The Common Core State Standards for elementary and secondary schools weren't supposed to be controversial. They weren't supposed to incite active protests. They were supposed to be different from the unpopular, exacting tenets of No Child Left Behind. They were deliberately negotiated by consensus and carefully put together to stop the federal government from creeping in to the public school system. They carry with them a worthy goal that everyone can agree with: prepare our kids for real jobs in the real world with real skills.
So what's the problem? And why now? The answer to both questions is testing. Now that it's time for states to actually measure how their students are doing, it's a lot harder to gloss over the problems with feel-good talking points. Some states are going ahead with their first tests assessing how well students are learning under the new curriculum. Other states have dropped out of the testing, citing concerns about cost and effectiveness. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are questioning the Common Core, as this recent take from New Jersey illustrates. The tea party is mobilizing against it. Some parents are even pulling their kids from all standardized testing.
The backlash shouldn't be a surprise if you take a step back and think about it. Coming to agreement on the basic skills kids should learn is hard enough. Measuring the outcome in a meaningful way is even harder. No one wants to be the guinea pig. No one wants to be blamed for poor results.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been unapologetic about pushing for Common Core. "Yes, it's going to be a hard and sometimes rocky or bumpy transition to higher standards," he said in a recent interview with USA Today's Susan Page on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show. "I think I speak for most parents that, you know, you want more for your children, not less. And I tell you the one thing I absolutely don't want is I don't want to be lied to. I don't want people to tell me my children are ready for success when they're not in the game."
The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute's Richard Rothstein was also a guest on the show that day (as was I and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Mike Petrilli). Rothstein's criticism of Common Core, as with all student assessments, is that they tend to narrow the teaching. "Teachers have had incentives to narrow the curriculum to the things that are tested. Students have been trained to take tests rather than to learn the underlying curriculum," he said.
Petrilli, a conservative and a staunch advocate of Common Core, noted that the administration's enthusiasm for the standards can dampen conservatives' abilities to promote it on their end. But he also agrees with Duncan. "The goal with this effort is to dramatically raise the bar and say, look, if you really want to be on track for college or career, it's a very high standard. And unfortunately right now, we're giving parents the false impression that everything is fine when it's not."
So what's the final score? Now that most of the country has adopted the standards, is Common Core failing on its second lap around the field? Will we ever be able to test how our kids are doing? Will there be consensus on whether testing is worthwhile at all? How can the tests be crafted such that they are more like Advanced Placement exams rather than fill-in-the-bubble tests? Should parents have the right to yank their kids from these tests? How do we muddle through this mess?