkansas and California and others to continue wallowing in mediocrity. Maybe we’re not a “nation” at risk, just fifty states with varying degrees of risk.

I for one hope this week’s summit in Brussels leads them to rewrite the treaties. And that the Common Core prevails over its critics. The people of Europe—and the world—are better off with the Euro than without it. And the people of the United States would be better off if all our kids were held to the same high educational expectations.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This post also appears on Flypaper.

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