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Standards Opinion

Brooks, Stotsky, and the Common Core

By Rick Hess — April 21, 2014 3 min read
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A couple years ago I observed, “I see great potential value in states choosing to embrace common, high-caliber reading and math standards... That said, seems to me there’s a huge chance that the whole exercise will go south, with many states implementing the Common Core half-heartedly, while screwing with existing reforms and standards. Such an outcome would ultimately do more harm than good.” Last Friday, two columns reminded me why I fear the entire Common Core enterprise is likely to have disquieting results.

In a column that looked to be ripped from the talking points of Common Core enthusiasts, the NYT’s David Brooks offered an object lesson in the vapid triumphalism of Common Core boosters. He denounced those who’ve raised questions about the Common Core as “the circus,” and then pooh-poohed legitimate questions about federal involvement, the design of the standards, whether there are appropriate texts and curricula, and whether the Common Core has helped open the door to ludicrous lesson plans. He ignored questions about linking evaluation and accountability systems to half-baked assessments, whether Common Core-plus-waiver requirements creates a slippery slope for federal control of state assessment, the similarities of some CCSS elementary math to the reviled “new math” of yore, or how we know that the standards are as terrific as advertised. In short, he echoed the Common Core party line in dismissing concerns as proof of extremism or idiocy. It was the kind of bland dismissal that leaves critics convinced that their only option is to pursue repeal.

Personally, of course, I’ve always been much less concerned about whether states keep or reject the Common Core than about what that means for students, schools, and systems. As Mike McShane and I wrote last week, opponents have their work cut out. As with the Affordable Care Act, we argue, critics will only find political and practical success when they have a viable alternative to put forward. This isn’t so much a criticism as an observation that, over the long haul, policy fights are usually won by those offering actual solutions. So I was puzzled by Sandy Stotsky’s reply at Breitbart.com. She acknowledged the need for critics to develop alternatives and flagged her own, useful efforts to do so: drafting alternative and publicly available ELA standards, penning a book in 2012 that helps secondary English teachers develop a literature curriculum, and working with a district in Wisconsin and another in New Hampshire to develop “first-class” ELA standards.

All well and good, and just the kind of thing we encourage. But, Stotsky well knows that her efforts are just one small piece--they don’t encompass math, K-8 ELA curricula, testing, implications for accountability or evaluation, strategies for transitioning schools to new curricula or texts, or much else. This isn’t a knock; it’s just an observation that much more is needed. Which made it surprising to me that Sandy responded not by saying, “Yep, we need more oars in the water here,” but by claiming that we were offering a “baseless complaint.” Seems a bit to me like one hospital touting its on cost control methods and extrapolating from there that we need to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with... well what? (Again, this isn’t to naysay Sandy’s efforts, but repeal and replace requires more than one person’s energetic exertions.)

Sandy’s response was accompanied by a bevy of twitter traffic from the anti-Common Core left. There, commenters generally dismissed the need for alternatives, said schools would figure it out, mentioned IB testing, or some such. None of this is particularly calculated to reassure to legislators (or parents or district leaders) wondering what it looks like if they abandon the Common Core. Critics need to regard a call for solutions as something other than a criticism or a chore.

A big problem with our increasing tendency to make education a question of national activity (in NCLB, Race to the Top, the Common Core, etc.) is that national debates tend to be more abstract, polarized, exaggerated, and message-driven than those that play out in states and communities. The push for the Common Core explicitly framed the issue as a national one. The results are predictable. Last Friday’s back-and-forth made it clear that the respective sides are so dug in and so reluctant to break stride in order to talk about the messy reality of the Common Core, or of repeal, that I increasingly suspect that the Common Core will be more notable for its manifold unintended consequences than for anything it does to reading and math instruction.

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