Misinformed on Common Core? This Won’t Set You Straight

Whenever someone declares opponents of the Common Core “misinformed,” get ready: there’s probably a lot more misinformation coming your way. Case in point, a new offering from Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin attacking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) over his Common Core stance in a recent Des Moines Register op-ed. Her post is chock-full of misinformation, ironically intended to make Core opponents seem confused.

Start with this, in which Rubin asserts that Walker tried to conflate overall federal education funding with the Common Core:

As virtually all GOP contenders but Jeb Bush do, he then takes a swing at Common Core. “Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core. Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.” This is confusing since Common Core per se does not affect how and where money is coming from.

This isn’t actually confusing when you read Walker’s piece, at least the online version (which I assume is like the print version, and is also likely the version Rubin read.) Why? Because Walker separated his ideas into paragraphs, which Rubin eliminated in the quote above, and the placement of the paragraphs makes clear that Walker’s Common Core thought and his federal funding thought were separate ideas. Directly from Walker’s piece:

Now, more than ever, we need to push big, bold reforms to improve our schools. If we can do it in Wisconsin, there is no reason we can’t push positive education reforms across the country.

Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core.

Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.

And every student in the our [sic] nation’s capital should have access to a great education. Therefore, we should expand the options for families in the District of Columbia to choose the school that is best for their children.

Rubin proceeds to make the funding befuddlement worse by writing, “It is Race to the Top that affords states money if they can show either through Common Core or other standards that they are setting high expectations for students.” First, the Race to the Top that provided the primary impetus for states to adopt the Core de facto only allowed the Core – not “other standards” – saying that only states that were part of a standards-and-assessment consortium including “a majority of the States in the country” (p. 59689) could get maximum points in the funding contest. Only the Core met that criterion, and it was clearly the intent of many Core supporters and the Obama administration to have RTT push the Core specifically. That first Race to the Top, however, was basically a very powerful one-shot deal, not one that continuously “affords states money.” It was subsequent waivers out of No Child Left Behind requirements – which let states either use the Core or have a state university system certify state standards as “college- and career-ready” – that are currently in effect and offer two standards options.

Subsequent to the original Race to the Top there have been other programs with “Race to the Top” in their names, and Rubin conflates the original, which drove Common Core, with the Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge. The conflation gives the impression that in claiming that the ELC program would help Wisconsin, as he did in 2013, Walker was praising the original Race to the Top. Rubin compounds that erroneous connection by noting that among 2016 GOP presidential candidates only Rick Perry of Texas had “turned down” RTT money – actually, he refused to compete for it – which is meaningless since Walker wasn’t governor when the original RTT was in play.

Rubin moves on to assert that it is problematic for governors to tout success in their schools that occurred while Common Core was “in place” and then attack the Core. Rubin doesn’t egregiously misrepresent facts with this observation, but everyone should refrain from crediting or blaming the Core for outcomes even after it has been in place for years. There are far too many variables at play in education to simply say that during a certain period outcomes improved, we had Common Core during that period, therefore Common Core worked.

More directly, though, Common Core hasn’t been in place for years. Indeed, for the vast majority of states – Wisconsin included – 2014-15 was the first school year that Core-connected tests were administered. That means implementation is just now being completed, and the Core wasn’t in full effect during the advances Walker cited, which he connected to his 2011 seniority and tenure reforms.

Finally, again not an egregious misrepresentation of fact, but Rubin asserts that it is a clear myth to say that the Core is a “curriculum.” But the delineation between “standards” and “curricula” is no bright line, much though Core supporters like to say it is when smearing opponents as misinformed. As an extreme illustration, if I say the “standard” is to be able to add 2 and 2 using a traditional algorithm, that’s also curriculum; it tells you “how” you must do the addition.

In this vain, the Core explicitly calls for instructionalshifts” – again, how you do things, not just what students should be able to do – and gets fairly explicit about content in much of its math and a bit of the English Language Arts sections. More important, federally funded tests go with the Core – though many states have moved away from them – and what they ask will likely de facto fill in curricular specifics over time. If every year a problem requires multiplication using area models, area models must be taught. And keep in mind that while educators may have their own definition of “curriculum” – specifics of how something is taught – the common definition is much more in line with how they define “standards”: what is broadly to be learned. As the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it: “1:  the courses offered by an educational institution; 2: a set of courses constituting an area of specialization.”

As I’ve opined before, Common Core advocates have made a central part of their political strategy tarring Core opponents as “misinformed.” But they are too often guilty of peddling misinformation themselves.