Questioning the Common Core
This summer, Republican presidential aspirants have roundly criticized the Common Core reading and math standards as federally supported and educationally unsound — and been lambasted by Beltway pundits for having the temerity to do so. The Washington Post editorial page laments that Republican "ideologues have so disfigured Common Core that supporters ... now dare not speak its name." The vice president for education at the Center for American Progress charges that "opponents of the Common Core have embarked on misinformation campaigns." Frank Bruni of the New York Times dismisses GOP candidates as "excessively alarmed."
In fact, the concerns the candidates are airing are legitimate and relevant.
The Common Core started with a reasonable and easy-to-like premise: American students would benefit if more states chose to use similar reading and math standards. From there, advocates made three giant mistakes. First, they convinced themselves that the Common Core's transformative potential meant it was worth rushing into place — with aggressive support from the federal government via the Race to the Top program and more than $350 million to support Common Core tests. Second, they then switched gears and publicly insisted that the Common Core was really just an innocuous, technical exercise, and that public discussion and debate were unnecessary. Third, when skeptics raised questions about any of this, they dismissed them as either malicious or obtuse.
As Common Core has gone from big idea to more prosaic reality, some who liked the notion's promise have been troubled by what they've seen in practice. Indeed, the fact that Republican governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie have shifted from support to opposition looks pretty reasonable — and hardly evidence of perfidy — when seen in this light. In fact, rather than spreading misinformation, it turns out that Republican candidates are correct that the Common Core is not just about "higher" standards, but also about how teachers teach and how students are taught.
Common Core's architects saw a window of opportunity to bring transformative change to American schooling. They quite consciously bundled their standards with a dozen "instructional shifts" that were supposedly essential for effective implementation. The shifts stretch well beyond the usual stuff of reading and math standards. The shifts include dictates specifying that:
• "Informational text" should account for 50 percent of reading in elementary school and 70 percent of reading by high school, while fiction and poetry should account for no more than 50 percent of elementary reading and just 30 percent of high-school reading.
• "Close reading" (modeled on the way graduate students in literature deconstruct texts) should be the model for how students approach text.
• "Conceptual math" (think of the picture-driven worksheets that have garnered online notoriety) should be the foundation of math instruction.
Now, changes like these can make good sense, at least for some students, at some times, and when done well. But it's flat wrong to suggest that these don't change how students are taught, and it's ridiculous to dismiss those concerned about the changes as misinformed (especially because the changes are frequently not done well). Indeed, it's some of these shifts — like students reading fewer novels and having to wrestle with incomprehensible math worksheets — that have occasioned so much blowback. The supposedly misguided critics often seem more tuned in to the reality of the Common Core than the cheerleaders are.
Indeed, five years ago, when the Common Core was still brand spanking new, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Mike Petrilli (then president and vice president, respectively, of the Thomas Fordham Institute) — both ardent champions of the Common Core — acknowledged, "Standards often end up like wallpaper. They sit there on a state website, available for download, but mostly they're ignored." What really matters, they noted, is how standards affect state tests, curricula, teacher evaluations, and what teachers and students do — in other words, the stuff that gets brushed aside when advocates insist the Common Core is nothing more than an innocuous commitment to "higher" standards.
The Common Core was never intended to be a mere exercise in wallpapering. Its champions intended for Common Core to be the backbone for an extensive set of changes to testing, instruction, textbooks, teacher evaluation, and much else. There's nothing wrong with that aim; but there is something wrong with advocates denouncing those who call them on it, especially with the hubris and tone-deafness that have helped turn a reasonable notion into a divisive one.
There's much to be said for common state reading and math standards, in the abstract, and reasonable people can make a cogent case for the Common Core, in particular. But reasonable people can also look at the Common Core and see a federally supported effort to impose goofy instructional practices and half-baked reforms on America's schools. Perhaps that's why support for the Common Core has dropped steadily in recent years. In any event, raising these concerns is neither alarmist nor misinformed. Ultimately, advocates would do well to acknowledge that the shaky status of their enterprise is due more to their tactics and the Common Core itself than to the criticisms voiced by Republican contenders for the presidency.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include Common Core Meets Education Reform (Teachers College Press 2013).