As millions of U.S. schoolchildren learn reading, writing and arithmetic under new national academic standards known as Common Core, a backlash has developed in several states.
Although the noisiest resistance has come from conservatives aligned with the Tea Party, the opposition also includes teachers unions opposed to standardized tests to measure teacher performance and liberals who object to corporate sponsorship of the program.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia three years ago endorsed Common Core, which sets standards for the academic skills students are expected to master from kindergarten through high school. This year, however, Indiana and Oklahoma abandoned Common Core. Legislatures in three other states — Missouri, North Carolina and South Carolina — have passed laws to reconsider the standards although Common Core is being used by these states this fall.
The revolt against Common Core came as a surprise to many of its supporters. When the National Governors Association and state school officials, with the backing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, convened five years ago to draft the standards that became Common Core, support was so universal that Time magazine recently described the meeting as “a love-in.”
Small wonder. The nation’s businesses and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have long complained that high school graduates entering the workforce are too often deficient in basic reading and computational skills. It’s a problem for higher education, too. In 2012, some 20 percent of college freshmen needed to take remedial courses, reducing their chances of graduating. Beginning with President Ronald Reagan, four successive presidents have endorsed proposals for more rigorous academic standards to better equip high school graduates for college or work.
Common Core stresses critical thinking instead of multiple-choice tests. It left development of curriculums to the states but created a set of national standards that can be measured by testing and will supposedly help students who move from one state to another, such as the children of military families.
Under Common Core standards, kindergartners should be able to count from 1 to 100. Third-graders should be able to write a narrative describing real or imagined experiences and to describe and analyze two-dimensional shapes. Sixth-graders should be able to write a narrative of a historical event.
Common Core’s critics on the right portray the program as a distressing example of federal dominance. In Oregon, state Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, compares Common Core to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which he said “was passed by Congress before any of our congressional representatives had an opportunity to read it.”
Linking Obamacare and Common Core has become a central element of the Republican narrative of federal overreach, but there’s a notable difference in the way these two programs were created.
The Affordable Care Act, whatever one thinks of it, was indeed a top-down program. Passed by congressional Democrats on party-line votes and signed into law by President Barack Obama, it determined the incomes at which persons became eligible for subsidized health care through exchanges managed by the states or federal government. The law also mandated expansion of Medicaid, the program that provides health services for the poor. States now have an option on Medicaid only because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to require the states to expand it.
Common Core, in contrast, arose in the states from the wreckage of No Child Left Behind, a policy of President George W. Bush’s administration that tied federal funding to mandatory standardized tests. This well-intentioned effort fell short, in large part because tests differed from state to state, and no one was quite sure what was being measured. As Tim Murphy wrote in a recent issue of Mother Jones: “Many teachers and parents were frustrated by an approach that seemed to punish schools for problems beyond their control, and the lack of uniformity from state to state — even ZIP code to ZIP code — made it impossible to tell how well kids were actually performing.”
Responding to these concerns, the National Governors Association set out to improve upon No Child Left Behind, joined by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a national organization of education commissioners.
The two groups utilized a report written for the Carnegie Corporation of New York by educators David Coleman and Jason Zimba, which called for fewer and simpler tests. The NGA and CCSSO, devised what they called “a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12.” Because the states were financially strapped by the Great Recession, they sought help from the Gates Foundation, which has channeled $200 million into Common Core’s implementation.
Common Core also received a boost from the Obama administration. For Obama, it seemed a safe way to deliver on his campaign promise “to fix the failures of No Child Left Behind.” To Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it seemed promising in its own right. At Duncan’s urging the administration put forth a $4.35 billion program called Race to the Top, which gave money to states in return for ambitious tracking of student performance at all grade levels.
Despite federal support, Common Core remains essentially a state-grounded program. When the standards in an early form were presented to the governors in 2009, only Sarah Palin of Alaska and Rick Perry of Texas opposed them. But as Murphy observes, Common Core did not receive broad public attention during the recession, when the nation was absorbed with the devastating economic issues created by the financial crisis. It wasn’t until 2011, as implementation began, that the Tea Party latched onto the issue, calling Common Core a threat to local control, and more fancifully depicting it as anti-religious or socialist.
The slings and arrows from the right were soon matched by brickbats from the left. Diane Ravitch, a prominent left-of-center education historian, deplored what she saw as corporate pressure on the states to take the money offered by Race to the Top. Randi Weingarten, the influential president of the American Federation of Teachers, withdrew her support for Common Core and said her organization would take no more money from the Gates Foundation.
The testing of students to determine the hiring, firing and promotion of teachers particularly riles the teachers’ groups. Weingarten has called for a three-year moratorium on such testing and, like her Tea Party counterparts, imaginatively compared the advent of Common Core to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
Duncan partially bowed to the teachers’ demands last month by announcing that states could delay for a year the use of test results in teacher-performance ratings. This modest action was accompanied by sizzling rhetoric that might have come from Common Core’s critics.
“I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools,” Duncan said in his blog.
Teachers are an important element of the Democratic political base, and Duncan may have been trying to reassure them in advance of the midterm elections, in which for the most part Common Core has been a second-tier issue. It has, however, popped up in races in Florida, Louisiana and Ohio in what could be an unfortunate prelude to the Republican presidential primary contests of 2016.
Common Core until recently was not a partisan issue. Among Republicans, it was passionately backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and favored to varying degrees by Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Now, Jindal and Rubio have joined Perry and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky in opposing Common Core, while Christie is reconsidering his earlier support.
Unless Bush becomes the GOP presidential nominee — and it’s not even certain he will be a candidate — Common Core could become a partisan football that at the national level is routinely supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.
That would be unfortunate. Improving the language and mathematical skills of U.S. schoolchildren is in the interests of everyone, whatever their politics. That doesn’t necessarily mean anointing Common Core: the jury is still out on the new standards and the tests that measure student performance. Neither have been in use long enough to know if they work.
But the verdict on Common Core should be decided on the basis of the evidence, not partisanship. It deserves a chance to rise or fall on its merits.
— Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.