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Tired Babysitters, Broken Windows, and the Common Core

By Rick Hess — January 23, 2014 6 min read
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On Monday, I penned a column for National Review Online titled “What Ever Happened to ‘State-Led’” that seemed to frustrate and puzzle a number of Common Core advocates. I heard from plenty of friends and acquaintances who thought I was unreasonable and unfair. I wrote, in part:

“I’ve written recently that the Common Core poses a slippery slope toward increased federal control of schools and schooling. This is a disconcerting prospect for those concerned that federal officials are too far removed from the daily realities of education and too prone to faddish enthusiasms to be helpful, and who fear federal efforts will yield more bureaucratization than school improvement.

It’s especially troubling given how heavily Common Core proponents have relied on the table-pounding insistence that the enterprise was “state-led” and “voluntary.” Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spent 2013 ridiculing those who dared to question this orthodoxy as a narrow-minded, uninformed, radical “fringe” Since the debate began in 2009, we’ve been repeatedly reassured that we needn’t make too much of federal “incentives” to adopt the Common Core through Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind waivers, because those didn’t signal any larger federal role. And each time Duncan championed the Common Core, the proponents would insist that this was a one-time thing -- and even say they wanted Duncan and the feds to stay out.

But times change. As if to illustrate the point, Duncan opted last week to use a White House gathering of college presidents -- who depend on federal largesse -- to tell them that they needed to be out there championing the Common Core. Questions about Duncan’s remarks were met with a giant, collective yawn. My questions and concerns on this score were dismissed as so much uncouth troublemaking.

Five years into the “state-led” Common Core debate, the secretary of education is at the White House telling the leaders of institutions reliant on federal aid that they need to get out there and back the Common Core and . . . what? The folks who spent so much time selling this as “voluntary” aren’t even modestly troubled? They aren’t even a bit irate that Duncan might be making them look like liars? They can’t even muster up some pro forma press releases decrying Duncan for overstepping?”

If I understand my Common Core friends correctly, and I believe that I do, their response is something like: “Rick, this is a massively unfair critique. The effort IS state-led. It’s been steered by the NGA and CCSSO and adopted voluntarily by forty-odd states. Obama and Duncan may be cheerleading from the sidelines, but that’s all they’re doing. Heck, all the tumult shows that states are free to reverse course. Meanwhile, we’re being subjected to a raft of wacky conspiracy theories--and your column only provides more ammunition for those. Duncan is just TALKING about the Common Core; he wasn’t spending money, proposing programs, issuing regulations, or anything of substance. We wish he wouldn’t say those things, but we don’t control him. We’ve privately told the administration that using Race to the Top and waivers to push the Common Core was unfortunate. We’ve told them that we wish Duncan would stop talking about the Common Core, but the Secretary is headstrong and passionate. So, what can we do? You took some remarks by the Secretary, which just happened to be uttered in the White House, and somehow suggested that his talking about the Common Core means it’s no longer state-led. That’s just ridiculous.” I doubt this is exactly right, but I believe I’ve captured the gist.

How do I respond? First, let me note, for the umpteenth time, that I get the big potential upside of more common reading and math standards and assessments, for students and schools. And I’ll once again note that I regard Common Core advocates as uniformly well-intentioned. That said, I’ve also long suggested the Common Core push may very well do more harm than good, because of how it’ll play out. And this is a classic case in point.

So, what do I say to my friends who think I’m being unreasonable and unfair?

The responses to Monday’s column sound to me like the pleas of exhausted babysitters who’ve been worn down by an unruly charge by night’s end. What I hear is, “You know how rambunctious Arne can be. I kept telling him to stop playing with the Common Core. But every time I took it away and hid it, he’d find it again. It just didn’t make sense to keep telling him ‘no,’ he wasn’t listening. You know, there’s only so much I can do.”

Newsflash: Uh, guys, this was always the concern. I never imagined that federal officials had penned the Common Core standards and covertly shipped them to CCSSO. The concern was always that genteel federal nudging would gradually broaden and deepen, that peppy officials at the White House, in the Department of Education, or in Congress would find it just too tempting to seize on the Common Core in their hurry to do more good, for more kids, more quickly. (If I thought this was likely to work out as intended, I’d be okay with it. But I don’t, and I’m not.)

A key insight here lies with the “broken windows” principle elucidated 30-odd years ago by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They hypothesized that the failure to stop small crimes (like graffiti and window-breaking) created a climate of permissiveness and lawlessness, one in which the unruly feel emboldened to engage in more and more severe misbehavior. My concern is that as Duncan keeps breaking windows and spraying graffiti, and Common Core advocates keep shrugging it off as “Arne being Arne,” the bar for federal involvement in this “state-led” exercise gets steadily lowered. That further emboldens Duncan and sets a precedent that I suspect some other federal officials will cheerfully exploit.

Every time the Common Core’s advocates disavow responsibility for Duncan’s sharp elbows, pooh-pooh his actions, or say plaintively, “We keep asking them to butt out,” it tells me they’re too tired and worn down to keep those windows intact. I’d be modestly reassured if those who’ve sold this thing so assiduously as “state-led” seemed exercised about keeping the feds out. I’d like to see the NGA, the CCSSO, the Fordham Institute, Achieve, Student Achievement Partners, and the Foundation for Educational Excellence issue a ferocious public statement torching the Obama administration for overstepping when it comes to the Common Core, declaring that federal officials have no business touching it, threatening to censure the Secretary if he doesn’t cease and desist, and announcing that they will bitterly fight federal efforts to interfere in any way with state decisions regarding the Common Core. If they can’t be bothered to act, they’ll have to excuse me for doubting their sincerity... and for reacting accordingly.

What I see unfolding, for those who were inclined to take the Common Core advocates at their word, is the gradual unfolding of a massive bait-and-switch. I don’t see ill intent, but I do see tired babysitters, gradually waving off one infraction after another, until the line demarcating “state-led” from federal-state “partnership” blurs away to nothing. We’re already at the point where the Secretary of Education can use a White House podium to tell college presidents dependent on federal largesse that they really ought to be out championing the Common Core--and nobody even blinks. If you don’t really care whether the federal government is more centrally involved in schooling--or if you think that’s not a bad thing--this is all okay. If you’re someone like me, who thinks that’s a bad thing, and sees a slippery, inexorable slope towards federalization, there’s great cause for concern. Anyway, that’s what I’m so ticked about.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.