The Fringes are Wrong About Common Core

It’s not often that powerhouse liberals like Diane Ravitch agree with the Glenn Becks of this world. But when it comes to the politics of American education, they two have come to one identical conclusion: ax the Common Core standards, while they’re still young.

The recent vitriol around Common Core is rivaled in magnitude only by the sheer indifference most people experience when they hear about the topic. But Common Core really does have the potential to be big. It could be the first time all 50 states adhere to the same educational standards.

A draft of the Common Core standards was written in 2009, and for several reasons including federal money, states signed on to it very rapidly. In the end, 45 states agreed to the new national standard. Common Core is often referred to as a curriculum, but that’s incorrect. It is actually a set of benchmarks that local districts are supposed to use to write their own curricula.

Even though Common Core was born under a star of consensus, the outliers in American politics are telling us it’s a bad idea.

When the disparate camps agree, I would normally argue, it’s time for the rest of us to pay attention. My logic being that those on the edges of politics tend to pay the most attention, while middle America fires up another episode of “The Voice.”

But in this case, don’t listen. The fringes have co-opted the Common Core standards for their own political purposes.

The likes of Beck argue that Common Core is yet another example of federal bureaucrats pushing a sinister leftist agenda. Common Core is really just a platform for liberal indoctrination, which will erode the freedom of local school districts to choose what they want to teach, according to Beck.

“It will destroy America and the system of freedom as we know it,” he recently said on his show “The Blaze.” Beck’s constituency has largely fallen in line. One sign at a recent Tea Party protest read, “Common Core is Obamacare for our kids.”

Even though it’s complete nonsense, Beck’s indoctrination argument has gained such traction that Education Secretary Arne Duncan was forced to address it last week: “Not a word, not a single semicolon of curriculum will be created, encouraged, or prescribed by the federal government,” he said.

Moreover, the Common Core standards are written purposefully broad. They don’t define specific curriculum, so much as set out learning objectives for each grade level. Take for instance this third grade objective: Students should “analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.”

Beck and Ravitch cater to constituencies that believe America is heading towards some proverbial cultural and political cliff. And while they may be right generally, Beck and Ravitch are using Common Core to feed the fire of their constituent’s outrage at the expense of reality.

Ravitch, a former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education, has made it her life’s work to fight against the culture of high stakes testing. She rightly surmises that testing has crept into a position of determining everything that happens in the classroom.

She argues that Common Core is more a new layer of testing than a substantive curriculum change. But she is bending the truth to fit her own narrative.

It’s true that in some states, including New York, new Common Core tests were introduced, before the actual new curriculum. That decision was as ridiculous as it sounds, but New York administrators are to blame, not the Common Core.

(Moreover, it adds a dash of credibility to the argument that so-called reformers, such as New York’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were setting public schools up to fail.)

A bad rollout in some states is hardly the same thing as adding a new layer of tests. In most states, Common Core exams will replace pre-existing End of Grade tests that were previously different in each state. The stakes with Common Core are no higher than they were with previous standardized tests.

Even Ravitch admits we shouldn’t entirely do away with standardized tests. And though she might shudder to hear it, having a national test allows us to compare, at a very granular level, the progress of states in educating their children.

Just as much as the Common Core represents the potential for more testing, it also represents the possibility to eliminate all other tests.

Ravitch’s consistent use of heavy-handed rhetoric makes it hard to believe she is bringing the academic rigor of a researcher to bear. She recently wrote, for instance, “There is a touch of sadism in these federal policies, as well as child abuse.”

During my time as an education reporter, teachers most often describe Common Core to me as a curriculum that focuses on “depth, not breadth.” Instead of memorizing historical dates, for instance, children are driven to understand the genesis of historical events and their effect on society.

Beck and Ravitch could themselves use a lesson on the importance of accurate historical analysis. Both miss the point that Common Core came to exist because high schoolers weren’t graduating with the skills and knowledge to succeed in college or the workplace.

International test scores back up the assertion that our high school diploma may not be worth what we think it is. For the past 15 years, more than 60 countries have participated in an assessment known as PISA. While other developed countries have consistently improved their scores, the United States has flatlined for the life of the test.

Instead of using the Common Core as a wedge in America’s fractured political psyche, we should be giving it time to play out and the resources it needs to succeed.



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