Common Core debate

Article Highlights

  • The Common Core debate has become a pitched battle of advocates and detractors talking past one another.

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  • Even if Common Core standards are high quality, if they are not implemented with care, they could do more harm than good.

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  • All participating states will have access to a greatly expanded marketplace for materials and resources.

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Editor's note: This op-ed appeared in the Orange County Register's Opinion Special Report on the Common Core on December 13, 2013.

The Common Core debate, of late, has become a pitched battle of advocates and detractors talking past one another. Entire websites have been devoted to denouncing the standards, and hearings by boards of education and state legislatures have been contentious and packed with spectators.
Unfortunately, most of the back and forth over the quality and implications of the standards has missed a simple fact: even if the standards are high quality, if they are not implemented with care, they could do more harm than good.

The Common Core has a great deal of promise. I started my career teaching in Montgomery, Alabama. In those pre-Common Core days, the market for instructional materials and professional development aligned to the state standards was greatly constricted by the limited prospects providers had to make money developing goods for such a small state. California, Texas, Florida and New York had tons of cool stuff aligned to their standards. We did not.

With the Common Core, all participating states will have access to a greatly expanded marketplace for materials and resources. Now, students in Montgomery can benefit from the innovations created by app developers in San Francisco. This is a great thing.

But there is the other side to the Common Core: the nitty gritty details that make or break public policies. I'll describe three: alignment, governance and politics.

Instructional alignment, aptly described by Dr. Morgan Polikoff in a chapter in Rick Hess and my upcoming volume, “Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda,” is the process by which what is expected of students, what is taught to students, and what is measured by tests is brought into order. If standardized tests don't measure what we've taught students, or if students are not taught what we want students to know, we've wasted a great deal of time, energy and resources.

The issue? As of today, almost any textbook, professional development course, supplemental resource or app can be called “Common Core aligned.” It's as simple as stamping a seal on the outside. Serious work needs to be done by principals, district offices and states to vet the thousands of materials currently being marketed to schools. If this doesn't happen, the new flood of resources will drown teachers and students.

This leads to the second issue – governance. Many who read the preceding paragraphs may say, “Well, we need a central body that vets materials, makes sure that tests are aligned to the standards and keeps everyone honest in how they administer and report results.” That is not an unreasonable impulse. However, the Common Core has been sold – from President Obama on down – as a voluntary, state-led initiative. If such a body is created, local control advocates will start to see the encroachment of outside influence, which will go over like a lead blimp. Any body that has enough teeth to keep states honest will be rejected by states that desire local control over their schools.

Any body that is hands off enough to mollify local control concerns will not have the power to do anything to misbehaving states. It's a Catch-22.

And why is that? Well, the third issue – politics. Education has traditionally been under the purview of states and localities. In fact, the federal government is statutorily prohibited from advocating for a particular curriculum for schools. The Common Core was drafted and advocated for by the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers as a voluntary, state-led effort. However, in 2011, as a condition of waivers from the Department of Education for relief from some of the more onerous requirements and punishments of No Child Left Behind, states were required to adopt “college and career ready standards.”

In the policy document for the waivers, the administration made clear what standards they were talking about by specifically referencing the fact that, “Governors and Chief State School Officers have developed and adopted rigorous academic content standards to prepare all students for success in college and careers in the 21st century.” Conditioning regulatory relief on adopting a particular set of standards is a bridge too far for many conservatives. And given the fact the Republicans control the legislatures or governorships of 30-plus states, that does not bode well for the standards.

All in all, the standards have promise, but if insufficient care is paid to the issues of implementation, they will be cast aside as yet another promising reform that failed to live up to its hype.

Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy at The American Enterprise Institute.

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