As far as anybody can tell, two plus two still equals four in all fifty states of the Union. North and South of the Mason-Dixon line, there’s little debate that American kids should have a passing familiarity with the founding documents of the United States. And from sea to shining sea, pretty much everybody agrees that Shakespeare was a great poet and playwright, and that high school kids should probably read some of his work.
So it’s a reflection of the sorry state of public debate in the U.S. when Indiana Governor Mike Pence, after signing a bill opting his state out of an overhaul of public education standards developed by a coalition of his fellow governors and education experts can tout this as a victory because the state will now have standards “written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers.”
The rules of mathematics don’t change at the Indiana border, nor do the basic tenets of the Constitution, or the words of Hamlet. But a small and vocal minority of activists have hijacked what could be an otherwise useful debate about education in the United States, and turned it onto a sort of political litmus test that has far less to do with education reform than with opposition to the federal government in general, and President Obama in particular.
The standards in question, known as “Common Core,” were adopted in 2010 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The idea, strongly supported by the business community, was that American students ought to leave the taxpayer-funded education system with the basic building blocks they need to compete as workers in the 21st century.
A letter signed by a broad coalition of business groups praised the Common Core standards as an “important opportunity to set consistent, focused, rigorous expectations for all students; a necessary foundation for making the changes needed to improve student achievement and ensure the United States’ educational and economic preeminence.”
The signatories, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, dozens of local chambers of commerce, and numerous major corporations, noted, “Currently, each state sets its own standards. This has led to a nation with 50 sets of inconsistent standards, even though the expectations of colleges and employers in math and English are nearly universal and are not bound by state lines.”
Those business groups are now, no doubt, staring in consternation as an initiative conceived and executed by state-level officials is pilloried by the hard political right and a smaller but equally vocal element of the left, as a massive federal intrusion into state sovereignty.
More than a dozen state legislatures are entertaining bills that would remove their states from the Common Core standard, in many cases under the largely spurious claim that the federal government forced the standards on them.
The U.S. Department of Education did offer funding to states that agreed to the standards. But that funding was in addition to funding already provided to the states by Washington, and the five states that didn’t agree to accept Common Core in the first place were not penalized.
The biggest issue driving opposition to Common Core appears to be a general aversion among conservatives to anything that appears to have its origins in Washington. The state-level provenance of Common Core means little to activists conditioned to refer to the standards as “Obamacore.”
In an interview with the trade publication Education Week, former Bush administration Department of Education official Cheryl A. Oldham, now the vice president for education policy at the U.S. Chamber, said, “The more the administration talks about Common Core, the worse it is for the effort.”
Not all opposition has come from the right wing. Teachers’ unions, major donors to the Democratic Party, have also come out in opposition to elements of Common Core. However, their opposition seems generally focused not on the origins of the standards, or their content. Teachers Unions are primarily concerned that their members not face professional evaluations based on Common Core test results until they have received training on the new standards, and until benchmarks for student performance on related tests are available.
This is not to say that there are no substantive criticisms of the standard. In a lengthy article written for Minding the Campus, a digital publication of the Manhattan Institute, National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood challenged Common Core on various specific issues including, for example, its treatment of Algebra instruction in middle school.
Wood’s criticisms generated significant pushback from Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern, who strongly disagreed with Wood’s interpretation of the standard.
The Wood-Stern argument ranged widely across various elements of the Common Core, but the debate over how to teach math, at least, was the kind of discussion we ought to be having about educational standards – the kind based on what’s best for students, not on who actually wrote the standard.
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