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Standards Opinion

A Playbook for the Common Core’ites: Part 2

By Rick Hess — June 20, 2013 6 min read
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On Tuesday, I tried to explain how Common Core enthusiasts have gotten themselves into their current fix, where their dazzling, Race to the Top-fueled victories of 2010 and 2011 have given way to a divisive, frustrating slog. Today, the Common Core’ites have some serious challenges. Among these:

1] They have no one who seems able to credibly address concerns on the Tea Party right;

2] are dismissive of practical questions, like whether the technology will actually support glitch-free assessments;

3] lean on the boilerplate language of educational competition rather than addressing specific concerns;

4] and keep repeating the same tone-deaf talking points, mostly just infuriating the skeptics (the enthusiasts are apparently in disbelief that anyone might regard an enterprise driven by two DC associations and backed by federal incentives as anything other than a truly “voluntary” state effort).

Anyway, they don’t seem to be able to get out of this rut. This is a huge problem, because standards and assessments are so integral to schooling that a train wreck here will have all kinds of unfortunate consequences. So, as a public service announcement, here are five suggestions that advocates can do to get their popular and political fortunes back on track. (All five proceed from the assumption that one can never satisfy those who are implacably hostile -- but that what matters in public debate is reassuring, calming, or winning over the mass of risk-averse, responsible skeptics.) Here we go:

1] Sec. Duncan needs to give a speech in which he pleads “mea culpa” and acknowledges that federal involvement and money played a nontrivial (and perhaps, in hindsight, an unfortunate) role in the early stages of the Common Core. Doing so will allow the conversation to move off that sticking point, and reassure the skeptics that the proponents are finally speaking to their fears of slippery slopes. Duncan can then pivot to what comes next. He should signal support for proposals by Congressional Republicans that would prohibit further federal involvement with the Common Core and issue bright-line guidance to make clear that ED will not be sticking its 800-lb. thumb on the scale in the future when dealing with waivers or anything else. This got much easier recently when House Education Committee Chair John Kline and K-12 Subcomittee Chair Todd Rokita introduced the Student Success Act, which bars the feds from offering grants or policy waivers contingent on a state’s use of certain curricula or adoption of certain assessment policies. Duncan can say that Obama is also opposed to the feds trying to commandeer the standards, that any initial nudges were a one-time thing, that he and the House Republicans agree in principle, and that the next step is to start wrangling over particulars. By the way, Duncan’s “waiver from the waivers” (despite the laughable absence of legislative authority supporting any of it) at least shows a willingness to acknowledge some of the real concerns.

2] Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Chris Christie ought to pen an op-ed in which they unapologetically repeat their support for the Common Core project but acknowledge concerns that the administration has politicized the effort. They should demand an acknowledgment from Duncan (making it easier for him to deliver that essential mea culpa), insist on safeguards regarding data collection and federal involvement, and seek clarity as to how governance of the Common Core and the assessments are going to be ordered so as to respect state sovereignty and guard against E.U.-style bureaucratic creep. Bottom line: they should clearly signal to conservatives that they are aware that the exercise could be hijacked by bureaucrats, partisans, or nationalizers, and that they intend to be vigilant about not letting that happen. Happily, this has gotten much easier with the marker laid down by Kline and Rokita, and by Sen. Lamar Alexander last week. Bush et al. are now beautifully positioned to say, “We think the Common Core is good for our kids and our country, and that’s why we’re full-throated supporters -- but that’s also why we need to protect it from federal overreach or partisan meddling by a Democratic administration.”

3] The stellar state superintendents who make up Chiefs for Change should make clear that they’re willing to take the lead on addressing serious concerns with an open mind. Rather than merely voicing support for the effort, as they’ve done of late, they should explain how they’re addressing key concerns and signal an openness to weighing questions about the assemblage of reading lists, teacher and school accountability, data collection, and the need for more transparency around the whole process.

4] Key leaders of the Common Core effort need to stop just repeating their talking points, and show some evidence that they’re listening to concerns and taking critics seriously. Those who could be especially influential here are CCSSO chief Chris Minnich; Achieve honcho Mike Cohen; NGA’s Richard Laine; Student Achievement Partner’s Jason Zimba; and David Coleman, president of the College Board and the dynamo who played the critical role in pushing the Common Core. They need to do more than keep insisting on the urgency of the exercise, praising the standards, and saying that the feds weren’t involved. (I’m sorry to say it, because they’re good friends and terrific guys, but this week’s Ed Week commentary by Minnich and Laine was pretty much a rehash of what’s not working.) Instead, these folks should try to start speaking in a manner designed to draw the poison from so much of the suspicion that has (justifiably) taken root. They should publicly concede that the feds played a significant facilitative role, that the Common Core exercise has been inevitably imperfect, that reasonable people may be nervous about the power seemingly being wielded by unaccountable associations, and that advocates facing a window of opportunity may have focused too much on the ambition of the project and not enough on allaying practical concerns. Such concessions would catch the critics flat-footed, reassure nervous parents and teachers that their concerns are being taken seriously, and permit a reasonable back-and-forth to start emerging. (Remember, once again, most opponents in any of these fights are NOT dead-enders -- they’re just citizens who get nervous, and then start to get really agitated when “mainstream” leaders won’t acknowledge or address their concerns.)

5] Somebody needs to explain how all this is going to work without making all the worst fears of critics come true. Supporters should understand that many conservatives will come to regard a process dominated by CCSSO, the NGA, PARCC, and SBAC as actually more worrisome than one driven by Uncle Sam. After all, if something is run by the feds, at least Tom Coburn, Darrell Issa, or Rand Paul can always speak up. Meanwhile, these nonprofits operate with only nominal direction, are unaccountable to voters or elected officials, and operate in a bureaucratic miasma with little transparency or oversight. As conservatives learn more about current arrangements in the next couple years, they’re going to think this is all depressingly reminiscent of how the EU’s bureaucratic megastate took shape. How the standards and consortia will be governed and held accountable are questions that need to be addressed, but that have barely been broached (for one of the very few efforts to tackle these issues, see Pat McGuinn’s thoughtful paper here). If the advocates don’t get ahead of this one, I can assure them that they’ll be enduring a whole set of new, “uninformed” attacks in a year or two.

Will this “solve” everything? Nope, but it’ll give the proponents a chance to be heard and shift the debate. Might proponents actually do any of this? I can’t really say. I guess we’ll see.

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