Category: Why Common Core

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Conservative Reformers Must Challenge Movement Conservatives on Opposing Common Core

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  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…


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.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngThe 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.

Can a conservative really oppose requiring teachers to focus some of their time on understanding the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill?

Can a movement conservative really oppose requiring teachers to focus some of their time on understanding the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill?

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.

1 Comment on Conservative Reformers Must Challenge Movement Conservatives on Opposing Common Core

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More on Common Core Foes’ Conspiracy-Theorizing

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  As your editor expected, Tuesday’s commentary on the conspiracy-theorizing by opponents of Common Core reading and math standards over the role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation garnered…


As your editor expected, Tuesday’s commentary on the conspiracy-theorizing by opponents of Common Core reading and math standards over the role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation garnered heated response. Not just in the comments. Some were annoyed at what they perceived to be my characterization that only movement conservatives and some conservative reformers were among the opponents of Common Core; I have long ago made clear that there nearly as many traditionalists and reformers — as well as progressives, liberals, movement conservatives and others outside of education — who oppose the standards as there are supporters within all those camps. But I don’t expect much from traditionalists opposed to Common Core; it just confirms my view that they could care less about the futures of poor and minority children (and, for that matter, all children). Movement conservatives and conservative reformers? That is a different story. When you know better, you are also supposed to do better. Period.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngOthers were disappointed that I didn’t support their side of the debate over the standards. Oh well. As I always make clear, my role as an editor, as an advocate, and an intellectually honest person is to weigh a position carefully and take whichever side I think is right — especially if it helps all children succeed in school and in life. I deal with allies and opponents in a forthright manner, criticizing them when they deserve it.  For that, I will never ever apologize.

But for most critics of this commentary — including the inestimable Joy Pullmann of Heartlander, whose piece spurred it — their complaint is that your editor fails to get how allegedly undemocratic states (at the behest of Gates Foundation) have been in adopting Common Core. As far as these Common Core foes are concerned, Gates Foundation shouldn’t be conducting its advocacy in a “black box”, and in fact, should be subjected to the same level of transparency as government agencies. They still continue to argue that Gates Foundation and states adopting Common Core did so in an undemocratic manner.

Let’s start with the question of whether philanthropists such as Gates Foundation should be subjected to the same level of transparency as government agencies? This depends on what they are doing. If we are talking about a nonprofit operating public charter schools, which are financed by taxpayer dollars, they should be subjected to such levels of transparency and disclosure because they are providing a public service on behalf of taxpayers. But it is a different story for philanthropies such as Gates Foundation, which doesn’t use any taxpayer dollars for its operations. Certainly the advocacy work of nonprofits Gates Foundation finances — and even any advocacy and lobbying the foundation does on its own — should be public knowledge. Which they are. Nonprofits and philanthropies are required under federal law to file disclosures if some of their staffers spend more than 20 percent of their time influencing legislation; this is also true in some states such as Connecticut. The fact that government agencies must disclose their activities — including meetings with nonprofits and philanthropies — also means that Gates Foundation is subject to more disclosure than many privately-held companies. And not to get into any defense of Gates Foundation itself, the organization provides plenty of disclosure on its own.

[The fact that Pullmann garnered no response from Gates Foundation’s public relations staff during her reporting is only indicative of whether they decided Heartlander and sister publication School Reform News were worthy of their time. As someone who has (and continues to sit) on both sides, I would always stress offering a response regardless of the veracity of the questions being raised. But I don’t counsel Gates Foundation on public relations, and in any case, like public companies, they have no obligation to answer any reporter. Also, given the penchant of most foundations to say absolutely nothing public or private about their activities, the fact that Gates Foundation offers some responses in some form at all is actually quite refreshing. Try asking the Lilly Endowment, another big philanthropic player, any questions about, say, its past funding to the Reason Foundation, and I guarantee you that they will say absolutely nothing.]

