Standards Opinion

Common-Core Voter’s Guide: Democratic Edition

By Dave Powell — January 12, 2016 6 min read
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Last week, I took a look at some of the statements made about Common Core by the Republicans running for president. Next up: the Democrats.

We’ll start with Hillary Clinton. In Iowa last year, Clinton was questioned by a voter who understood that common standards aren’t about imposing Washington’s will on everyone else, but can, instead, be seen as engines of equality built to ensure that schools fulfill their obligations to every student (see the video here; just be sure to fast-forward to the fiftieth minute if you want to get right to it). This is the important counterpoint to the stories being told by Common Core’s opponents who want to make this a political argument: if it turns out not to be true that Common Core was forced on us by the federal government (reviewing here: it wasn’t), then the case against the standards has to be educational or philosophical. Educationally, the argument seems to rest on the idea that the standards require fuzzy math and put too much emphasis on non-fiction texts. The claim has also been made that Common Core expects too much of students, that the standards are developmentally inappropriate.

But these don’t seem like winning arguments to me. The math one is the easiest to dismiss: people who actually understand and teach math, by and large, think the standards are a huge step forward. The fiction vs. non-fiction thing seems wildly overblown; personally, I’m excited by the idea that my kids might read Tom Sawyer alongside landmark court cases in their high school English classes. And the question of whether the standards are developmentally appropriate or not is also problematic. Ironically, the only way to claim the standards are developmentally inappropriate is to lump all kids together in a developmental category...which is exactly what the people claiming the standards are developmentally appropriate claim the writers of the standards did. If you want to read a reasonable take on this question, go here; it’s a report filed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Key point: it all depends on what teachers and school administrators do with the standards.

The philosophical arguments can be similarly reductive. I’ll accept an argument that standards limit what teachers are able to do, but I can’t buy the claim that teacher autonomy is more important than equity for students. No, these two things are not mutually exclusive—quite the opposite—but to claim that standards are bad because they force teachers to teach in boxes while also claiming that everybody deserves an equal chance at a good education doesn’t add up, as Clinton’s questioner implied. Standards and autonomy can co-exist. When standards are articulated well, they don’t take away autonomy; they guarantee it. Just because every house has a foundation doesn’t mean they all look the same.

If we want to make this a political argument it should go like this: we need standards so we can stop politicians and policymakers, from Washington to Wasilla and everywhere in between, from fooling around with schools. Educationally and philosophically there are positive arguments to be made as well, and they hinge on prioritizing our social commitment to the education of all children. I’ve never been an entirely comfortable defender of Common Core, but I know that I’d be a lot more uncomfortable attacking the standards with the arguments being used against them.

But back to Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s response to that voter’s question started empathetically. “Wow,” she said; “That is a really powerful, touching comment that I absolutely embrace.” Acknowledging that some states take their commitment to equity more seriously than others, Clinton explained that the effort to write Common Core and get it adopted “wasn’t politicized, it was to try to come up with a core of learning that we might expect students to achieve across our country, no matter what kind of school district they were in, no matter how poor their family was, that there wouldn’t be two tiers of education.”

Nice work so far but then Clinton pivoted, as Clinton will do. “Your question is really a larger one,” she said, picking up on the way the question was framed: in the question, opposition to Common Core had been described as the result of endless negativity directed at schools—Common Core was collateral damage in the culture wars, in other words. In the end, Clinton referenced her vote in favor of No Child Left Behind, which seemed to signal her awareness that the equity provisions in that law had done some good, but never really said much about Common Core. Everybody seems to think Clinton has a “common core problem"—that she secretly supports the standards even though she has not definitively said so publicly—but there’s little evidence of it. That video above is supposedly the proof, and it’s hardly conclusive.

Last but not least is Bernie Sanders (sorry Martin O’Malley—space limitations). Sanders has been cagey about Common Core, if you want to put it that way; he hasn’t said much. Maybe he just recognizes a political football when he sees one. At any rate, like Clinton, Sanders seems to understand that the Common Core issue is not as clear cut for Democratic voters as it is for Republicans. Where GOP candidates have made this issue an easy one for their base to digest by blaming it all on Obama, the leading Democrats seem content to let people get worked into a frenzy by the Republicans and address other concerns like universal pre-K and college tuition. Clinton’s pivot away from the hot button issue might look disingenuous, but her perception that Common Core is being used as a cudgel to damage public education is accurate. Sanders hasn’t been caught talking about Common Core at all, so his position is even harder to deduce. But we do know that he voted against No Child Left Behind for the right reasons (he was concerned about overemphasis on testing) and acknowledges the role the federal government, and the education system, can play in leveling the playing field for less affluent Americans.

In the end, the divide is clear: if this is an issue that matters to you, you can discard about half the field of presidential candidates—the ones who appear to be willing to say anything to get elected. That leaves a handful of candidates from both parties—Bush, Kasich, Clinton, and Sanders—who are willing to at least have a grown up conversation about educational issues. None, especially on the Democratic side, have given us much to go on, but sometimes silence speaks volumes.

I haven’t decided who I’ll vote for yet, but I do know that educational credibility means a lot to me and I know that advocating for it is a political responsibility that every teacher should take seriously. What can teachers do to help solve persistent educational problems? This answer might not satisfy everyone, but but here it is: advocate for your profession and vote. And don’t be fooled. It doesn’t take much to read between the lines, connect the dots, and figure out what these candidates stand for. At least in the case of the Democrats (Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley), we can pore over their detailed responses to a questionnaire given to them by the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Clinton. The Republicans, of course, were invited to answer but all declined. Read up; the responses are revealing. Even if you don’t agree with any of these three, you can start a substantive conversation with somebody about why you don’t.

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