One of the biggest challenges facing Common Core supporters — especially conservative reformers who helped develop the standards in the first place — lies in the opposition from movement conservatives who should be the first to embrace providing all children with strong, college-preparatory curricula. Thanks in part to the efforts of otherwise-thoughtful folks such as Hoover Institution scholar Williamson Evers, Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, and University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene, movement conservatives have been whipped up into a frenzy of almost-fanatical opposition to the standards, sometimes to the point of spouting conspiracy theories that they themselves would find laughable when progressives do the same thing when it comes to anything involving the role of billionaire natural resources players David and Charles Koch in Wisconsin politics. Yet conservative reformers have silently stood by as their fellow-travelers engage in even more-fanciful thinking. It is time for conservative reformers to step up their defense of the standards, and strongly challenge the faulty thinking of movement conservatives who don’t think about either their underlying reasons for opposing standards or the consequences of their opposition on the other reforms they fully support.
The latest example comes from the otherwise-sensible Michelle Malkin, who has written a series of columns arguing against implementation of Common Core. Declaring that Common Core is an effort by “mal-formers” essentially working on behalf of President Barack Obama’s political agenda and that of “collectivist agitators” to “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history”, Malkin proclaims that the Common Core will do little more than “undermine local control of education, usurp state autonomy over curricular materials, and foist untested, mediocre and incoherent pedagogical theories on America’s schoolchildren.” Writes Malkin: “Common Core is rotten to the core.”
For someone such as your editor, who can claim more than his fair share of conservative and libertarian bona fides, Malkin’s screeds read more like something written by the notoriously solipsistic traditionalist Susan Ohanian (and worse, one of Kennedy assassination conspiracy-theorist Mark Lane’s execrable books) than something written by one of the conservative movement’s leading polemicists. Her columns and thinking would be slightly forgivable if she at least stuck to the facts. This is what she doesn’t do.
If Malkin bothered to actually do some reporting, she would have learned that Common Core was developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, both of which represent elected state chief executives and the state school chiefs who are often elected by citizens or appointed by state boards chosen by elected leaders. The effort, in turn, builds upon the decades-long efforts of standards and accountability activists within the school reform movement — including conservative outfits such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and its president, Checker Finn — to improve the quality of curricula in schools; this began in the 1970s with the work of southern governors and chambers of commerce, accelerated during the Eighties with the Reagan administration’s release of A Nation at Risk, and supported by Ronald Reagan’s successor, George Bush, during his tenure as president.
These facts, along with the reality that the federal government is barred from developing a national curricula and doesn’t have much ability to force states to stick to any promises to enact college-preparatory curricula standards, belies Malkin’s argument that Common Core is merely an Obama administration effort to “usurp state authority” over education policy. [This latter fact, by the way, is one reason why Dropout Nation opposes the Obama administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions; there’s no way the administration can enforce any broken promises on enacting any kind of college and career-ready curricula standards.] One can argue about the merits of the Obama administration encouraging states to overhaul their standards; you editor notes that as with No Child, the Obama administration’s role merely gave reform-minded politicians the tool they needed to beat back traditionalists opposed to any reform. In any case, the reality is that most states were moving toward embracing common curricula standards anyway, largely because of the successful advocacy of reformers (including politicians, chambers of commerce and families) on the ground.
If Malkin bothered to do a little more digging, she would find out that Algebra I isn’t “commonly taught” in middle school. Just a fifth of the nation’s Class of 2005 took algebra before reaching high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s release of data last week from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While those numbers have increased since then thanks in part to the efforts of reformers and the accountability provisions put in place through the passage of No Child, federal data on urban and suburban districts such as Minneapolis, and Fairfax County, Va., still fail to provide children (especially those from poor and minority backgrounds) with the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they need for success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. 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. Certainly Common Core standards aren’t perfect; it is why the standards should serve as the floor for developing even better standards and curricula. But Common Core is one of the key solutions for helping all children get the high-quality education they need and deserve.
