I do not work on K-12 education policy every day, but having worked on these issues in the past, I can’t help but follow all the media noise around the Common Core State Standards.
To put it mildly, the Common Core engenders strong opinions from policymakers and experts alike. They either love them or hate them. But to my outsider’s point-of-view, what’s missing amid the political back and forth are real discussions about the standards’ quality.
Some conservatives in particular, trying to steady themselves after the 2012 elections and in light of President Obama’s recent stumbles, have lambasted the Common Core as the latest federal takeover of K-12 education. These criticisms are not new; since the standards’ introduction, many conservatives have expressed reservations. But the complaints now appear to be more vocal, particularly as some states led by GOP governors have begun to back away from them.
This is not to say all conservatives share skepticism of the Common Core. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and more recently former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have urged Republican governors to steel themselves against criticism of the standards. In fairness, as most states led by both Republican and Democratic governors pledged to adopt the standards on their own, the characterization of a federal takeover is a bit over the top.
But what if the Common Core didn’t exist and the hodgepodge of state-by-state standards continued; would we better off? Likely not.
The sad reality is that federalism, in terms of states setting their own academic standards, has not worked out so well. Some states like Massachusetts and Maryland have established high-quality standards, but many unfortunately have not.
That is not to say the answer is federal standards. While the Obama administration may have made it easy on its political opponents to link Common Core to the president’s priorities, the federal government did not initiate the standards, draft them, and it will not oversee them.
The other possibility to consider is that federalism could be practiced by states choosing to adopt common academic standards, preferably of higher quality than the differing state standards they replace. If more of the criticism of the Common Core focused on concerns about their quality, it would be valuable to heed. It’s telling the most vocal critiques of the standards don’t really speak to quality at all.
So what are outsiders like me to make of the dust up around the Common Core? I, for one, would like to hear more about quality relative to existing standards in different states. But when all you hear is that Common Core is the latest Washington conspiracy to take over your child’s education, I am skeptical.