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As your editor, one of my jobs is to blow off the rhetorical fog and reveal what is actually on solid ground. And there is no current issue in the battle over reforming American public education so much in need of fog-clearing than the debate over enacting and implementing Common Core standards in reading, math, and science.

Over the past couple of years, reformers such as University of Arkansas education maven Jay P. Greene, Stanford University’s Williamson Evers, and Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute have decried the standards developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor’s Association (with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), battling fiercely with erstwhile allies such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, his boss, Checker Finn, and centrist Democrats. The battle is also happening on the education traditionalist side, albeit with less fervor, with progressives such as former  Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) boss-turned-well-paid education consultant Mike Klonsky opposing the standards and diverging from the support given to the initiative by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

From where Common Core supporters sit, the standards are far superior to those already implemented throughout the 50 states, ensuring that all children will get strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula. With every state enacting Common Core, students would get the same quality of curricula no matter where they are or go; this would be especially helpful to military families who often shift from state to state, as well as those who move from school to school within states. By having set standards across the nation, it also makes it easier for those who develop curricula to provide high-quality content that students will use in their studies. No more of the kind of funny business – including approving shoddy textbooks and standardized tests that don’t align to standards – that can make a mockery of even the highest-quality state standards.

Common Core opponents, on the other hand, contend that developing national standards are hardly much better than state standards currently in place; in the case of some states, notably Massachusetts (which replaced its standards for Common Core), the national standards are ultimately a set-back for children within those states. From where they sit, Common Core will also neuter innovation in curricula development and other aspects of systemic reform. And the fact that both the Obama administration, and major reform player such as Gates, are backing Common Core is anathema to both movement conservatives and progressives alike; the former (who are generally supportive of reform, but skeptical of anything involving either Obama or the Beltway) perceive Common Core as an expansion of the federal role in education that violates the Constitution, while the latter views anything involving the private sector as a corporate plot to take over American public education.

Thanks in part to the backing of President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Common Core supporters have managed to get the standards enacted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. But they are far from victorious. Within the past year, Common Core opponents have managed to keep states such as Texas and Virginia from embracing the curricula reform effort, and have managed to lead nearly-successful efforts to overturn decisions by state education officials in South Carolina to enact them. As a result, some reform-minded state leaders such as Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett — who are generally used to standing up to teachers’ union leaders, ed school deans, and other traditionalists — are wavering in their support for the standards.

Meanwhile Common Core opponents have marshaled some evidence against the efficacy of Common Core in the form of Tom Loveless’ annual report on education for Brookings issued earlier this year. Loveless predicts that Common Core will have little effect on achievement largely because his analysis shows that there is little correlation between past implementation of standards and student performance growth. He also ridicules the argument advanced by Common Core supporters that the differences in how subjects are taught in different states requires national standardization, noting that the Gates Foundation’s namesake “would have a difficult time showing how [Massachusetts and Mississippi] —or any other two states—treat multiplication of whole numbers in significantly different ways.”  There are problems with Loveless’ analysis (and I’ll mention two of them later in the piece). But the fact that the report comes from one of Brookings’ three lead players (along with Russ Whitehurst and Darryl West) on school reform has proven to be good ammunition for Common Core foes.

Again, there is no easy dividing line within this aspect of the battle to reform American public educations. Common Core is one of the few things on which reformers such as the Fordham and traditionalists such as the National School Boards Association share common cause. At the same time, you have the strange bedfellows of such fierce reformers such as John Chubb (now of Education Sector) agreeing with equally forceful traditionalists such as Education Week columnist Anthony Cody. You have folks such as Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch asking some hard and (and with the exception of Ravitch) honest questions about how the standards will be implemented and whether the bipartisan politics driving the standards effort will hold. There are also many in American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities who look at Common Core as just another effort by those outside of Native communities to essentially embrace notorious Carlisle Indian Boarding School founder Richard Henry Pratt’s maxim of “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” From where they sit, it is hard to reconcile national standards with their particularly unique efforts to teach kids the Native culture (including immersion of students in Tribal languages) they want to preserve.

The Need for Honesty from Common Core Supporters

As I said, your editor’s job here is to fan away the smoke on both sides — and there is plenty of it — and get to the heart of the matter. Let’s start with this: Common Core standards alone won’t advance the overhaul of American public education. But our children regardless of background will not get the comprehensive, college-preparatory education they need and deserve without it.

