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August 15, 2012 5:45 PM Common Core, Not so Common Agreement

By Daniel Luzer

Back in May/June this year we published a piece about the next tests for American schools. The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a project to bring state curricula into alignment and, perhaps more importantly, improve the quality of American education by requiring common, high-level examinations. In the words of Susan Headden, the author of the article:

While not a unified national curriculum, the common core will lay down a set of high, unified standards—rubrics that define what students should be able to know and do by, say, the end of third grade. Those standards will be enough to defragment the American testing market. With them will come a set of completely new, interactive, computerized tests that promise to… test higher-order thinking by asking students to show, in a variety of different ways, whether they have mastered a set of working concepts.

There might be something of a snag in that plan. It turns out many states aren’t all that eager to implement common core standards.

Part of the problem is that, despite the fact that high quality tests aren’t really a political issue, the initiative is, in many state education director’s eyes, associated with the Obama administration (much as people associate the No Child Left Behind Act with George W. Bush). Implementing common core successfully, after all, requires a lot of work on the part of states. And it’s easy to blame President Barack Obama.

This means it’s ripe for Republicans to destroy. According to an article by Rick Hess in Education Week:

I see great potential value in states choosing to embrace common, high-caliber reading and math standards, if these are implemented with conviction and attention to how they will interact with current reforms. That said, seems to me there’s a huge chance that the whole exercise will go south, with many states implementing the Common Core half-heartedly, while screwing with existing reforms and standards. Such an outcome would ultimately do more harm than good. After all, the easiest course for states that have adopted Common Core standards but have second thoughts is to leave ‘em be, and then simply not follow through (especially since most state legislators would probably rather put money into salaries than Common Core’ish obligations for new tests, p.d., or instructional materials.)

That’s the “it’s hard” part. That everyone knew before the process began. The trouble is that common core is also now political. As Hess puts it:

This is where the Obama administration’s ham-handed machinations have been especially unhelpful, given that it’s easy for skeptics to argue that lots of states have essentially adopted the Common Core under duress. In particular, the Obama administration’s push in Race to the Top, it’s ESEA “blueprint,” NCLB waivers, and the rest has gradually turned the Common Core into a partisan issue that may enjoy enthusiastic backing from elite edu-Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels, but that is now seen by a growing swath of conservatives as just another facet of Obamaesque federal overreach.

This is not really a political issue. There’s no Republican position point opposed to implementing high quality academic standards. There’s no Democratic one requiring states to force children to take the same tests.

But according to Hess, many conservative education thinkers are now starting to express opposition to common core, presenting it as government overreach. And if this happens, it’s going to be damn hard to get schools and citizens behind the effort.

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