What Is Common Core and Why Is Everyone—Right, Left—So Mad About It?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 25 2013 5:01 PM

Common What?

What is Common Core and why is everyone—right, left—so mad about it?

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The Common Core effort represents the latest in a long line of attempts to challenge American students, and to make the results of those challenges comparable among states and districts—efforts that have not been very successful in the past.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, governors, educators, and academics tried to come up with common academic goals and standards for American children that everyone could agree on, which proved enormously controversial and eventually lost steam. Then in the late 1990s, the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats tried to fund the creation of “voluntary” national tests for states to use if they wished, an effort that was blocked by House Republicans before it could even begin. With the support of both Democrats and Republicans, the No Child Left Behind Act  of 2002 required states to administer yearly tests and report the results—but allowed each state to use its own standards and didn’t say anything about how hard or easy its annual tests had to be.

Letting each state make its own decisions works out great for kids in places like Massachusetts, where the standards are high and the tests are demanding. Some states took NCLB seriously and raised their games. In many cases, however, states opted not to make things too hard for kids—and not to embarrass teachers and schools when test results come out every year. Studies repeatedly show that kids in some states are learning much more than in others. And international comparisons show that kids in other countries do much better than kids in many U.S. states. After 30 years of talking about high standards and making schools “internationally competitive,” we still haven’t gotten anywhere.

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This time could be different, if only because Common Core has actually managed to get off the ground before opponents gained steam. Last year, the Common Core standards were fully implemented in seven states. This school year, 21 more are implementing the standards across all grades. Most states have already begun implementing the new standards at least partially. And while some teachers have complained about the new push, many have welcomed the challenge or don’t seem particularly bothered by it.  They were already teaching some of the skills and topics suggested in the new standards, some teachers say, or they’re excited by the training and new materials that are part of the process.  While both left- and right-wingers have been pushing back against Common Core, notably there’s been no national rebellion against the standards from classroom teachers.

In the next few months as Common Core gets closer to becoming a nationwide reality, however, roadblocks will continue coming from all sides—from progressives, like education icon Diane Ravitch, who objects to the under-the-radar way Common Core was developed (“We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time,” she writes), to Tea Party conservatives, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. “We do not support … a national or federalized curriculum,” Jindal said earlier this week. “We need Louisiana standards, not Washington, D.C., standards.”

A lot of this is politics: Nearly two-thirds of those Gallup respondents who know about Common Core believe that it’s a federal initiative, and three-quarters say that standardized tests have hurt or made no difference to school improvement. Some of it is economics: The new tests are also much more expensive than those many states currently use. (A Fordham University professor recently decried the effort as a “huge profit-making enterprise.”)

So far, four states—Georgia, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Utah—have pulled out of the test development process, and several others are considering it.  Earlier this week Florida officials announced that they no longer wanted to lead one of the test development networks (though the state will still participate in the process). In places like Michigan and Florida and Louisiana, the heat is on from Tea Party conservatives to get out.

A handful of defections is probably not a serious problem, but having too many states going their own way “undermines the premise of Common Core,” warns Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners consulting firm. Which is why in recent weeks, supporters have been stepping up their visibility on behalf of the initiative, as Bill Clinton did in late August, telling a crowd at the March on Washington anniversary celebration said that, “we cannot be disheartened by the forces of resistance to building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes, or to rebuilding our education system to give all our children a common core of knowledge necessary to ensure success.”

So where do things stand right now? While lots of states are talking about defecting, all of the 45 states and D.C. that signed on to the standards portion of Common Core remain formally committed. Three states have already given tests that were at least partially aligned with the Common Core standards. And even with the recent defections, 41 states and D.C. are still in the pipeline to administer the new tests this year or next.

Despite the recent string of bad press, it may simply be too late for critics to block the Common Core effort from lurching forward.  But it won’t be pretty.

Alexander Russo writes about national education politics at This Week in Education and via @alexanderrusso.

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