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Standards Opinion

The Slippery Slope of the Common Core

By Rick Hess — January 15, 2014 5 min read
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Since the Common Core standards were unveiled in 2010, advocates have insisted that it’s a “state-led” effort. President Obama declared in the 2011 State of the Union, “These standards were developed... not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.” This past June, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thundered, “The federal government didn’t write them, didn’t approve them, and doesn’t mandate them, and we never will. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading.”

Tony Evers, state superintendent for Wisconsin, told the Wisconsin legislature, “To those who are concerned that the Common Core represents too much ‘federal intrusion’... I was not coerced by the federal government to adopt the Common Core [and] didn’t adopt” it in response to the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” federal grant program, which rewarded states for adopting the Common Core. It’s apparently just a coincidence that Wisconsin adopted the standards on June 2, 2010, the day they were released--as promised in the state’s “Race to the Top” application. Just as it’s presumably a coincidence that Kentucky adopted the standards before they were released--a move celebrated in its “Race to the Top” application.

It’s hard to take seriously the insistence that the feds played no role when Secretary Duncan said this summer, “Did the [“Race to the Top”], and the dollars, matter to the states? Absolutely.” Indeed, President Obama has bragged, “Race to the Top has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.”

In truth, as Mike McShane and I point out in our new book, Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda, there’s a studied dishonesty about the “state-led” rhetoric. Going back to the initial planning for the Common Core in 2007 and 2008, its earliest advocates always noted that getting most states to adopt common standards and implement them aggressively would probably require an outsized federal role.

As Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas Fordham Institute and longtime champion of national standards, observed in 2010, “For these standards to get traction...a whole bunch of other things need to happen. Curriculum needs to happen, textbooks need to be aligned with the curriculum, teacher preparation and professional development needs to be aligned, tests need to be aligned, [and] the accountability system that is built on those tests needs to make sense.”

There’s little evidence that Common Core boosters really believe states, school districts, and commercial providers will make this work on their own. For instance, a quick search of Amazon for “Common Core” shows more than 30,000 books--and superintendents and teachers are quick to acknowledge that no one knows how to tell the good from the bad. Finn’s Fordham Foundation just released a report noting that most English teachers are not assigning the kinds of reading envisioned by the Common Core. The National Council on Teacher Quality recently reported that the vast majority of education schools are not preparing new teachers to teach the Common Core. Right now, school districts, states, and Common Core advocates don’t have an answer for any of this.

In each case, there are plenty of Washington-based Common Core enthusiasts who think the feds need to help get this stuff right. In 2011, the American Federation of Teachers endorsed the creation of a national curriculum to support the Common Core. The National Governors Association has previously called on Uncle Sam to help fund and encourage Common Core implementation. The Obama Department of Education has embraced a much more prescriptive role in telling states how to measure teacher effectiveness and where teachers should teach.

Meanwhile, states including Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida have announced that they’re abandoning the federally recognized Common Core tests; other states are weighing similar moves. These states have promised to develop their own tests. Now, someone will feel obliged to determine whether those new tests meet promises states have made to Washington in order to secure federal education funds. This opens the door to federal officials micromanaging test design and even test scoring.

The Common Core greatly opens the door to increasing Washington’s say over schooling. The experience of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act is instructive. Initially, NCLB limited federal authority over how states would set standards, select tests, and improve teacher quality. In recent years, however, the Obama administration has used its ability to issue “waivers” from NCLB to push states to adopt the Common Core, sign onto certain tests, and evaluate teachers in specified ways. There’s much precedent for worrying about slippery slopes.

In fact, for all their lip service to federalism, few Common Core advocates give the impression that they worry about extending Washington’s reach. Many have avidly supported Obama initiatives that have increased Washington’s authority. Mostly, the “state-led” talking points sound like advocates saying what they think will help address a short-term political problem.

The result is a dishonest debate, in which advocates refuse to acknowledge what they really think it’ll take for the Common Core to deliver on their grand ambitions. The perils should seem more than a little familiar to those watching the troubles of the rollout of health care reform, where promises made for political reasons have yielded fierce backlash and immense implementation challenges.

Instead of dismissing concerns about slippery slopes as “misinformed” or “misleading,” Common Core boosters should find the courage of their convictions. Honest talk could yield a healthy debate in lieu of today’s bitter, distrustful sniping, where even Common Core “wins” are unlikely to deliver successful implementation. Common Core boosters might lose a more open debate. If they win, however, their stance would give them a fighting chance to make the Common Core work as they intend.

Note: A version of this article, co-authored with my colleague Mike McShane, ran previously here at National Review Online. For more on the politics of the Common Core, see our volume: Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda.

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