Michelle Rhee’s Common Core Crud

I don’t dislike the oft-attacked Michelle Rhee. I don’t even know her. But I do dislike disingenuous or empirically anemic arguments about the Common Core, and she offers too many of both in a new Politico op-ed.

Let’s start with the most aggravating thing she does in her piece: imply that anyone who opposes the Core based on concerns about Washington’s role in it is proffering a “false narrative of a federal takeover” and making “wild claims.” As Core apologists have done repeatedly, Rhee utterly ignores the $4.35-billion Race to the Top program that de facto required Core adoption to compete, and No Child Left Behind waiver rules that locked most states into the Core. She also turns a blind eye to the overall trajectory of federal education policy, which went from decades of mainly providing money, to requirements that states have standards and tests, to now pushing specific standards and tests—and let’s be honest, that ultimately means curricula—on schools.

If Rhee wants to have a substantive debate on the Common Core, great! But we can’t have that if she and other Core supporters refuse to acknowledge basic reality about the federal role, and they essentially smear people who do acknowledge reality as purveyors of “wild claims.”

There is much more that’s dubious about Rhee’s piece, though not as infuriating as the ol’ smear-and-deny.

Rhee, for instance, ignores the wise counsel delivered last week not to simplistically cherry-pick results on the recent PISA exam to press for national standards. Rigorous analysis needs to be done, controlling for lots of factors ranging from income levels to national culture, to determine the effect of national standards on test results. The problem for Core supporters is that when that is done, national standards appear to make essentially no difference. Rhee also ignores the well-reported research of Brookings’ Tom Loveless, who found that the quality or rigor of state standards has had no correlation with state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Indeed, Rhee’s own piece contradicts itself. Rhee applauds Massachusetts for its relatively high performance on PISA, but laments that in the Bay State “student performance continues to vary greatly” from district to district and “between white students and children of color.” But fear not: “Correcting for that inequity among schoolchildren is exactly what Common Core  seeks to do.” The thing is, the Bay State has had uniform state standards for roughly two decades, meaning uniformity did not end disparities, and national standardization will not change the fact that standards within all states have been uniform for more than a decade under No Child Left Behind.

So no, I don’t dislike Michelle Rhee. But I very much dislike her denial of facts, and ignoring of evidence, on the Common Core.