Malkin is correct that Common Core could be a “radical makeover” of reading and math curricula, so long as states do the work (including overhauling curricula as well as transforming how teachers are recruited and trained) needed to make this happen. But such radicalism is necessary, largely because the quality of curricula provided in most states and districts is just plain substandard. 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 in its 2010 study; 38 states had science curricula standards of C or lower, according to Fordham Institute’s analysis released last year. The shoddiness of curricula standards is matched by the slipshod quality of current curricula in schools; only one out of 63 elementary math programs surveyed by the Department of Education has been rated as having “potentially positive” effects on student achievement; even that rating is based on just one study that met the agency’s stringent research standards.
By enacting Common Core, states are finally admitting that the longstanding tradition of allowing districts and teachers to come up with their own curricula, especially without high-quality standards to guide them, is no longer acceptable. Considering that many teachers lack the subject-matter competency needed to wing it on their own, much less teach students, sensible movement conservatives should agree. Just as importantly, by requiring English teachers to focus as much on nonfiction texts as on the novels they prefer, Common Core is actually allowing for kids to read some of the very texts conservatives and libertarians consider to be fundamental to understanding the world. This includes such books as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty. Can Malkin really oppose expanding children’s reading beyond just Harper Lee’s treacly To Kill a Mockingbird and the latest Newberry Award-winning novel?
Meanwhile Malkin would do well to understand that local control of education is a myth. As your editor has pointed out ad nauseam, states governments are charged under their constitutions with providing public education in one form or another. As with other local governments, traditional school districts are merely arms of the state, and only have as much leeway as the state governments that create and authorize them permit. This is a fact that the U.S. Supreme Court made clear more than a century ago in Hunter v. Pittsburgh and has since been affirmed by the federal government through No Child, which holds states accountable for the quality of education provided with the use of federal dollars. One can argue about whether the federal government should have any role in education policy. But even if the federal government had no role in education policy, state governments would still be in control of public education because that charge was affirmed long ago by citizens through respective constitutions. Of course, considering that the opposition of traditional districts to any alternative to their monopolies in providing school services (and their ability to use their dependence of local property tax dollars justify their position) is a key reason why a mere one out of every five children and their families have access to wide arrays of school choice, one would think Malkin and other who think like her would actually oppose local control altogether and actually support states restructuring public education so that it moves from systems of district bureaucracies to the public financing of high-quality educational opportunities of all kinds. But, hey, I’m not one to expect logical consistency from anyone.
Now let’s say this: One shouldn’t Malkin or any other conservative not focused on education policy to either have a strong understanding of either the underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis or the history of American public education. After all, most of the public intellectuals among movement conservatives are focused more on the expansive role of the federal government in civil society and the marketplace, while more populist conservative types are concerned about preserving what they consider to be traditional values such as the idea that the government that is best is the one at the local level that is, in theory, closes to the people (even if the virtual and real bankruptcies of cities such as Detroit and Vallejo, Calif., call that thinking into question). This is why movement conservatives not engaged in education discussions are naturally be more-supportive of measures such as the expansion of school choice (because they conform to their views that markets and private actions by families should be the deciding forces in education) than of other reform efforts that seem to involve what they may perceive more-robust federal or state government roles, or involve what they consider to be an abrogation of roles they think should be in the hands of families or local governments.
At the same time, the opposition to Common Core from movement conservatives isn’t just based on ideology. The fact that Common Core has been embraced by centrist Democrats and President Obama himself doesn’t sit right with Malkin and her fellow movement conservatives, for them, the standards seem like little more than a Trojan horse for left-leaning ideas. They can’t even entertain the possibility that those with whom they disagree on other political issues may actually be right about the need for overhauling curricula (a view shared by many of their fellow-travelers focused on school reform). The role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — an institution whose founders are among the biggest players in Democratic Party politics — in advancing the standards also spurs suspicion among movement conservatives (and progressive-leaning traditionalists) who are as suspicious of philanthropies and corporations as they are of left-leaning politicians. This suspicion can be seen in the fact that movement conservatives who have been strong advocates for systemic reform such as former Indianapolis Star editorial page editor Andrea Neal are joining Malkin and other fellow-travelers in such anti-Common Core conspiracy-theorizing.
