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Standards Opinion

Common-Core Critics Can’t Just Say No

By Rick Hess — April 17, 2014 4 min read
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At the end of March, Indiana became the first state to repeal the Common Core standards. The aftermath has not been pretty. Critics have raised valid concerns but failed to put forward a notion of what happens next. This is a problem. Common Core adoption meant that Indiana schools set in place not only new reading and math standards but also new tests, curricula, instructional materials, and teaching strategies. And the abrupt shift could be a train wreck for students and educators.

The dynamics parallel those of the Obamacare debate, where critics have recognized that it’s important to offer solutions, not just complaints. Common Core critics in each state need to devise their own version of “repeal and replace.”

In the early days of the Common Core, the standards received little attention or scrutiny. In a recent research paper, we documented just how little the media covered the new proposed standards. It’s no wonder that, in 2013, Gallup reported that 62 percent of Americans had never heard of Common Core.

Indiana was no exception. Driven in large part by the pursuit of federal Race to the Top funds, Indiana adopted Common Core in 2010, and the decision went largely unremarked. Since that time, Hoosiers on both the left and the right have opted for a course change. So far, so good. After all, Common Core proponents deem it a voluntary, state-led enterprise, so no one ought begrudge a state’s voluntarily opting out.

But here’s where things get tricky. For one thing, in getting a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Indiana (like other states) promised the Obama administration it would adopt standards that met federal criteria; align curricula and teaching; select, pilot, and administer new tests aligned to the standards; and integrate the standards into both school- and teacher-accountability systems.

To avoid losing its waiver, Indiana is rushing to adopt a new set of standards by April 28. Meanwhile, to avoid raising Washington’s ire, Indiana’s state board of education is debating whether to double or triple the amount of standardized testing next year -- just to cover its bases. Schools would test once on the old standards, once on the new, and possibly a third time on an assessment to “bridge” the two. This would significantly increase both the amount of testing for kids and the costs of administering exams.

The tight timeline and absence of an alternative proposal mean that those who are crafting Indiana’s new standards have defaulted to basing them on the Common Core standards. Prominent Common Core critic Sandra Stotsky was shocked when she received a draft copy of the new standards. “I almost fell off my chair,” she said. “In grades six to twelve, it was almost identical to Common Core.”

Meanwhile, teachers have been left at sea, with little guidance on what they’re supposed to teach or how their students’ performance will be gauged. If schools are going to implement new standards next year, teachers need time to plan and school systems need time to vet and then purchase new instructional materials.

Common Core critics must keep in mind that policy debates are won by proposing better solutions. The Core standards were adopted with a big federal boost and little public debate, but adopted they were. Teachers and school leaders have been implementing the standards since 2010, and opponents can’t wish this away any more than Obamacare critics can wish away the new landscape produced by the Affordable Care Act. If opponents want “repeal” to be more than a Pyrrhic victory, they need to be prepared on three counts.

Process: Setting standards is a contentious process. The Common Core got around conflict by relying on an under-the-radar strategy; it also benefited from aggressive federal promotion. Neither tactic will be an option for those promoting a replacement. Critics should embrace a process that’s unhurried, public, and able to produce a durable alternative.

Quality: The Common Core does not have a stranglehold on quality standards. According to the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, states such as California, Indiana, and Massachusetts previously had standards as good as or better than the Common Core’s. But critics need to offer their vision of excellent standards, or they’ll wind up with garbage or with Common Core-lite.

Functionality: Standards undergird school- and teacher-accountability systems and most existing school-choice programs. It is not enough to have high-quality standards; what matters is how they affect teaching, curricula, testing, and accountability. Critics need feasible plans for phasing in new tests and ideas to make sure that school systems are not suddenly left adrift as they select new tests, curricula, and instructional materials.

The impulse to undo an ambitious reform that was adopted with little scrutiny or debate is a healthy and understandable one. But criticism unaccompanied by solutions is a self-defeating strategy. Common Core critics need to make sure they’re saying more than just “no.”

Note: this article originally appeared in National Review Online.

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