One of the biggest problems for Common Core supporters has been their unwillingness to actually admit what is plain: That their goal is to essentially create national reading, math, and science curricula. This has been clear since the early part of the 1990s, when federal officials, at the behest of some reformers, supported the roll-out of Robert Slavin’s Success for All and other programs across the country. It has accelerated in the last decade, thanks to efforts such as the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, which has revealed the shoddiness of the curricula states and districts select for use in classrooms.

The entire standards and accountability movement, in fact, is based on the implied notion that all children, regardless of background, should get the same high quality education — and that means common curricula. The Obama administration’s implicit support for states enacting Common Core, embedded through both Race to the Top and the No Child waiver gambit, is only the most-recent step in moving away from the patchwork of standards and curricula (often developed by teachers on their own in slapdash fashion) that has dominated American public education for most of the past two centuries.

By trying to maintain the guise of Common Core as a completely voluntary affair, its supporters have essentially played into the conspiracy theorizing of the most-rabid opponents of the effort. Opponents may be verging on the illogical. But who can blame them? Common Core defenders haven’t been willing to engage in an honest, thoughtful, and much-needed discussion about whether we should stick to the cookie-cutter approach to curriculum and standards, or take the direction of strong standards that will help good and great teachers help all kids succeed in school and in life. It is an argument supporters of Common Core can actually win, but only as long as they take up the arguments, and deal with the opposition in an intellectually honest manner.

Common Core advocates have also oversold both the quality and potential benefits of the standards. Although Common Core standards in reading and math are superior to all but a smattering of states, this isn’t exactly saying much. Only two states — Massachusetts and Hawaii — have math standards that meet those set by Singapore and the six other top-performing nations in that subject, according to the American Institutes for Research. Mathematicians are correct in asserting the math standards aren’t as good as they should be. This doesn’t preclude further improving those standards. But it does mean that Common Core supporters must acknowledge the facts at hand.

Common Core supporters still need to address the curricula quality question (and the textbooks that are part of the problem). Photo courtesy of http://thankstextbooks.tumblr.com

Then there are the rubber-meets-road questions. The first: How to make sure that states actually implement the standards? One of the key reasons why so many states have adapted Common Core so far is because of the Obama administration’s implied support for them, especially through its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. In exchange for granting waivers to states allowing them to ignore these and other provisions of federal law, states have to implement “college and career-ready” standard. But as Dropout Nation has noted ad nauseam in its coverage of the Obama administration’s No Child waiver gambit, the Department of Education can’t actually enforce this promise because it cannot by law force states to follow up on its promise by putting actual curricula in place.

This leads to the second issue: Ensuring that curricula actually meet the underlying standards. This is a question that has become especially important last week when Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee took aim at textbook publisher Heinemann and a team led by writing curricula player Lucy Calkins for publishing a new polemic that attempts an “ideological co-opting” of the standards and tries to defend the publisher’s “existing—and poorly aligned—materials”. Given the struggles states have had with matching curricula to standards — largely a consequence of the very cookie-cutter approach of allowing districts and teachers to develop their own curricula to meet them — this is a concern that Common Core supporters should address with greater candor than they have.

Then there is the reality that standards alone won’t address all aspects of the nation’s education crisis. Strong standards on their own are meaningless without corresponding curricula. This is a lesson that standards and accountability advocates should have gleaned after the past three decades. One of the reasons why state standards have only been moderately successful in spurring improvements in student achievement is because they have rarely spend the time on choosing curricula that actually meets those standards (and in many cases, is useless in helping kids learn). The considerable opposition to the Everyday Math curriculum used in states has as much to do with the fact that it rarely meets state standard as with the general opinion that its approach to teaching math is a massive fail. Even if the curricula is aligned with the standards, the curricula won’t work if teachers are not capable of improving student achievement, if school cultures damn some kids (notably those from poor and minority backgrounds) to low expectations, and if school operators aren’t held to high expectations (as well as rewarded and punished accordingly).

As with all other reforms, Common Core won’t work without comprehensive, college-preparatory curricula that meets the standards; high-quality teachers who have the subject-knowledge competency, empathy for all children regardless of background, tip-top classroom management skills, and entrepreneurial self-starter ability to lead kids to the right path; strong school leaders who know how to foster cultures of genius in which all kids can learn. None of these, in turn, will work without a strong framework of accountability that ensures that school operators are improving student achievement. The fact that some Common Core backers (including Petrilli and some centrist Democrats) are also pushing to eviscerate federal accountability effectively is especially saddening; common standards without common accountability makes no sense at all.