Certainly one can understand the concerns about any major organization, especially Gates Foundation, advocating for policies and practices it supports. This is why lobbying disclosure rules (governing advocates) and freedom of information acts (requiring government disclosure of activities, especially those with private organizations) exist. If one wants to argue for greater disclosure of activity between nonprofits (including philanthropies) and government agencies, then they can do so. I’m not necessarily against that. But neither Gates Foundation nor any other philanthropy has an obligation to provide disclosure beyond what is expected of the average private citizen and shouldn’t. Common Core foes would be better off demanding greater disclosure from government agencies, which, unlike Gates Foundation, should do so because they are funded by taxpayers.

Meanwhile Common Cores foes have failed to offer a credible argument that Gates Foundation and states that adopted Common Core behaved undemocratically. For one, as I noted on Tuesday, Common Core standards were approved by the elected state boards of education in nine states and the District of Columbia. They were also approved by appointed state boards and superintendents in 35 other states. This matters because in a democratic republic such as the United States, voters don’t decide every single matter. Implicit in the concept of democratic republicanism is that citizens allow for elected officials to appoint officials, either serving as heads of state agencies or members of various boards in order to administer various aspects of government. In fact, this is expressed in many ways in the U.S. Constitution (with the whole matter of the president being the commander-in-chief of the military), as well as in state constitutions (such as the appointment of state education board members and the like). Also implicit in the concept of democratic republicanism is that citizens trust that elected officials will who will have the competence to make sensible decisions as well as make those decisions in a transparent manner (including hold hearings and the like).

One can quibble about the degree to which governors and legislators hand off decisions to appointees and the agencies they oversee; this is why public authorities that oversee bond-issuing activities such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey can prove to be so problematic. But the reality is that those appointed boards and officials are key players in the democratic process, and given the complexity of so much decision-making, their existence makes sense. In any case, this has more to do with questions about the size and reach of federal, state and local governments, a matter beyond the scope of this piece. There is definitely a lot lacking about our current state of educational governance; governors should be in charge of state education departments. But again, that’s a different discussion altogether from this one.

At the same time, the voters do have other means of overturning decisions made by those appointed agencies if they don’t think they are the best solutions. One way to do so, as Common Core foes have done in states such as Indiana, Missouri, and South Carolina, is to convince legislators — elected officials who, in some cases, also confirm appointments — to pass laws overturning the decisions of those appointees chosen by elected officials. Another is through the legal process, with judges — some elected, others appointed — required to interpret the law along the constitutional lines set out by voters as well as allowing for citizens to garner documents and other information about a decision-making process. This is why freedom of information laws, imperfect as they are, do exist. A third, as done in Indiana, is to vote out elected officials who support a political activity — especially that related to education — that voters don’t support. A fourth is to appeal to federal government when appropriate, either through advocating for congressional legislation or pursuing matters in federal courts.

Simply put, there are numerous (if not always perfect) ways for Common Core foes to oppose the adoption of the standards. Which is what they are doing to certain degrees of success. Certainly your editor disagrees with their effort and the most-defensible of their underlying arguments. He also finds it particularly interesting that Common Core foes say they want high-quality education for all children, yet fail to consider that their opposition to the standards hurts poor and minority kids as well as middle class white and Asian children in suburbia, both of which have few options — including vouchers and charter schools — to which they can avail in order to get high-quality education. The reality that choice remains illusory for four-fifths of all children in this country and especially for the kids who need strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula the most (and, as Dropout Nation has documented ad nauseam, are the least likely to get it in traditional districts) is more than enough reason to adopt Common Core (alongside expanding the array of choice options that can allow for a variety of curricula choices).  The concern among some that decisions by states to enact Common Core go against what they consider to be local control fails to realize that under state and federal laws, local control doesn’t actually exist. State constitutions entrust state governments with the job of overseeing and providing public education, and gives them the leeway to structure it anyway they see fit so long as it fits under those respective constitutions. This fact, along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, has long ago established that districts are merely arms of state governments.

At the same time, Common Core foes, like traditionalists and reformers, are allowed as citizens to argue for what they believe. If they oppose the standards, they can mount efforts to abolish them if they so choose.

