School Standards

The Incredibly Stupid War on the Common Core

An unholy alliance between the Tea Party and the teachers’ unions threatens to derail the most promising education reform in decades.

Bruce Ackerman/Landov

Like Rocky in the early rounds, the new Common Core math and reading standards are being pummeled left and right. From the left: Education icon Diane Ravitch says the Common Core represents a “utilitarian view of education” that is too focused on testing, data, and accountability. From the right, “ObamaCore” is denounced as federal intrusion. Heritage Foundation education fellow Lindsey Burke calls it “an effort to impose a uniform, standardized curriculum across the country.” From the further right, the always understated Glenn Beck says, “This is a progressive bonanza, and if it’s allowed to be in our schools in any form and become the Common Core of America’s next generation, it will destroy America and the system of freedom as we know it… This is evil stuff.” (That’s actually one of the tamer Beck quotes.)

All the Common Core bashing is having an effect. The national teachers’ unions, the NEA and AFT, once enthusiastically supported the Common Core but are now distancing themselves. The New York State United Teachers, part of AFT, recently voted to pull its support for Common Core. (The unions’ opposition has more to do with implementation and the new, more difficult tests that are being used to evaluate teachers than the standards themselves.)

Politicians across the political spectrum who backed the Common Core are scrambling for cover. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently said “We need Louisiana standards, not Washington, D.C., standards.” In New York, Gov. Cuomo blasted the state’s “flawed” implementation of the Common Core and assembled a panel to propose fixes. Indiana recently became the first of the 45 states that originally signed on to the Common Core to officially drop the standards (although the new standards they are set to adopt look very similar) and several states are considering pulling out of the two consortia developing Common Core-aligned assessments.

Unfortunately, the debate over the Common Core is now more about politics than education. The estimable Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal the other day that the greatest hindrance to Jeb Bush’s possible 2016 presidential candidacy is not his views on immigration or his last name, but “his early and declared support for the Common Core national school curriculum.” About conservative Common Core supporters, Noonan asks “in what abstract universe are [they] operating?” In reality, the Common Core represents another schism on the right, with mainstream business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable supporting the standards, while Tea Party groups denounce them.

So what it all the hysteria about? Going back to the famous 1983 Reagan administration report “A Nation at Risk,” education experts have noted how students in the United States are falling behind those in other countries and have called for a new focus on “content” and “more rigorous and measurable standards.” Massachusetts was one state that acted on these concepts. In the early 1990s, the Bay State adopted a set of smart, coherent standards and well-aligned state tests. Massachusetts’ students soon began surging upward on the federal NAEP exam and the state now routinely ranks first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. Governors began to look at the “Massachusetts Miracle” as a model.

In the 2000s, the need for more rigorous, better aligned standards and assessments became even more evident as many states began to lower the bar on student proficiency in order to meet the rather silly mandate in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law that all students be “proficient” by 2014. A small group of governors joined together in an effort to improve their states’ standards and assessments. This group expanded through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. In 2007, curriculum experts began to devise the new Common Core standards with input from the states. Two groups formed to design Common Core-aligned assessments. States began to voluntarily sign up.

In 2009, the Obama administration encouraged states to adopt the Common Core by making “college and career-readiness standards” one of several criteria in its $4 billion “Race to the Top” grant competition. In hindsight, this was probably a mistake because it opened the door to legitimate charges of federal coercion. To the extent that this is “federal intrusion,” conservative critics have a point.

But most of the assault on the Common Core is based on a fundamental misunderstanding: The Common Core State Standards are not a “national curriculum.” They are just a basic outline of what students should be learning in math and English at each grade level. It is up to local superintendents and principals to select curricula that comply with the standards. If one takes the time to actually read the standards, it is hard to find anything controversial in them. For better or worse, the standards are not very prescriptive.

The math standards are designed to get students to focus on topics in a sequential manner that builds a deeper understanding over time. Likewise, the English standards are designed to get students to read challenging texts that will build their vocabulary and background knowledge.

Much has been made of the fact that the English standards encourage more nonfiction reading as students progress through high school. But nonfiction does not mean “government manuals,” as some critics suggest. It means Paine, Thoreau, Emerson, Chesterton, Mencken, Orwell. The standards provide “exemplars”—here’s a link (PDF) to 11th grade fiction and nonfiction titles—but only require five readings: the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the Bill of Rights, and one play by Shakespeare. How can anyone argue against that?

Overall, some claim that the standards are too weak; some argue that they are too rigorous, especially in the early grades. But the Common Core is intended as a floor, not a ceiling. They represent a benchmark for what an average, well-educated student on track for college should know. Even critics agree that, in most cases, the Common Core is an improvement over the weak and haphazard state standards they are replacing. Some states are now tweaking the standards and dumping the “Common Core” label. This is fine. The important thing is that for the first time in decades states are taking a serious look at content and curriculum.

To be fair to the Common Core critics, the early implementation of the standards has been rocky. Teachers complain that they haven’t been prepared properly. In New York, parents complain that the new tests the state has devised on its own—New York is out in front of the two consortia developing Common Core-aligned assessments—are too difficult and too long. Like with any new effort, there will be bumps along the way. The Common Core standards are not a panacea; much depends on the curricula that states and districts select to implement them.

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But so much of the backlash against the Common Core is built on misinformation. As David Brooks pointed out in The New York Times the other day, “the ideological circus” has descended and “a perfectly sensible if slightly boring idea” is being buried “by hysterical claims and fevered accusations.”

Although the Common Core is battered and bruised, one hopes that the quiet and reasoned arguments of the sensible center will prevail and the nation won’t lose this historic opportunity to provide American students with a more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K-12 education.