In NPR Show, a Debate and a Vote on Common Core

By Mark Walsh — September 10, 2014 3 min read
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Four partisans with strong opinions debated the Common Core State Standards on Tuesday night in New York City as part of the very lively but civil Intelligence Squared U.S. series, which will air on NPR.

The standards “are not perfect,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington and one who was arguing for the proposition “Embrace the Common Core.”

“They were not handed down from Mount Sinai,” Petrilli said. “Like any ambitious reform, they are a work in progress.”

He returned repeatedly to the idea that the standards are being embraced by teachers and that throwing them overboard would be a step backward for U.S. education.

“It’s 2014,” Petrilli said. “Teachers have been implementing these standards for four years. Teachers have put their heart and soul in these standards. Now the question is, should we go back?”

Leading the opposing side was Carol Burris, the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and an education blogger.

“The common core standards disregard decades of research on early reading development,” she said. Meanwhile, the core standards on mathematics, she added, have led to complicated word problems “that comedians joke about and that make children cry.”

“Here’s the bottom line: There is no evidence that the common core and its tests will actually increase student learning,” Burris said.

The debate was the latest among some 85 held as part of the Intelligence Squared series, which is modeled after Oxford University-style debates and a British version of the series. The program will eventually be broadcast on NPR and is also available for download via iTunes and the Android store.

After 105 minutes of debate, including several rounds of back-and-forth among the four participants and numerous audience questions, the one clear winner was ... moderator John Donvan.

The ABC News correspondent, who is the regular host of the debate series, kept a tight pace and prevented the discussion from straying too far into other education policy controversies. If only he were available to moderate the numerous panel discussions at education conferences that tend to ramble out of control.

But as for the actual debate winner, I’ll reveal that below. Under the Intelligence Squared format, the live audience votes on the proposition at the beginning of the debate, and again at the end. The side with the largest percentage-point increase in support is declared the winner.

Tuesday’s debate touched on the origins of the common core, the role of President Barack Obama’s administration in encouraging states to participate, the content, the tests being developed based on the standards, and more.

Petrilli’s debate partner on the pro-common-core side was Carmel Martin, the executive vice president of the Center for American Progress and the former assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development.

“We know what we were doing before wasn’t working,” said Martin, who added that the development of the standards was “bottom up, not top down,” and the result of a “very rigorous” process.

Meanwhile, Burris’s partner arguing against the standards was Frederick Hess, the director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington (and author of the Education Week opinion blog, Rick Hess Straight Up). He expressed deep reservations about what the standards would mean for reading because of their embrace of “close reading” and informational texts.

“The standard of proof should be much higher for the common core than for old state standards,” Hess said.

Petrilli and Hess, who agree on much in education policy and have collaborated before, had the strongest rhetorical jabs against each other during the debate.

Watching via a Webcast, I thought that Burris and Hess had slightly outpunched Petrilli and Martin, and that it would be easier for the anti-core side to rally votes.

But in the end, the “embrace common core” side won. It started out with more support before the debate (with 50 percent for the proposition, 13 percent against, and 37 percent undecided). The post-debate vote was 67 percent for, 27 percent against, and 6 percent undecided. The “embrace” side’s gains outpaced the against side.

Maybe there really aren’t very many Glenn Beck fans in New York City, as that radio host joked back in July during his anti-common core movie theater simulcast.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.