But are intellectually honest ways of arguing against any position. This is where Common Core foes are failing mightily. Engaging in the kind of conspiracy theorizing that would make the likes of Susan Ohanian proud, especially in light of evidence that disproves those positions, actually weakens whatever legitimate arguments they may have to offer. Given the role of outfits such as the American Principles Project in fostering these statements, it also comes off as being cynically political.

6 Comments on More on Common Core Foes’ Conspiracy-Theorizing

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Common Core Foes’ Laughable Gates Foundation Conspiracy-Theorizing

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Covering the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts on the school reform front — along with the usual angst among traditionalists and even some conservative reformers about its influence on…


Covering the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts on the school reform front — along with the usual angst among traditionalists and even some conservative reformers about its influence on education policy — is old hat for yours truly as well as for nearly any education reporter and commentator on the scene. So the piece by otherwise-stellar Heartlander Editor Joy Pullman on the foundation’s role behind the effort by 45 states and the District of Columbia to enact Common Core reading and math standards was a bit ho-hum. Except for the fact that so many Common Core foes quoted in the piece were spinning the philanthropy’s efforts as some sort of conspiracy against the American democracy

As Huffington Post‘s Joy Resmovits noted yesterday on Twitter, there has been nothing stealthy or hidden about the role Gates Foundation has played in advancing Common Core standards. More importantly, the momentum for Common Core standards has been happening long before Gates Foundation entered the picture. As I noted last year in my commentary on Common Core, moving toward national curricula standards has been as much a goal of the school reform movement (particularly standards and accountability advocates such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) as expanding school choice. And given that many on the traditionalist side, including the American Federation of Teachers, have also been thoughtfully supportive of moving toward common curricula standards (yes, I know I said something nice about the AFT), it is hard to argue that this is just some idea that originated solely with Gates Foundation’s leaders.

transformersMeanwhile the argument advanced in the piece (insinuated by the otherwise-sensible Jay P. Greene declaration that the Gates Foundation “orchestrated” the adoption of Common Core) that the standards were enacted without any sort of democratic input fails to consider the actual process involved. This included a lengthy comment period conducted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the outfits that represent elected state chief executives and the state school chiefs who are often elected or appointed by state boards of education. It also included the adoption by 45 state education boards, including those of Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, and District of Columbia (which are elected by the public), along with other state boards appointed by governors (and, in some cases, with consent of state legislatures). No matter what one wants to believe (and no matter your editor’s opinion about the abysmal structure of state education governance), arguing that the adoption of Common Core is some corporate conspiracy — an argument advanced by those traditionalists who also oppose the standards such as Susan Ohanian — doesn’t actually wash in reality.

But the latest piece on Gates Foundation’s efforts, along with some claptrap from the American Principles Project (which landed on the pages of the Washington Examiner), once again brings up an aspect of the anti-intellectualism that tends to predominate in American public education: The idea that private-sector players (including wealthy philanthropists) cannot possibly have anything more than a nefarious interest in using their resources, financial and otherwise, in advancing systemic reform. This sentiment is usually typical among traditionalists, who engage in the kind of conspiracy-theorizing that would put smiles on the faces of John Birch Society members and so-called Kennedy assassination experts such as Mark Lane. But sadly, as seen with the battle over adopting Common Core, this anti-intellectualism has even become endemic among otherwise-sensible movement conservatives, and abetted by conservative reformers such as the otherwise-laudable Jay P. Greene, who should know better. Such faulty thinking gets in the way of what should be thoughtful, sensible thinking about the need to provide all children — including those from poor and minority backgrounds — the comprehensive college-preparatory learning they need for success in the knowledge-based global economy. More-importantly, such thinking by movement conservatives and conservative reformers fails to keep in mind the need for Gates Foundation and other philanthropists to counter what has been, until recently, the out-sized influence of National Education Association and AFT affiliates, whose defense of failed policies and practices have condemned millions of poor and minority kids to economic and social despair. 

