The GOP and the Common Core

by Chester E. Finn Jr.

Why are conservatives stoutly resisting this promising education initiative?

Though few Americans have ever heard of the “Common Core,” it’s causing a ruckus in education circles and turmoil in the Republican Party. Prompted by tea party activists, a couple of influential talk-radio hosts and bloggers, some disgruntled academics, several conservative think-tanks, and a couple of mysterious but deep-pocketed funders, the Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution blasting the Common Core as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Several red states that previously adopted it for their schools are on the verge of backing out. Indiana has already hit the “pause” button.

What, you ask, is this all about?

Thirty years after a blue-ribbon panel declared the United States to be “a nation at risk” due to the weak performance and shoddy results of our public-education system, one of the two great reforms to have enveloped that system is the setting of explicit academic standards in core subjects, standards that make clear what math youngsters should know by the end of fifth grade, what reading and writing skills they must acquire by tenth grade, and so on. (The other great reform: school choice.)

Up to now, individual states set their own academic standards. A few did this well but most, according to reviews undertaken by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and others, faltered badly, putting forth vague expectations that lack content and rigor, are unhelpful to teachers and curriculum directors, and often promote left-wing dogma. Even the good ones differ so much from state to state that school and student performance cannot be compared around the country, much less with other lands.

Public education is indisputably the responsibility of states—embedded deeply in their constitutions—but preparing young Americans to succeed in a mobile society on a shrinking and more competitive planet calls for some uniformity of basic education expectations across the land, expectations that, if met, truly prepare young people for college and good jobs and prepare the U.S. workforce for the twenty-first century.

Many state leaders understand this and, beginning five years ago, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers (to which most “state superintendents” belong) launched a foundation-funded project called the “common core state standards initiative,” which gave birth to a set of commendably strong standards for English and math from kindergarten through high school. Fordham Institute reviewers found them superior to the academic expectations set by three-quarters of the states—and essentially on par with the rest.

But would states actually embrace them in place of their own? This was—and remains—totally voluntary, but decisions grew more complicated when the Obama administration started pushing states toward such adoptions by jawboning, hectoring, and luring them with dollars and regulatory waivers.

Whether it was the standards’ intrinsic merit, administration pressure, or the potential advantages of commonality—not just comparability but also cheaper textbooks and tests that need not be tailored to each state’s specifications—forty-five states plus D.C., several territories, and the Pentagon’s school network signed on. (Texas and Virginia remain the big exceptions.) The top-priority education initiative in most of those places today is preparing teachers, parents, and others for these demanding standards—and for the likelihood that scores will plummet on the tougher tests now under development and due to be launched in 2015.

Then came the backlash. Some arose on the left from longtime foes of testing and from teacher groups wary of being evaluated against sterner criteria. Some arose from parents and educators fretful that heavier emphasis on English and math will eclipse music, art, civics, health, and the remaining components of a balanced curriculum.

The heavy artillery, however, came from the right. Much of it focused on what was presented, tea-party style, as a federal plot—worse, an Obama plot, in cahoots with the Gates Foundation, maybe even the United Nations—to take over American schools, end local control, undermine state sovereignty, and vanquish school choice.

Some decried the Common Core as a lowering of standards because, for example, it doesn’t mandate algebra in the eighth grade. (Never mind that few eighth graders study real algebra today.) Others prophesied that Jane Austen and Mark Twain would be replaced by close study of auto-repair manuals. (The list of recommended readings that accompanies the Common Core is excellent—but bad choices by teachers or curriculum directors can subvert any standards.)

Many respected conservatives back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They realize that academic standards are just the beginning, setting out a destination but not how to get there. They understand, too, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of common expectations for the three R’s.

Good conservatives all, they see that the Common Core can save dollars over time while enhancing accountability, hastening the development of powerful instructional technologies, strengthening American competitiveness, boosting the country’s shared civic culture, and (by supplying parents with better information about school performance) advancing school choice.

They also recognize, however, that the Common Core is voluntary and that states unserious about implementing it are better off not pretending to.

Implementation is a boring topic but here (as with most bold reforms of complex, sluggish institutions) it’s crucial. The past quarter century offers sad examples of states with praiseworthy standards and lousy academic results, with California being the woeful poster child. This breakdown is due to the plain fact that the state never infused its own standards into tests, requirements for promotion and graduation, teacher certification and evaluations, school ratings, college admissions, or much else.

Yet we also have a few instances—Massachusetts takes this prize—of states that inserted their strong academic standards into decisions that really matter for teachers, principals, students, and parents and, in consequence, are producing educational outcomes that compare favorably with the planet’s highest performers.

It was never credible that forty-five states would thoroughly implement the Common Core standards in the near term. Federal incentives—money that many states wound up not winning—artificially inflated the number that promised to. The money will soon run out for those that got it. And intervening elections have changed the leadership in many jurisdictions. Most education insiders say they’ll be grateful if two dozen states put all the pieces of the Comment Core into place in the next few years, especially after new tests kick in and scores decline.

In time, however, we’ll know whether schools and students in serious Common Core states do better than those in places that opt to go it alone. If they do, then—state leaders being prone to envy and emulation—more jurisdictions will surely follow.

Such momentous decisions should be based on what’s good for kids, however, not adult politics. Particularly lamentable is to see academic standards for fourth graders turn into a “tea party” issue that’s used to bludgeon GOP office holders to repudiate a sound reform out of fear that they’ll be clobbered from the right during the next Republican primary. (One sorry outcome of both parties’ twenty-year quest for “safe” legislative seats is that nearly all of today’s credible electoral challenges come from the fever swamps and fog banks within the parties.)

Obama, let’s acknowledge, has made this worse by wrapping himself around the Common Core, causing it to be labeled “Obamacore” by critics even though it originated with the states, is owned by them, and remains totally voluntary. Conservatives are right to fault him for this.

But they’re not right to take it out on schoolchildren. Plenty of conservatives realize this—and those who aren’t worried about upcoming elections have said so plainly, particularly former GOP governors Engler, Huckabee, and (Jeb) Bush.

As Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee said on his radio show in early May, “Parents and people involved in their local schools should let it be known that core standards are valuable, and they’re not something to be afraid of—they are something to embrace.” He also faulted the Republican National Committee for passing a resolution against the standards. “I think that’s very short-sighted,” Huckabee said.

Shortly after the RNC resolution, Jeb Bush noted that the weak-kneed nature of today’s state-level standards is what led a bi-partisan group to develop the Common Core together in the first place. “We’ve so dumbed down our expectations for young people,” Bush explained, “so as not to create any kind of conflict because we’re worried about little Johnny’s self-esteem rather than if little Johnny can read or write.” Undeterred by his party’s national committee, he made clear that “I’m going to stay in the fight.”

Education reform is hard. Admiral Rickover once compared it to “moving a graveyard.” Standards-setting is just part of it—and common standards aren’t inherently better. (Newly-released standards for science appear to have serious shortcomings.) But when a group of state leaders, many of them Republicans, can come together to set expectations for the curricular core that surpass what most of them set on their own, more conservatives should applaud, not lash out.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and chairman of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education. He is also president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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