What the Obamacare debacle tells us about Common Core

By Frederick M. Hess, Michael Q. McShane

Newspapers and cable news are overflowing with stories of Obamacare’s disastrous rollout. Shutting down HealthCare.gov to fix crippling “glitches,” President Obama’s broken promises, increased rates, dropped coverage – all of these feel like they’ve come out of nowhere. Where was the advanced warning? Shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Clearly, those who were supposed to play a watchdog role dropped the ball.

There are important lessons here for another bold, national effort – the Common Core reading and math standards in K-12 schooling. Introduced in 2010 and adopted by more than 40 states with little notice, the Common Core has since rocketed into the popular imagination. Headlines are filled with tales of angry public meetings and legislative clashes in places like Florida, New York and Georgia.

This discord may surprise some. The Common Core is the very reform that the New York Times editorial board celebrated as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” and which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said “may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.”

When unveiled in 2010, it drew little controversy and little public examination or debate. At that time, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and conservative champions of national standards noted, “This profound … shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.” They concluded this inactivity was a testament to the quality of the standards and broad support for more uniform expectations.

Implementation challenges have made the Common Core look more and more like Obamacare. Implementation challenges have made the Common Core look more and more like Obamacare. States that raced to adopt the standards in 2010, including Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida and Alabama, have expressed second thoughts on participating. In New York, Common Core critics have called for the resignation of education commissioner John King after he threatened to cancel a series of town halls on the topic. At a convening hosted by the Education Writers Association earlier this week, the president of the American Federation of Teachers declared that the implementation of the Common Core is “far worse” than the troubled launch of Obamacare.

Where was all this anger when states were adopting the Common Core? Why is it boiling up now? Well, here’s one important clue: As Gallup reported this fall, 68 percent of Americans had never heard of the Common Core. States have spent two or three years planning to fundamentally alter how schools teach and test reading and math, but parents and teachers are only now encountering big changes that seemingly came out of the blue.

Common Core advocates have tended to dismiss unrest and concern as a function of parents and teachers being uninformed or misinformed. But whose fault is that? Portraying parents and teachers as ignorant, in this case, seems be a matter of blaming the victim. The real culprits are those who chose not to educate or engage the public, or those who did little to shed light on a quiet effort to pursue the “single greatest” educational change in a half-century.

Put plainly, the public had little access to information about the Common Core. Put plainly, the public had little access to information about the Common Core. A search of Lexis- Nexis’s repository of news articles from across the U.S. shows that 450 newspaper stories mentioned the “Common Core” in 2009, the year it was created. (For comparison’s sake, that same year, 2,185 stories mentioned Disney actor Zac Efron). Not a single story that mentioned “Common Core” also mentioned the word “controversy,” “coercion,” “critic,” “against,” “Duncan,” “opponent” or “federal.” Perhaps most telling, not a single 2009 story used the term “supporter” or “defender.”

In 2010, the tale was similar. Nationally, as dozens of states adopted the Common Core, there were a total of just 1,648 stories. Not one mentioned “controversy,” “coercion,” “against,” “Duncan,” or “opponent.” One mentioned the term “federal,” and another cited a “critic.”

Mostly, early stories were innocuous updates or puff pieces. The Hattiesburg American headlined one 2010 story, “State moving to new ed standards.” The Oregonian reported “More rigorous math tests will get state vote today.” The Huntsville Times titled another “Spotlight shines on city school system.”

Today, things have changed. Observers are shocked – shocked! – to find that parents and teachers are only now learning about the Common Core and are angry that key decisions were made three years ago without scrutiny or debate. Headlines from 2013 read “Meltdown over Common Core.” (The Baton Rouge Advocate), “New education model elicits anger, suspicion” (The Palm Beach Post), and “Common-core standards have tea party seeing US school takeover” (West Hawaii Today).

The press is reveling in the resulting kerfluffle that its previous inattention helped to create. In August 2013, for instance, there were more than 3,000 stories written about the Common Core – more than the number of stories that ran in 2009 and 2010 combined. September 2013 again boasted more than 3,000 stories. Thus far in 2013, hundreds of Common Core stories have mentioned “opponents” and “supporters.”

An informed citizenry requires information. Now that the debate has begun, advocates and reporters have a second chance to explain the substance, examine concerns, talk honestly about challenges and costs and ensure that the public has a chance to fully and fairly weigh the case for the Common Core.

When Obamacare’s rollout was bungled, they were able to shut down the website for maintenance. Such is not the case in America’s schools.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow. They are coeditors of the new book Common Core Meets Education Reform: What It All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling.

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