For all the talk of school reform philanthropists as what some such as Michigan State University Assistant Professor Sarah Reckhow call “shadow bureaucracy”, there is hardly anything shadowy about what they do. Gates Foundation, in particular, offers a database on every dollar it has ladled out to reform outfits for the last two decades, while the Walton Family Foundation publishes a rather lengthy list of every dollar it hands out to reform outfits. Meanwhile every reform outfit receiving Gates Foundation and other reform philanthropist support (including some for which the RiShawn Biddle Consultancy, a firm owned by the editor of this publication, has previously or currently consults) spends plenty of time noting how the foundation supports its efforts. [Dropout Nation, by the way, is funded solely out of your editor’s considerable and God-blessed personal resources. But it would gladly take Gates Foundation money if needed, and doesn’t look down on publications that do.] This is certainly far more-public disclosure than that that of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which use their combined $152 million in spending in 2011-2012  to aid and abet their defense of traditionalist thinking.

One can certainly question whether Gates Foundation is getting enough bang for its buck in focusing on education policy efforts as well as on working with school districts on overhauling teacher evaluations. In fact, the success of philanthropists such as Walton (with its focus on expanding school choice and advancing Parent Power), along with that of earlier generations of reform-minded philanthropists such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. titan Julius Rosenwald (whose efforts with Booker T. Washington to build schools helped black children get what was then considered high-quality education in an era of Jim Crow segregation), brings that question up in ways that may certainly be uncomfortable to Allan Golston, Vicki Phillips, and their teams of grant managers. But Gates Foundation and the Microsoft tycoon who founded it with his wife is doing nothing more than what any of us would do if we had that kind of cash (and what those of us in school reform without it are doing right now): Using their dollars and influence to engage in efforts to improve the world in which they live, and have an equal self-interest in leaving their mark on it. This is something that all of us, especially those conservative reformers who, like the rest of the movement, boldly seek to transform American public education, should want and welcome. After all, as I have pointed out ad nauseam, it is the new voices coming from outside education — and even from outside of communities, those whose children are devastated the most by educational neglect and malpractice — who will help overhaul the super-clusters of failure that make up American public education.

From your editor’s perspective, one can understand why Common Core opponents have now embraced the kind of conspiracy-theorizing reserved for the likes of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch and her ilk. After all, the arguments they have advanced so far haven’t really stood up to scrutiny. The idea that standards-setting and curricula development should be best left to traditional districts (along with their staffs of teachers and school leaders), fails to admit the reality that this has been the norm for most of the past 140 years — and it clearly hasn’t worked. Given that far too many teachers lack the subject-matter competency to teach reading, math, and science — and that the nation’s ed schools are failing mightily in training aspiring teachers before they leave the classroom (including National Council on Teacher Quality’s conclusion that only 11 of 71 ed schools  it surveyed in 2006 adequately trained future teachers in reading) — expecting teachers and school leaders to develop curricula and standards on their own is just pure folly. A complaint mounted over the past few months — that Common Core’s reading standards requiring students to read more non-fiction — will lead to fewer students reading The Canterbury Tales has put Common Core foes into the embarrassing position of playing to the anti-intellectual disdain for nonfiction among many reading instructors (who haven’t figured out that the cannon of great books includes such famed texts as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty) and the incompetence of school leaders (who are too lazy to pay attention to what is required under the standards). And when Common Core foes are confronted with the fact that all of our kids — especially the poorest of them — are getting low-quality curricula that hardly prepares them for success in school or in life, it becomes difficult for them to mount any compelling argument against the standards.

Certainly Common Core is no cure-all for what ails American public education. In an ideal world for those of us who want to fully abandon the traditional district model, common curricula standards wouldn’t even be necessary. But then, there are no silver bullets in the first place, and we don’t live in ideal.  This isn’t even to say that there aren’t legitimate qualms about Common Core or that reformers shouldn’t argue with reformers about strategies and policies; conflict is an essential element of the school reform movement’s intellectual vibrancy, something that traditionalists lack.