Certainly children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, will pay the price for the opposition of movement conservatives to Common Core. But the consequences for those kids extend to the problems that will be created for the movement itself in other areas. One of the reasons why the school reform movement has succeeded is because of the coalition work of conservatives, idiosyncratic liberals, centrist Democrats and others tired of the super-clusters of failure that make up American public education. Given that so much of the opposition to Common Core from movement conservatives is has become as much about who supports the standards as about the possibilities of the nation embracing common curricula, one can imagine them opposing other aspects of systemic reform. One can imagine movement conservatives opposing the expansion of school choice because it allows for the launch of charter schools whose politically-driven missions they will likely oppose (such as, say, Cesar Chavez in D.C. or the charter schools run by adherents of the Gulen Movement) as well as for the provision of vouchers that allow kids to attend Catholic schools. What the school reform movement faces is a possible threat to the politically ideological bipartisanship that has driven its success.
Movement conservative opposition to Common Core doesn’t even serve conservatism well. The idea of smaller government, stronger civil society, and a robust environment for free markets has been at the heart of modern conservatism since the days of Russell Kirk. But another and often least-appreciated aspect of modern conservatism is the belief that it is important to improve what government that does exist so it works effectively for the taxpayers who fund it. If government must exist, it should at least work. This was as much at the heart of Ronald Reagan’s efforts as president (and even before then, as California’s governor) as shrinking the size and scope of federal activity. By arguing against implementing Common Core, movement conservatives opposed to the standards are implicitly supporting the continuation of policies and practices that both condemn the futures of at least 121 children every hour to despair and waste the $591 billion taxpayers devote to American public education. This, in turn, aids and abets traditionalists who oppose the expansion of choice and other reforms that movement conservatives support wholeheartedly.
These facts should be pointed out by conservative reformers who support Common Core and done so in a thoughtful-but-tough minded manner. After all, people don’t change their views unless they are strongly challenged, especially by their ideological fellow-travelers who know better and are the ones best-positioned to hold them accountable. Yet conservative reformers who support Common Core have not stepped up to the challenge. While Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has traveled to Indiana and other states to confront such thinking in statehouses, others have not bothered to do so, especially on the pages of the very media outlets that inform the movement. This, by the way, isn’t just a problem for conservative reformers; centrist Democrats who support Common Core have also done poorly in confronting the faulty thinking of their progressive allies. But centrist Democrat and left-leaning reformers have never had the luxury of counting on support from traditionalists within both the Democratic Party and the progressive movement, and in fact, have spent much of the past three decades challenging their thinking. Conservative reformers (along with their reform allies) have for far too long considered movement conservative support for reform to be a given (even as conservative reformers have long ago gotten used to sparring among themselves and their centrist Democrat allies over nearly every reform solution). As a result of conservative reformers being unwilling to take on movement conservatives on Common Core, they have given ground on an issue that their views are correct — and have complicated their own work in advancing systemic reform.
It is time for conservative reformers to have strong, forceful arguments with movement conservative allies about the senselessness of their opposition to Common Core standards. This includes pointing out the reality that what passes for curricula in American public education today doesn’t work for anyone’s children, including their own. It also includes refuting arguments and conspiracy theories that movement conservative offer as evidence against the standards — and demanding that they stop embracing the kind of shoddy thinking that no respectable movement conservative icon — especially Kirk and Reagan — would even find acceptable in a conversation. It doesn’t mean that movement conservatives opposed to the standards will be less reflexive in their opposition; after all, there are reasonable qualms that can be had about the efficacy of common curricula standards. But it would force them to actually argue against the standards based on some semblance of the facts and their interpretation of conservative first principles.
Certainly conservative reformers challenging movement conservative thinking may be akin to ideological civil war. But given the conservative movement’s other problems (including, as Washington Examiner columnist Noemie Emery notes, a sense of entitlement and embrace of a victim mentality unfitting of itself), the importance of the movement playing a strong role in shaping systemic reform, and the need for the movement to update how it applies first principles to today’s issues, it is a much-needed fight that conservative reformers can win.