What Trump Got Right on Common Core

What Trump Got Right on Common Core

You've got a problem when you're fact-checking Donald Trump and you wind up resorting to cheap shots. After all, even some of Trump's fans concede that he's a policy illiterate. Yet, blinded by Beltway wisdom, Obama administration spin, or blind disdain, fact-checkers at major outlets critiqued Trump's remarks on the Common Core last week in ways that are inaccurate and unfair.

During last Thursday's GOP debate in Miami, Trump remarked that the Common Core is "education through Washington, D.C. I don't want that." Pushed for clarification, he told moderator Jake Tapper that Common Core started as a state-led effort but has been "taken over by Washington" and is a "disaster."

Per usual, Trump's remarks here were so broad as to allow lots of room for interpretation, and it's not especially clear what he meant. That didn't stop prominent fact-checkers, like the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee, from declaring Trump factually incorrect in very specific ways. Indeed, Kessler and Lee made Trump's Common Core critique the first item in their post-debate fact-check.

Kessler and Lee deemed Trump out-of-bounds, explaining that the Common Core "is a state-led effort, and the states have opted into signing the standards." They wrote that Trump was wrong to imply the Common Core was "enacted in Washington and imposed on local governments." Kessler and Lee declared that "the federal government did not take over Common Core" and that "states revise the standards to fit their needs and then allow state and local school districts to shape the curriculums for themselves." They noted that in December, in the new Every Student Succeeds Act, "Congress actually took measures to scale back the federal government's power" over standards when it enacted legislation that says "the federal government cannot influence local decisions about academic standards."

So, what's the problem? There are at least three.

First, it's ludicrous to dismiss Trump's allusion to the federal government and to doggedly insist this was all entirely "state-led." As the Washington Post's own Lyndsey Layton has reported, the Obama administration was very intent on encouraging states to adopt the Common Core as part of the $4.35 billion federal Race to the Top program. The administration earmarked $350 million in federal funds through that program to finance the new Common Core tests. The administration also used "waivers" from the No Child Left Behind Act to aggressively push states to adopt or retain the Common Core. Indeed, the notion of "no federal role" would be more plausible if the 2012 Democratic National Platform hadn't credited Obama with the widespread adoption of the Common Core and if the president hadn't credited himself for the same thing in his 2011 and 2013 State of the Union remarks.

Second, it simply fallacious to draw the hard-and-fast distinction that Kessler and Lee seek to draw between standards and curricula. The whole point of standards is to specify what content will be taught and tested. Curricula are written to prepare students for the tests based on those standards. So the idea that local districts can "shape" their curricula however they see fit is silly; they need to craft curricula that conform to the standards.

But the claim is more problematic than that. The Common Core — unlike most standards — embeds about a dozen major "instructional" shifts that are very specifically intended to shape curricula and instruction. The shifts specify that "informational text" should account for 50 percent of reading in elementary school and 70 percent of reading by high school, and exposure to fiction and poetry should be curtailed by corresponding amounts. They stipulate that "close reading" (modeled on the way graduate students in literature deconstruct texts) should be the model for how students approach text. They require that "conceptual math" (think of the picture-driven worksheets that have garnered online notoriety) should be the foundation of math instruction.

Third, Kessler and Lee suggest that Trump's concerns are even more laughable after the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. This critique is backwards: Obama's efforts to manhandle states when it came to the Common Core are the very reason that ESSA includes such powerful strictures on federal involvement in standards. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate education committee and the primary force behind the legislation, repeatedly argued that the law was needed to "reverse the trend toward a National School Board" and "end the federal Common Core mandate."

In other words, the law was a direct reflection of Trump's concerns. And contrary to the impression Kessler and Lee leave, the law has hardly resolved the issue of increased federal control over schooling. Its success will depend very much on whether the next president shares the views that Trump expressed.

The Washington Post apparently realized its critique had run off the rails, as yet another fact-check from Lee on the Common Core implicitly acknowledged that Kessler's initial take was too glib. However, even the redo ultimately played more as an opportunity to take another shot at Cruz and Trump and to brush off concerns about federal overreach, problems, and slippery slopes.

The Common Core debate is more complex than Kessler and Lee allow, and their "correction" of Trump is misleading and unfair. Did states ultimately choose whether to adopt the Common Core? Sure. But is it therefore inaccurate to critique Washington's role, worry about federal efforts to "take over" education, or criticize the impact of the Common Core? Absolutely not. And the Common Core does indeed seek to shape curricula and instruction. Given all the things Trump truly did get wrong on Thursday, it's astonishing to see him criticized for a response that was clearly inbounds — and not obviously wrong on any particular.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include The Common Core Meets School Reform.

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