Weekly Briefing

Debate over “Common Core” distracts from the real issues

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Controversial education standards are not an evil conspiracy or a magic solution

From a purely political perspective, the current debate between the right and the far right over the public education initiative known as the “Common Core” is morbidly fascinating. After all, what could be more fun than watching the usually disciplined and monolithic conservative bloc devolve into angry and warring camps over a fundamental policy matter?

On one side stand the hardline tea partiers and the religious right. This group, which is dedicated to dismantling and privatizing public education, remains rabidly distrustful of any education initiative that bears even a hint of a connection to the federal government or the Obama administration. And while, the Common Core initiative was actually developed and designed under the direction of a bipartisan group of governors, the fact that it involves “national standards” and has been endorsed by the feds to some extent is enough to convince these folks that the whole thing is a grand, one-world-government conspiracy.

On the other side stand the corporatists. This group, which remains basically okay with the idea of public education – especially if the system churns out graduates with the skills demanded by private industry and remains malleable enough to profit favored special interests and accommodate the demands and desires of the well-off – is defending Common Core. Led by conservative stalwarts like Jeb Bush and various Chambers of Commerce (Pat McCrory is also an equivocating member), the corporatists are, for now anyway, sticking to their guns.

If the subject matter wasn’t so doggone important, it would be tempting to simply sit back and enjoy the fireworks. For better or worse, however, Common Core is an important issue that deserves the attention of all who care about public education – both because of its substance and because of the way it is distracting people from larger and more important subjects.

Where things stand

The latest skirmish in this growing national conflict is taking place in North Carolina. As N.C. Policy Watch Education Reporter Lindsay Wagner reported last week, a legislative study committee has recommended to the full General Assembly that North Carolina rescind its previous entry into Common Core.

“At the final hearing of a committee tasked with studying the Common Core State Standards, Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) didn’t mince words when introducing proposed legislation that would seek to eliminate the Common Core.

‘If you adopt national standards, that triggers everything else,’ said Tillman. ‘It triggers your test, it triggers your textbook, and it triggers your teaching methods. If you believe in Common Core, they own it all, and North Carolina owns nothing…I’m more upset about taking education out of our hands and putting it in the hands of conglomerate states.’

‘That day is over,’ he added.”

Meanwhile, the state Chamber of Commerce – a business advocacy group that has supported virtually every regressive proposal of the conservative General Assembly in recent years – rejected the new proposal in no uncertain terms:

“The North Carolina Chamber, the state’s largest, broad-based business advocacy organization with 35,000 members who employ 1.26 million workers in North Carolina, opposes the legislation proposed today by the Legislative Research Commission Joint Study Committee on Common Core State Standards due to the uncertainty created by Section Three of the proposal….’Speaking on behalf of job creators, I can say with good authority that North Carolina’s current standards are, in fact, a positive step toward preparing today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow,’ said Lew Ebert, president and CEO of the North Carolina Chamber. ‘Ultimately the decision we are making is whether we want to grow our talent locally or hire it from out of state. North Carolina employers would prefer to hire locally.’”

A surprising controversy

The strange thing about the growing hubbub is that the parties have chosen this subject about which to fight. As one can see by checking out the initiative’s mom-and-apple-pie website, Common Core isn’t an especially radical or revolutionary proposal. Rather, it’s an effort to advance new and rigorous national standards in math and English. The premises behind the plan – that America needs to do better as a nation in educating its kids and that standards vary widely across the nation (and are severely lacking in many places) – make intuitive sense. In a modern world in which students can’t simply drop out of school and find livable wages on an assembly line as they could a half-century ago, higher and more regularized standards are hard to argue with.

One North Carolina education policy expert puts it this way:

“It is undisputed that the Common Core standards are better than North Carolina’s current set of standards and raise expectations for North Carolina’s children. Under the current system, students can be deemed proficient based on North Carolina’s lower standards even though they need intensive remediation to become college or career ready. Under the Common Core standards, students who meet the proficiency benchmark will be truly college and career ready.

It is important to remember that the Common Core is simply a set of standards that raises the expectations we have for our students while allowing teachers to have the flexibility to teach creative problem solving and analytical thinking. Abandoning these higher standards would send the message that North Carolina’s children do not have to live up to the highest standards and would deeply harm the teaching profession.”

In other words, it’s hard to see how Common Core is a threat to western civilization.

Missing the point

This is not to say that Common Core doesn’t deserve criticism. Education experts, including one of the nation’s best, Diane Ravitch, have rightfully and repeatedly criticized Common Core – not because they see a hidden commie conspiracy, but because they worry that the standards were developed by corporations and their hired help rather than educators.

Combine this valid criticism with the distinct possibility that Common Core will add even more impetus to the nation’s out-of-control obsession with high-stakes standardized testing and that testing and textbook companies have close ties to the whole enterprise, and there’s ample reason to monitor the new standards and their implementation with great care and even skepticism.

That said, ultimately, the biggest problem isn’t the standards themselves or the testing or the corporate money-making connections; the biggest problem is the snake oil sales job that has accompanied their development and dissemination. Put simply, the central message of many Common Core proponents — that higher standards are all we need (and that the U.S. can dramatically lift student learning and performance by simply commanding it) — is simply not true.

While high standards are great as far as they go, what ultimately lifts student performance are the same, good old tactics that have always worked:

  • Healthy, well-fed, and well-cared for children,
  • Dedicated, well-educated, well-compensated teachers and administrators, and
  • Small and diverse classes located in safe, spacious, well-run facilities.

The problem, of course, is that all of these traditional tactics cost money – lots more than the corporatists or, Lord knows, the tea partiers are willing to spend. Lifting millions of children out of profound poverty so that they can go to school fed and rested and engaged would take billions upon billions of dollars – for universal pre-K and access to food, health care and affordable housing. Add to this the cost of paying teachers enough to attract and retain the best and the brightest and of building adequate alternative schools and programs to properly address the needs of millions of children with mental health challenges and other disabilities and it quickly becomes apparent why leaders of both political parties have long seized upon quick, potentially magical fixes like Common Core.

The bottom line

For all of its imperfections, simply repealing Common Core is probably not the answer. For some percentage of children, broad-based higher standards will probably help.

By the same token, however, it’s also important not to kid ourselves. For the vast majority of children not currently achieving at desired levels, it will take lots more than just tougher standards to lift them up. Let’s hope the current debate isn’t just the latest in a long series of illusory solutions that have repeatedly served to distract Americans from this hard reality.