What is clear is that the standards do is provide a key step in providing comprehensive college-preparatory standards all children — especially our poorest kids — need and deserve. As with proficiency targets, 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. Through Common Core, we are basically making plain what is we know is so: That all kids, regardless of background, can master college-preparatory curricula, and should get high-quality teaching, nurturing school cultures, and strong school leaders. It would be nice if most Common Core foes would concede that point instead of engaging thoughtless conspiracy-theorizing that embarrasses them.

Meanwhile the movement conservatives and conservative reformers who engage in bashing Gates Foundation (and other reformers) for playing a proper role in the education space fail to remember the fact that it isn’t the only player — and may not even be the most-powerful. Let’s not forget the traditionalists, who also bask in financial resources, and may actually command even more dollars because of their influence over the districts, university schools of education, and array of other organizations through which most of the $591 billion in taxpayer dollars devoted to education flow. The NEA and AFT, for example, command $713 million in 2011-2012 in forced dues payments made by teachers regardless of their desire for membership; add in their affiliates, and the unions are billion-dollar enterprises with the bureaucracies to match. The unions  have long-influenced those dollars thanks to state laws and collective bargaining agreements that structure how dollars (in the form of teachers and their compensation packages) are directed to classrooms, and, until recently, successful lobbying and campaign finance activities at the state and district levels. 

This influence matters. After all all, the NEA, the AFT and its allies  perpetuate practices and ideologies — including the Poverty Myth in Education — that have essentially allowed far too many educators to write off poor and minority children as being unworthy of a good education. They have consistently opposed any form of real school choice that allows children, no matter their station in life or their condition of birth, to escape dropout factories and failure mills. They have defended a system in which a child’s zip code determines the quality of their education — and can wreck their futures (and even land parents unwilling to accept this in the criminal justice system). They have supported seniority-based teacher compensation systems that have kept high-quality teachers from getting the rewards they deserve, as well as supported ed schools whose abysmal recruiting and training has done damage to children in classrooms. Meanwhile their unwillingness to address issues such as the crisis of low educational achievement among young males of all races pretty much shows where they truly stand on helping all kids succeed, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. It isn’t difficult to understand why Dr. Steve Perry took time earlier today to compare AFT President Randi Weingarten to the infamous segregationist Bull Connor.

The reality of traditionalist influence is one reason why the presence of the Gates Foundation, along with other voices (including those from outside traditional education circles) is critical to advancing systemic reform. Yet this effort is derided by traditionalists who want to keep the very status quo that Gates Foundation, movement conservatives, and conservative reformers all agree need to be tossed into the ashbin of history. By engaging in conspiracy-theorizing, Common Core opponents end up supporting the very traditionalists who oppose their own solutions for transforming American public education. Solutions that the Gates Foundation also supports.

It would be nice for movement conservatives and conservative reformers spouting Common Core conspiracy theories to take pause and give some thought to what they are actually opposing. Thinking things over is what smart conservatives actually do before standing athwart anything yelling ”stop”.

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When Obama’s No Child Waiver Gambit — and Common Core Foes — Perpetuate the Poverty Myth

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This morning, the legendary Howard Fuller, whose strident and steadfast effort for systemic reform, declared how encouraged he was by “the potential of our kids” and  yet “discouraged by our…


This morning, the legendary Howard Fuller, whose strident and steadfast effort for systemic reform, declared how encouraged he was by “the potential of our kids” and  yet “discouraged by our lack of political will to do whatever it takes for them.” This is clear when it comes to how so many traditionalists (and even, sadly, some reformers) still cling on to — and encourage — the Poverty Myth of Education that condemns so many of our children to educational, economic, and social despair. And it is especially clear when one considers how those who are otherwise strong in supporting systemic reform — especially the Obama administration in its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and the accountability provisions that have spurred so many successful reform efforts so far, and those opposing the effort to enact Common Core reading and math standards, and — are incidentally aiding and abetting such mythmaking.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngAs this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast made clear, far too many people cling to the belief — augmented by questionable theorizing and deficit thinking from the likes of Ruby Payne, Betty Hart, Todd Risley, and Annette Lareau — that poverty is destiny, that kids from poor households come from debilitating home conditions and thus, are unable to succeed educationally, and that poor families are trapped in a “culture of poverty” (and thus unable to actually understand the importance of high-quality education). The evidence, especially success of schools serving mostly-poor kids such as those run by charter school operators such as KIPP along with those such as nine operations in Ohio profiled in a report released earlier this month by Public Agenda, prove lie to such thinking. But poverty myth-makers stubbornly cling to those views as if their Godly inspired.

