Core-ites Awaken

How do you know the Common Core is in trouble? You could religiously follow the news in New York, Indiana, Florida, and many other states. Or you could read just two new op-eds by leading Core supporters who fear their side is getting bludgeoned. Not bludgeoned in the way they describe – an education hero assaulted by kooks and charlatans – but clobbered nonetheless. As Delaware governor Jack Markell (D) and former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue (R) put it:

This is a pivotal moment for the Common Core State Standards.

Although 45 states quickly adopted the higher standards created by governors and state education officials, the effort has begun to lose momentum. Some are now wavering in the face of misinformation campaigns from people who misrepresent the initiative as a federal program and from those who support the status quo. Legislation has been introduced in at least 12 states to prohibit implementation and states have dropped out of the two major Common Core assessment consortia.

Sadly, Markell and Perdue’s piece, and one from major Core bankroller Bill Gates, illustrate why the Core may well be losing: Defenders offer cheap characterizations of their opponents while ignoring basic, crucial facts. Meanwhile, the public is learning the truth.

Both pieces employ the most hulking pro-Core deception, completely ignoring the massive hand of Washington behind state Core adoption. For all intents and purposes, adoption was compulsory to compete in the $4.35-billion Race to the Top program, a part of the “stimulus” at the nadir of the Great Recession. While some states may have eventually adopted the Core on their own, Race to the Top was precisely why so many “quickly adopted the higher standards.” Indeed, many governors and state school chiefs promised to adopt the Core before it was even finished. Why? They had to for Race to the Top! And let’s not pretend federal coercion wasn’t intended all along: In 2008 the Core-creating Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association published a report calling for just such federal pressure.

The coercion didn’t stop with the Race, though. If states wanted waivers from the despised No Child left Behind Act, their only choices were take the Core or have their largest state college system declare their standards “college- and career-ready.” Oh, and the Feds selected consortia to write national tests to go with the Core.

These aren’t minor details. They are absolutely central facts about what happened, and failing to even mention them screams “dodge, dodge, dodge!” Making matters worse, Core defenders seem to revel in calling their adversaries “misinformed,” or purveyors of “myths,” while they pretend basic reality never happened. 

The problems go on. Gates, for instance, suggests we need national standards because “Americans move more than 10 times over the course of a lifetime.” But Gates’ source indicates the average American younger than 18 will only move 2.6 times, and deeper mobility data show the large majority of moves are in-state. Since all states have their own standards, even among movers very few lose standards “consistency.” 

Then there is the question of whether the Core is “standards” or “curriculum.” Both pieces insist it is the former, as if the whole idea of the Core weren’t to direct what schools teach – curricula. But suppose one were to ignore that. Is it true, as Gates writes, that the Core is just “a blueprint of what students need to know, but they have nothing to say about how teachers teach that information”?

While the degree of specificity varies between the language arts and math standards, at least in math the Core doesn’t just say what students should be able to do. It prescribes how. Look at the 3rd grade standards, which don’t just say students should be able to multiply or divide, but do so using “arrays, and area models.” Moreover, it is ultimately what gets tested that gets taught, and the federally funded Core tests are coming next school year.

Strangely, Markell and Perdue escalate the curriculum debate to a whole new level, insisting not just that the Core leaves local districts in charge of curriculum, but crediting it with encouraging innovative lessons. Among their anecdotes: Elementary schools in Delaware are teaching physics by having kids build “toy sail cars.” The only problem? Physics for elementary kids isn’t even in the Core!

Core supporters are waking up to the fact their project in trouble. Unfortunately, they seem happy to let crucial facts, and civil debate, continue to slumber.