[Update: March 5, 3:49 p.m. In the spirit of openness on a controversial topic, I have approved almost all of the comments I have received on this post. Usually, the comments are reserved for pre-screened "insiders" who are professionals in the education field to foster a high-level discussion. I do not approve comments that are inappropriate or contain personal attacks.]
The Republican party is engaged in a unique debate about the Common Core State Standards that threatens to derail the entire endeavor. Conservative grassroots groups started having misgivings sometime in between 2009, when the National Governors Association and the Chief Council of State School Officers decided to develop a set of common education standards for states, and 2012, when 45 states had adopted them and begun implementing them. Local tea party groups started protesting.
As I describe in a feature story in the most recent issue of National Journal, tea party activists all over the country are threatening retaliation at members of their own Republican party over the Common Core standards. In Alabama, they petitioned to have a school board member taken off the ballot because they believed her support for the Common Core did not espouse conservative views. In Ohio, they cried foul when the GOP chairman of an education committee allowed pro-Common Core witnesses at a hearing. In Wisconsin, the state superintendent begged opponents for a reprieve of a vote to ban the standards.
There is a lot of anger about these standards. There is a lot of vitriol. And, truthfully, there is a lot of misinformation. (One tea partier I interviewed insisted that under the Common Core, lower test scores were permitted for African American and Hispanic students than for white and Asian students. That is not true.)
Grassroots conservatives have some legitimate beefs about the Common Core. They don't like that this complex benchmarking system for public school students has been embraced by President Obama—who they hate—and then shoved down states' throats if they have any hope of reprieve from outdated No Child Left Behind requirements. They feel like the standards were written and approved by a bunch of corporate bureaucrats without input from anyone who isn't "established" inside the school system. They worry that the standards, which are long and complex, will create a rote curriculum for their students that won't allow for any divergence or creativity. Most importantly, they feel powerless to do anything about it.
There's a thousand things about them—some accurate, some wildly hypothetical—that arouse suspicion. To wit, the standards call for children to be trained and tested on computers. Lo and behold, a big backer of Common Core is Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates. "When you see that kind of thing, you're like, 'Wait a minute. You're going to do away with textbooks,' " says Ann Eubank, the legislative chair of the Rainy Day Patriots, an Alabama tea-party group. She has compiled "3 feet of research" on the rottenness of Common Core—showing, among other things, that the entire system is built to make computer magnates rich. "Follow the money," she instructs.
When that kind of distrust catches fire, it's hard to tamp out by simply saying that corporate takeover of the schools was never the intention. Now that the questions are out there, the proponents of Common Core need to double down on campaigning for their original goal—that kids who graduate high school should genuinely be ready for a job or college—and explain why their way of getting there is better than the old way.
Change is never easy, and the rollouts of the new standards have had enough problems to indicate to school leaders where they need smoothing, as the L.A. Times' Karin Klein nicely lays out in a recent op-ed. Then, there are legitimate questions on the part of the grassroots activists. Is this something they really want to get involved in? Some tea partiers aren't so sure. "Involvement in this issue strengthens the impression that the Tea Party is a fringe group of wingnuts," said David Shockey, a Huntsville, Alabama activist, in a recent blog post.
It's time for some airing out of this debate. Viewed in their best light, the Common Core State Standards are a valiant effort to get all school kids in a place where they can earn a living and contribute to society, no matter what. But just like the valiant effort of No Child Left Behind before it, this endeavor could collapse under its own weight. That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. It just means the rollout of the standards a few years ago marked the beginning, not the end, of an attempt to transform the schools. Now it's pretty clear that it's not going to happen like it was originally planned. But does anything?
For our insiders: Why do grassroots conservative activists consider the Common Core a threat? Is there a way to respond to their concerns that the Common Core standards are part of "establishment" government, but without sounding like the establishment? How does Common Core need to be changed as it is being rolled out to ensure that it won't be harmful to schools? Does it matter if the testing schedule is delayed by a year or two so teachers can get up to speed? What are the most important parts of Common Core to focus on in the next few years?
(Note: This is a moderated blog on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. If you want to be a regular commenter, contact me.)
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