The Time for Common Core Foes to Put Away Their Fantasies

All this said, the foes of Common Core are engaging in fantastic thinking. Given how much I respect the work of Greene, Evers, Stergios and many of those opposing Common Core, I would rather not say this. But let’s be clear: They fail to remember the moral, intellectual, and systemic importance of providing all children with strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula that they need in order to write their own stories.

Let’s start with this reality: Most of our kids are getting low-quality curricula. This is apparent in the low performance of the nation’s 15-year-olds on the 2009 PISA test of student achievement. As Fordham noted earlier this year, 38 states had science standards that earned a C or lower in 2011, a seven state increase over 2005. It is even more apparent when one looks at the courses they actually take. Just 13 percent of high school students took strong, comprehensive courses, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress; this included a mere seven percent of black students and six percent of their Latino schoolmates. It is also unlikely that the average middle-school student will take the kind of math and reading courses they need to take on even more-challenging college prep coursework; as Dropout Nation noted earlier this year, a mere 15 percent of midlde-schoolers served by the Minneapolis district took Algebra 1, a key course for students to take on calculus and other forms of high-level math.

In arguing that standards won’t make a difference in improving student achievement, Common Core opponents (and skeptics such as Loveless) ignore the role stronger standards (along with other reforms) have played in improving student achievement within the decade. This is clear when one looks at the gains in student math achievement as measured through the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The percentage of fourth-graders who scored Below Basic (or were mathematically illiterate) declined from 23 percent to 18 percent between 2003 and 2011; the percentage of fourth-graders scoring at proficient and advanced levels increased from 32 percent to 40 percent within that same period. This is because math curricula has improved (albeit nowhere near at the level they need to be). This is also true when it comes to reading, which explains why fewer kids are reading at levels of functional illiteracy than before the year after the passage of No Child a decade ago.

As I have noted, stronger standards alone aren’t the only reason why student achievement has improved within this period; at the same time, the higher expectations for student success fostered by the standards (along with the accountability measures put in place by the No Child Left Behind Act, the expansion of school choice, reform efforts by districts such as New York City, and efforts by organizations such as the College Board and the National Science and Math Initiative to get more poor and minority students to take Advanced Placement and other college prep courses), has helped more students achieve success.

Yet Common Core opponents fail to realize that the importance of consistent standards as an element in reform.

Meanwhile Loveless, in particular, conveniently ignores of the reasons why standards haven’t always worked out as well as expected: State processes – or, more to the point, lack thereof – for matching standards to curriculum. Although standards and accountability advocates have succeeded in getting states to at least create a process for developing standards, the lack of work on overhauling how states select textbooks (which is often both corrupt and incompetent) has resulted in shoddy materials that rarely align with standards and thus fails to help students learn. There’s also the fact that states have long allowed districts and teachers to simply come up with their own curricula (a legacy of the slapdash approach long in vogue within American public education) in the vain hope that they would actually align teaching with them. Expecting districts to do the work on curriculum development – especially in light of their struggles to handle basic tasks – was never smart. And considering that far too many of our teachers lack the subject-matter competency needed to properly instruct their students – and that our nation’s university schools of education do worse in recruiting and training aspiring teachers – states should have long ago developed more comprehensive decision-making processes.

As for innovation on curricula? What innovation? Certainly there is some amazing work by Native communities on developing culturally based education (including language immersion efforts by Native Hawaiian charter schools). There is also some innovative curriculum development efforts being done by teachers, schools, and others on the margins; this includes the efforts by Harlem Link Charter School in New York City to make sure that students are learning reading, math, history, and science throughout all of their classes. But the reality is that much of the work out there actually isn’t all that innovative.

More importantly, innovation isn’t a virtue in and of itself. Some of the what reformers and others consider to be the best curricula – Direct Instruction, Core Knowledge, and Singapore Math, to name three – have been around for decades and aren’t all that innovative. At the same time, some of the most-innovative efforts at developing curricula – notably the New Math craze of the late 1960s – did little to improve student achievement.

