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August 01, 2014 1:00 PM Common Core Has a Messaging Problem. It Also Has a Real Problem.

By Daniel Luzer

Recently Stephanie Simon over at Politico wrote that opposition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a project to bring state curricula into alignment and improve the quality of American education by requiring common, high-level examinations, is escalating because Common Core advocates have been “fighting emotion with talking points.”

But things might get better because advocates will now change their focus in order to

…get Americans angry about the current state of public education.
To that end, expect to start hearing from frustrated college students who ended up in remedial classes even though they passed all their state tests and earned good grades in high school. “These kids should be as mad as hell” that the system failed them, [Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike] Petrilli said.

Neal McCkuskey, education expert over at the Cato Institute, objected to this characterization of the problem. No, he says, people do not object to Common Core because Common Core advocates have the wrong social media strategy:

Reducing unpleasantness…is not what the Common Core debate should ultimately be about. It should be about the logic, evidence, and facts behind national standards. And neither the past work of Core proponents, nor their impending pivot, appears designed to meaningfully deal in those essential things.

He’s got a point. As far as strategy goes, most of the discussion points are fairly stupid. But that doesn’t mean the opposition is without merit.

CommonCore

The first, from conservatives, is the idea that the initiative represents some intrusion of federal power into education.

It does not. All federally backed education reform ideas, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top, to Common Core, comes from the money provided by the federal government through Title I, which provides financial assistance to schools with high numbers of students receiving free and reduced lunch. It’s a voluntary program. States are free to avoid any federal education mandates by not taking Title I money. (Common Core is a little more complicated since 45 states have already agreed to the standards, but constitutionally it’s the same.)

The second, from liberals and teachers, is just that the reform will tie teacher evaluation closely to unreliable standardized tests and, in the words of Karen Wolfe over at LA Progressive, it is an,

education reform agenda with its call to deregulate schools as a public good, and destabilize labor unions which have historically been huge supporters of the Democratic party.

Well yes, but that’s a trend that’s far bigger than Common Core and, indeed, even education. Deregulation of public goods and the elimination of organized labor has been going on for decades.

McCkuskey, however, raises a more fundamental objection: it’s just not going to work. As he writes:

For the most part, [advocates] …simply assert that the Common Core represents high standards, and that’s what we need to vault near top place in the world educational and economic competition. This ignores the major empirical evidence I and many others have brought against the Core, and national standards generally, showing that standards - much less the Core itself - have demonstrated no such power.

Holding all children to national standards is useful in that it would allow easy comparison between states, and provide a common idea of where students are falling short. That’s vaguely progressive in that it might allow schools to identify problems, but it won’t actually fix them.

All of this worry about being too nice, and not selling the case is, in the long run, not all that important. While a few governors have issued official objections to the reform (Some have even announced they will not participate, before turning around and suggesting new standards that basically are Common Core, with a few word changes.), Common Core is basically a done deal.

But after it happens nothing will change. We will still see that poor children have lower achievement. Poor children will continue to be less likely to go to college and more likely to drop out. We will continue to bemoan the way that American students as a whole won’t know enough about math, science, and history. The fact that every child will be held to “clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade” will be unlikely to have any impact on these long-term problems.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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