There is a lesson in every election, and the results from this month’s midterms were rife with many for both parties. But one of the most striking was the clear message voters sent about education standards: don't abandon them.
Recent history affirms that voters are always concerned about how to improve schools, but education is rarely foremost on their minds when they cast their vote. This year was different. Trailing only the economy, education and classroom issues dominated thinking among voters nationwide. In many states, education was the main driver of turnout.
Given the intense discussion around the country over Common Core Standards, one may have expected an undoing of a lot of what's going on in states. After all, opponents of Common Core spent this past election season distorting and misrepresenting the progress going on in the classroom. But, voters, many of them parents, listened to both sides of the debate and ultimately voted for candidates who supported level-headed policy. In fact, November's results show parents want to continue with implementation of high standards and the results they promise.
Some may consider the results surprising in light of the tireless, and often inaccurate, charges opponents leveled against politicians who support higher standards. Interestingly, some of the opponents—many of whom I believe are genuinely confused about Common Core’s development and purpose—assailed the standards as too difficult, not difficult enough, or as a federal takeover of local education. They couldn't decide. Fortunately, on November 4 a majority of parents decided it's hard to deny success in the classroom.
And to be sure, classrooms are seeing measurable improvements under Common Core Standards.
For example, in Tennessee—one of the earliest adopters of the Common Core Standards—college-readiness rates among high school students saw the biggest improvement this year since the state began testing. And last year, 4th and 8th grade students showed the biggest math and reading gains in the country.
"The hard work of teachers to implement higher academic standards is having an impact," said Kevin Huffman, Tennessee's outgoing education commissioner. "We're starting to see the upward trend."
Here are some more takeaways from Election Day. In only four states—Arizona, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania—did the Common Core Standards emerge as a major issue, and in three of those races the most supportive candidates won. Twelve incumbent governors who publicly support Common Core easily won re-election. And, in the 44 states where Common Core is used, only 6 governors and 4 superintendents said they wanted to change course on Common Core.
The opponents of Common Core may be louder than supporters, but the big gains achieved by students are what counted in voters' minds when they went to the polls. To believe the narrative advanced by Common Core opponents is easy—because they enjoy headline momentum—but simply wrong.
What gets reported far less often is the hard work of state education experts and leaders to ensure fair and effective implementation of Common Core Standards so that students, parents and teachers have the resources they need to succeed.
As presidential campaigns gear up on both sides of the political aisle, candidates, pollsters, pundits and media advisors should take notice: Students are making gains, parents are paying attention, and more and more teachers are embracing classroom standards that make it easier for them to do their jobs.
Harold Ford Jr. is a former U.S. Representative from Tennessee.