Election night is over and most pundits agree that federal educational policy is unlikely to change dramatically in the next four years. In Washington, DC, this week at the Excellence in Action National Summit, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised to “stay the course,” emphasizing early childhood education, holding teachers to higher standards, recruiting more qualified teachers, improving college graduation rates, and supporting community colleges.
But I wonder if this will be enough. It seems unlikely that the next four years will be a period of quiet tinkering: The educational crisis will not wait, and there is a very big and very fast policy change headed our way— in 2014 the Common Core State Standards will be implemented in 46 states and the District of Columbia. When students are evaluated on their ability to master those standards in 2015, many American kids across the class spectrum will be labeled failures. While some policymakers and politicians may consider this a salutary “wake-up call,” the repercussion on students, teachers, families, schools, school districts, and states is likely be a tsunami of angst and anger. Finger-pointing will be raised to a new art form, and suddenly colleges and universities will find they have far fewer students to enroll. Despite the best efforts of College Board President David Coleman to reassure states and local communities that the Common Core is not a federal initiative, I suspect that finely tuned sematic distinctions will not hold back a flood of resentment.
Consider the fate of superstar education reformer Tony Bennett, the former GOP Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Unexpectedly, he was defeated this November by relatively unknown and under-financed Democrat Glenda Ritz. Bennett is the very model of the activist reformer. He revamped how teachers are evaluated, orchestrated the state takeover of struggling schools, supported vouchers, and expanded charter schools. Most importantly, he is a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards.
Ritz achieved victory by putting together an unlikely coalition. Yes, she had the support of the teachers unions, but she also had the support of many conservatives in Bennett’s deep red counties and right-leaning Indianapolis suburbs. After the election, Bennett acknowledged the importance of this shift: “She did a very good job of appealing to the strong conservative base who had problems with the Common Core.”
Local control became a rallying cry in Indiana that cut across traditional political lines. Many Americans strongly believe in local control. If Thomas Jefferson could return from his grave at Monticello, he might agree. Yet, even Jefferson could be wrong; his close colleague, James Madison, advocated a strong national vision for public education. In this case, Madison was right. We are one people; we need a unifying vision of public education. There is a difference between a national transformative vision and a heavy-handed top down federal imposition of mandates and regulations. This difference needs to be clearly articulated. High standards are a framework, not an administrative and intellectual straitjacket.
The good news is that we already have an example of how forethought and communication can turn potential conflict into a deeper understanding of what is at stake. Kentucky was the first state to align its state assessments to the Common Core; when the results of the first assessments were published in 2012, the test scores dropped dramatically. In elementary reading, for example, in 2011, 76 percent of students scored proficient or higher; in 2012, 48 percent did so. There was little public outcry because Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday had enlisted the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce as part of a yearlong public relations campaign. Their message: These scores were a minor setback, but Kentucky’s overall direction was the right one.
But success will also require leadership. Rightly or wrongly, bringing to light that so many American students are underachievers is likely to result in a political backlash similar to the one that defeated Tony Bennett. President Obama and Secretary Duncan need to start educating the American people now about why we need high standards and what we can do to ensure that students can meet those standards before they are implemented in 2014.
Photo Credit: Tim Grimes, TheStatehouseFile.com