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Standards Opinion

Common-Core Turbulence: Inevitable or Preventable?

By Rick Hess — May 10, 2013 4 min read
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It’s been a turbulent few months for the Common Core, raising real questions about its future. Opposition on the right has stretched well beyond the fringe has now been voiced by the Republican National Committee, with several Republican U.S. Senators speaking out in opposition and legislation to withdraw from the Common Core proposed in seven state legislatures. Meanwhile, in a big blow from the left, Randi Weingarten used ahigh-profile speech to weaken previous AFT support for the Core and to raise doubts about how the standards are being implemented and used.

Amidst all this, there are two questions that I’ve been asked a lot lately. Was this turbulence inevitable? Is there anything that Common Core proponents can do, or could have done, about it?

I’ll answer both in a moment. But first, indulge me, given that I’ve long predicted these travails (see here, here, here, here, and... you get the picture).

I’ve been asked whether I’m taking pleasure in all this. Nope. I’ve always seen some real potential benefit in the Common Core. But, the act of Common Core adoption matters a whole lot less than what happens after. And I’ve been struck by the dearth of interest proponents have shown in exploring, anticipating, or addressing policy and political challenges (they’ve had more enthusiasm for the technical stuff of test creation or for training teachers). If anything, advocates have seemed to rather gleefully seize opportunities to alienate and belittle skeptics. [For my attempt to help with the exploring and anticipating piece, see the collected AEI working papers here.]

Look, I suspect that after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Topeka a lot of champions wanted to celebrate and rush off to tackle big, new, exciting, noble crusades. (Say, something like universal pre-K, funded by $75 billion in new taxes.) But it turned out the real work had hardly begun. There were decades of blocking, tackling, and politicking ahead to turn that remarkable moment into something real and important. I’ve been dubious that many Common Core’ites had that kind of staying power, patience, or strategic sense. I think that’s what we’re seeing. I’ve not enjoyed it. But it does remind me how frequently education reformers produce a nifty idea, don’t want to do all that’s necessary to woo skeptics or make it work, and then scapegoat opponents or sorrowfully lament “implementation” when the idea disappoints. And I feel no hesitation in pointing that out.

So, the two questions. Could the turbulence have been avoided? I doubt it. It’s always easy to forge broad coalitions when the idea is alluring, practical implications are fuzzy, and you’ve got a little money to help ease things along. The practical stuff of implementation was always going to ruffle feathers and spur the emergence of opposition. New standards and tests would pose concerns for teachers and unions when tied to new evaluation and tenure systems. Legislators and governors (many of whom weren’t in office when the Common Core was adopted) would have to come up with hundreds of millions for implementation. Proficiency rates would either remain high (angering advocates) or would be slashed (angering parents). The national machinery of implementing the Common Core would become more disconcerting to the right as it became more concrete and visible.

Second, could anything be done about it? Sure. For instance, Weingarten’s concerns are reasonable and were predictable. Union support was going to soften as teachers saw the headaches of transitioning to new standards and tests that are used for test-based teacher evaluation. Strategies to support a smarter transition would help, but have received almost no attention. There’s plenty more like this.

But the more interesting question is what could’ve been done to help secure more bipartisan support.

The Obama administration’s exertions have given many conservatives the impression that the Common Core is a partisan, federal initiative. Proponents can argue that the taint of federal involvement brought by Race to the Top was worth the extra states that signed on (I think they’re wrong, but so be it). But, at some point, proponents to get the administration to back off when it came to NCLB waivers, Duncan brow-beating South Carolina, the DNC crediting Obama for the Common Core, the President taking credit in his 2013 State of the Union, and so on. Such acts mean that, however artfully proponents argue it’s a state-led effort, conservatives are not unreasonable in regarding the exercise as an Obama initiative. Now, even at this late date, it’s barely possible that a mea culpa from the administration and serious, specific proposals to firewall the Core from federal involvement could make a difference with conservatives sympathetic to the exercise.

On the right, what might’ve made a big difference were if the Republican champions of the Core had drawn a line in the sand with Obama and Duncan. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Tony Bennett could have penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed sometime in 2011 or 2012 that said, “Enough! We think the Common Core is good for kids and the country. But that’s only true so long as it’s nonpartisan. If you guys mention it one more time, to take credit or to try to browbeat various states, we’re going to have to walk.” (Marco Rubio has been trying to execute a version of this strategy when it comes to immigration reform). I suspect this would’ve made it much more likely that Sec. Duncan and Obama’s speech writers would think twice before invoking the Common Core. And it would’ve helped bolster confidence on the right that these guys were on their side when it came to the Common Core, and would’ve left them better positioned to address concerns.

Anyway, food for thought.

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