Stay the Course, or Turn the Page?

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Common Core’s dual, social and technocratic, nature creates hurdles for political reform.

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Most public policy issues fit roughly into one of three categories. The first contains fundamental matters of principle – what we generally call “social issues,” such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun rights. The second bucket includes topics that are more technical in nature: how to make various systems or sectors work better. Here we might put nuts-and-bolts issues like infrastructure or procurement reform. The third category is for issues that have elements of the first two, both fundamental matters of principle and technocratic questions of implementation. Health care reform certainly belongs there.

Category three is also where education reform in general, and Common Core in particular, belongs. There are clear matters of principle: Should all American children have equal access to challenging coursework? Do states have the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to set standards for their public schools, or should all such control remain with local school boards, educators, or parents? But technical questions are important too: Are the standards high enough? Are the tests properly aligned with them – and also psychometrically valid and reliable? Who is responsible for helping schools develop the capacity to teach to the new expectations? How should we respond to implementation struggles, as with the current confusion around some math topics?

This dual nature of Common Core as an educational and political issue is important to keep in mind over the coming months as state lawmakers debate whether to “stay the course” or “turn the page,” five years after they first adopted the standards. It also explains why most supporters and opponents of the Common Core appear to be talking past one another.

Many opponents are against the standards for fundamental ideological reasons. Some conservatives resent the role that the federal government played in encouraging states to adopt the Common Core (first through incentives in the Race to the Top program, then through waivers to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act conditioned on state adoption of “college and career ready” standards). Libertarians also oppose the very idea of government-set academic standards, even if it is the states that set them. They believe that nobody should second-guess the decisions made by parents, teachers, and local communities when it comes to the education of their children.

On the other side of the argument are supporters – also including many bona fide conservatives –who want to give this reform time to work. Many of us acknowledge that the standards are not perfect (no standards ever are), and thus are willing to contemplate refinements and improvements. But we don’t want to pull the rug out from under educators, particularly after they have put so much effort into implementing the standards in their classrooms, and just as new “next generation,” Common Core-aligned assessments are hitting the ground. To us, it seems like an irresponsible, not-very-conservative risk to repeal the standards in the hope that states might be able to come up with something better. Especially because, to date, the evidence is that the states will not find something better. So we advance a “mend it, don’t end it” position, consistent with the view that the Common Core idea is fundamentally sound, but that implementation could always be stronger.

This duality makes life difficult for politicians – especially Republicans – who want to find a middle ground between opponents (in their Tea Party base) and supporters (particularly business leaders in the GOP establishment). For those who oppose the Common Core on fundamental principle, there is no middle ground. They will not accept improvements to the standards, nor will they accept replacements that look anything like the Common Core. They are fighting a culture war, and will not accept a negotiated truce. Which means, unfortunately, that political leaders are going to have to choose sides: Is it all about the base, or is standing up for higher standards worth the trouble?

This essay is part of a seven-part series, The Debate Over the Common Core State Standards.

Michael J. Petrilli

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, one of the leading education policy think tanks in the nation, and research fellow at the Hoover Institution.