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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Don’t Play Politics With the Common Core

By Maria Ferguson — February 24, 2017 4 min read
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The Common Core State Standards and the broader movement of states to use more-rigorous standards for college and career readiness may seem like yesterday’s news now that Betsy DeVos is ensconced as the U.S. secretary of education. But it is important for policymakers, education leaders, and the media not to lose sight of the enormous amount of time and resources that have been devoted to implementing the standards across the country.

President Donald Trump, demonstrating his penchant for policy changes not tethered to reality, has been promising to “put an end to the common core” since his campaign days. Of course, he has no authority to do that, and even if he did, recent research from the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University (the organization I lead) shows that scrapping the standards may not be what most teachers and district leaders want.

Don’t Play Politics With the Common Core: Even if Donald Trump could “end” the common core, that may not be what teachers want, writes Maria Ferguson.

But first, let’s once more state the facts about the common core to counter persistent misinformation about who developed the standards and why they are being used:

• The federal government has no dominion over voluntary state standards, including the common core.

• The federal government never required states to implement the common core. Those that did, did so freely and on their own accord.

Of the 46 states that originally adopted the common core, eight have officially repealed or withdrawn the standards, while 21 states have revised or are revising the standards, according to a recent study by the research organization Abt Associates. According to the analysis, nine of the 21 revising states found that the changes have kept the original standards mostly intact and are mainly clarifications or customizations.

Bottom line: Whether states are calling their new standards the common core or not, nearly every state has, in recent years, moved to more-rigorous college- and career-ready standards.

From late 2015-16, the Center on Education Policy surveyed hundreds of teachers and district leaders and interviewed dozens more teachers for in-depth case studies about their efforts to implement the common core or other standards for college and career readiness. Despite facing challenges along the way, most participants indicated that the move to more-rigorous standards has been a positive one. Teachers indicated that the standards have changed instruction in positive ways, including greater uniformity across states and increased academic rigor. They indicated that the standards have a greater focus on the most important skills and knowledge students will need to succeed after they graduate. Most of the district leaders we surveyed said that their respective states’ current standards are an improvement over those states’ previous standards.

The power of the federal bully pulpit is strong and can be used for good or ill."

My concern is that if teachers and district leaders are using the standards and seem satisfied with the results, President Trump’s renewed anti-common-core rhetoric will cause disruption and anxiety for local educators—and students—in what was already a hard sell.

I am not advocating for the common core at any cost. But if we allow politics to hijack every important education issue that comes along, we not only will never make any progress, but also are likely to drive our teachers and education leaders crazy in the process. While I understand that it may be easier (and in some cases wiser) to lie low and seek consensus when a power shift occurs, that does not help educators who are engaged in challenging instructional work. For the last decade, the effort to move a majority of states toward more-rigorous college- and career-ready standards, such as the common core, has been touted as a watershed moment in education. While not all factions agreed on the idea of the common core (or even common standards), there was strong consensus around the notion that today’s students need to learn skills and competencies unlike those previously taught. Now, with President Trump in office, the commitment a majority of states once made seems to rapidly be falling out of favor.

But is it really wise to backpedal on all that effort simply because the anti-common-core crowd now has the power of the administration behind it? Just because President Trump can’t legislatively “end” the common core does not mean he can’t do damage to the effort. The power of the federal bully pulpit is strong and can be used for good or ill.

The need for state and local leaders to not be so quick to bow to political rhetoric came to light in one of the most interesting data points in our research: When we asked teachers about the significant challenges facing them, many of them identified external policies and constantly changing demands as major challenges. Almost half (46 percent) of teachers cited state or district policies that get in the way of teaching as a major challenge, and about one-third cited constantly changing demands placed on teachers and students.

It is important to stress that every time lawmakers and educators agree—and then disagree—about strategies to improve education, there is a very real impact on teachers and local schools: constantly changing agendas end up costing state taxpayers millions (developing new standards and tests is expensive!), confusing the heck out of parents, and sucking away the most precious commodity our educators have: time.

After years of effort, millions of students are being taught to more-rigorous education standards, and they are being assessed with a new generation of assessments. While that process has not been flawless, it has moved forward. Turning tail now, just when schools and districts are starting to make the effort their own, is politics at its worst. The education community has in recent weeks shown its willingness to speak out against those who want to play politics with public education. It is important for state and local leaders to remember that and not let their bar-raising efforts for all students go to waste.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as In Standards Battle, States Should Stay the Course

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