But why would they give it up. Forget for a moment that the Poverty Myth succors their defense of failed, amoral policies that are an underlying cause of the nation’s education crisis. It is hard to beat back the long-held beliefs of these traditionalist hen otherwise-sensible reformers engage in efforts that end up playing into such thinking.

This is clear when one looks at the year-long effort by the President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to allow 34 states and the District of Columbia to evade No Child and its Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, which require states to measure how well districts and schools are doing in improving the achievement of poor (as well as minority) children, and hold them accountable for failing to do the work. Dropout Nation has sharply criticized the effort since Duncan launched it, for numerous reasons, one of them being that it allows states to define proficiency down by allowing them to set supposedly “ambitious” and yet “achievable” goals for improving student achievement for poor children that are anything but. Dropout Nation readers have learned this summer, states such as Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida are allowing districts to do little for the black, Latino, Asian, and Native children in their care by setting abysmally low achievement targets through a policy called Cut the Gap in Half. The moves by Virginia and Florida, in particular, have already stoked the ire of civil rights activists and more-sensible reformers on the ground; in the case of the Old Dominion, the outcry even forced the Obama Administration to require the state to set higher expectations.

The proficiency targets states are setting for poor children with the Obama administration’s blessing, have gotten less attention. And yet, they are equally unsettling. In Delaware, for example, districts are only required to ensure that 76 percent of poor students attending their schools are proficient in reading by 206-2017, six points lower than what is expected for students overall, nearly nine points lower than the levels expected for white students, and 15 points lower than for Asian students. Washington State districts are only expected to ensures that just 75 percent of poor middle-schoolers are proficient in reading by 2016-2017, several points lower than expected for students overall, and as much as 10 points lower than the proficiency levels expected for White and Asian peers.

Tennessee, whose low proficiency targets for black and Latino students are especially shameful given the otherwise admirable reform efforts being undertaken by Gov. Bill Haslam and his education czar, Kevin Huffman, has set even lower proficiency targets for poor and minority kids. The Volunteer State only expect district to make sure that 56 percent of their poorest children in grades three through eight are proficient in math by 2016-2017; this is lower than the abysmal 57 percent proficiency level expected for kids condemned to special ed ghettos. It is also seven points lower for Volunteer State students overall in those grades, 11 points lower than the proficiency levels for white students, and 22 points lower than for Asian students.

The administration, along with otherwise-sensible reformers such as Anne Hyslop of New America Foundation, and the Education Trust (which had to go into crisis management mode after its role in developing the Cut the Gap in Half approach was revealed in October, when Florida came under fire for setting the low proficiency levels) have defended this approach. They have argued that the only reason why more-sensible colleagues and civil rights activists oppose it is because “it feels wrong” or the “optics” (or appearance) is bad. What they fail to understand that setting low expectations for the poorest children (along with those from minority backgrounds) doesn’t just feel wrong or look bad. It is wrong and it is worse. Although states which have been granted waivers are required to adopt “college and career-ready” curricula standards in reading and math, it is a meaningless condition because federal law prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from laying out exactly what these standards should be (lest it be accused of crafting a national curricula). There is also the fact that cut scores on the underlying tests used to measure proficiency are already below the high bar set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the leading tests of international student progress, in part because traditionalists (with help from middle-class suburban households unaware of the consequences of low expectations for their own kids) don’t believe they should be held responsible for the achievement of students under their watch, especially those from the poorest backgrounds. As a result, the proficiency targets are effectively lower than they should be.