What Common Core foes fail to recognize is that standardization isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Done properly, standardization can actually allow for more innovation in curricula development because there are now commonly agreed-upon content areas around which a variety of curriculum developers can rally. This is true in nearly all aspects of technology and life. For example, it was the tacit acceptance of the Microsoft DOS/Window standards (fostered by the move by IBM and the Microsoft to license the operating system to other computer-makers) that helped advance the development of the technologies that have helped boost productivity and improve quality of life; free from having to develop their own operating systems, computer makers could now compete on price affordability and wide arrange of features that have benefited consumers. It even forced Apple Computer to change aspects of its own proprietary operating system to meet the expectations set by Microsoft and adapted by the market, making it a competitive alternative. From the adoption of Hypertext Markup Language (which spurred the development of the Internet) to the wide use of the Android operating system (which has helped lead to a boom in smartphones and tablet-style computers), standardization has proven to be a boon, not an obstacle, to innovation.

Sure, Common Core foes would be right in pointing out that these examples of standardization happened in the conditions of free markets. It would also be fair to note how poorly government-sponsored standards efforts have generally fared. Yet there are some fine examples of how similar efforts (especially in medical education, which involves public universities and private sector counterparts) have been successful. More importantly, given that education will continue to be a government-controlled activity for the time being (and even the expansion of school choice wouldn’t fully change that), advancing Common Core just makes sense.

Opponents of Common Core seem to act as if an absence of national standards will somehow yield better results for our children. But after 140 years of American public education operating without standardized curricula and standards, this is clearly not so. The fact that only one math program so far has had enough data to prove that it may be effective in improving student learning (the widely-reviled Everyday Math) has proven clearly that Common Core foes need to stop hoping against hope.

And Why Our Children Need Common Core

Allowing teachers, principals and districts to continue developing their own curricula without any North Star — the longstanding practice in education — didn’t matter because education wasn’t a factor in economic and social achievement. But we now live in an age in which what a child knows is even more critical to their economic and social success than ever. If we are to continue the social mobility that has helped America bend the arc of economic and social history toward progress, we need to provide our kids with the curricula and standards that, along with high-quality teaching, helps make this happen. If we are to live up to our obligations to God and our fellow man – and be the city upon a hill that Jonathan Edwards and Ronald Reagan said we must be – then the patchwork of standards currently in place can’t stay the status quo.

For those of us who are Christians, this is particularly important. Jesus Christ declared in Matthew 25:46 that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. This isn’t just about simply providing physical food to the least of us. Our children, especially those who are the poorest and come from white, black, Latino, Asian, and Native households, need the intellectual, spiritual, and economic nourishment that only comes from high-quality education. Allowing the continuation of shoddy and abysmal curricula standards is akin to starving our children — and that’s not what Jesus would do.

There is a clear need for rigorous, demanding, college preparatory standards that will help foster the creation of the kind of rigorous curricula our children need for their future success. Common Core’s implementation will help meet it. And the standards will also help foster cultures of high expectations in which their inherent abilities are nurtured.

Standards are more than just benchmarks of what kids should learn. As with so much public policy, it is a clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society, especially when it comes to ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education. When we set the bar high for our children, and more importantly, for the schools, leaders, and teachers who serve them, we are declaring that kids should get the education they need to write their own life stories. Save for the high school movement of the turn of the 20th century, American public education has engaged in practices – from ability-tracking to the comprehensive high school model – that have been based on the idea that only some children are deserving of high-quality education. And as it has been seen earlier this month with political scientist Andrew Hacker’s polemic against providing all students with algebra instruction, it remains endemic.

By enacting Common Core standards, school reformers are making clear what we have long known: That all kids, regardless of background, can master college-preparatory curricula, and should get high-quality teaching, nurturing school cultures, and strong school leaders. Enacting Common Core also serves to force reforms throughout the rest of American public education. Common standards make it harder for education traditionalists to argue against using school data in evaluating teachers, while shining a clear light on how poorly ed schools are training teachers to implement curricula.

All this said, Common Core standards should be floor and not the ceiling. Although better than what is in place, we can do better. This means that Common Core supporters must use the standards as the next logical starting point for helping all kids succeeds, and not just the end of the line. They must also do a better job of holding textbook publishers and other curriculum developers accountable for aligning their materials to standards. The federal government should start by stepping up the efforts of the What Works Clearinghouse in vetting curricula; this work must also be done by the two state consortia charged with developing the new assessments that will be launched alongside the standards.

But we can no longer stand pat on implementing Common Core standards. Our kids deserve better than the patchwork of mediocrity that has largely been the norm throughout American public education.