All this, in turn, hits upon an important reality: Levels of proficiency set by states are more than just a series of targets. 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 states set the bar low, especially for our poorest children, the adults who run traditional districts and those who teach in their classrooms won’t even bother to go above and beyond. In fact, they won’t even go beyond the low bar. One can easily surmise from these low proficiency levels that state leaders don’t expect teachers and school leaders to do very much for poor children — and don’t likely expect much from those kids themselves. In allowing states to set such low levels, Obama and Duncan (along with the bureaucrats charged with making decisions on their behalf) don’t expect much from poor children either.

This plays into the arguments of poverty myth-makers who can then argue with justification that these reformers can’t possibly argue for systemically overhauling American public education when they themselves don’t think that high-quality teaching and curricula can help poor children succeed. You can’t support defining proficiency down — and setting lower expectations for schools and districts to do well by all of our children — without appearing to betray your convictions. And allowing states to define proficiency down for our poorest kids epitomizes such unwillingness to match principles to action.


But such betrayal of convictions isn’t just a problem for the Obama administration and supporters of its No Child waiver gambit. Opponents of Common Core standards enacted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, a group that includes such otherwise-admirable reformers as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas, and Williamson Evers of the Hoover Institution, face the same problem too.

Over the past couple of months, Common Core foes have stepped up their efforts to thwart implementation of the standards by engaging in the kind of misinformation campaign that one would only expect of the most-rabid traditionalists. The latest example came last week courtesy of the Washington Post, which detailed concerns among English teachers that they would have to focus almost-exclusively on nonfiction texts (as well as on the kind of fact-based writing which most adults partake as part of their daily lives) than on works of fiction such as The Great Gatsby (and expository writing that, save for the few who manage to ever get published, is limited to personal diaries). From the perspective of Common Core foes, these concerns prove their longstanding contentions that Common Core will weaken the quality of learning in classrooms. Which in turn, proves their other argument: That Common Core is hardly better (and in many cases, inferior) than state standards currently in place.

The fact that Common Core actually emphasizes both the reading of fiction and nonfiction (and pushes for teachers to improve the quality of book choices they make) belies the contention that the standards weaken quality of learning. In fact, as it turns out, the concerns over the amount of fiction and nonfiction books being offered lie mostly with the disdain for nonfiction among many reading instructors (who haven’t figured out that the cannon of great books includes such nonfiction texts as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast), and the incompetence of school leaders (who are too lazy to pay attention to what is required under the standards and thus offer teachers shoddy directions on what to teach). The standards themselves allow for wide enough and yet reasonable interpretation for anyone to know that the “informational texts” called for by Common Core actually includes books such as On Liberty as well as editorials and op-eds, each of which offer arguments that children should learn to dissect. Considering the role of nonfiction books in shaping how we think and what we believe, especially in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society, there is more need than ever for our poorest kids (and all kids) to read nonfiction. Given that far too many teachers lack the skills needed to provide high-quality reading instruction — and that the nation’s ed schools are failing mightily in training aspiring teachers before they leave the classroom (including National Council on Teacher Quality’s conclusion that only 11 of 71 ed schools  it surveyed in 2006 adequately trained future teachers in reading) — also proves lie to the arguments of Common Core opponents.

Meanwhile Common Core opponents are stuck with another inconvenient fact: That all of our kids — especially the poorest of them — are getting low-quality curricula that hardly prepares them for success in school or in life. As the American Institutes for Research reported two years ago in its study on state standards, only two states had math standards that were equal to those of the seven best-performing countries in that subject. The consequences of these low standards are borne hardest of all by our poorest children. Forty-eight percent of low-income 4th-graders, and 37 percent of poor eighth-graders read Below Basic proficiency on the 2011 NAEP. Add in the fact that poor children and their families are also the ones that struggle the most with Zip Code Education policies (including restrictions on school choice), and are often denied opportunities to access comprehensive college-preparatory curricula that is available through Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, the consequences of low-quality standards hit them even harder than the rest of our children.

Certainly Common Core isn’t nearly the cure-all that many of those who support it declare it to be. At the same time, the standards are a key step in overhauling American public education by finally pushing for comprehensive college-preparatory standards all children — especially our poorest kids — need and deserve. As with proficiency targets, 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. Through Common Core, we are basically making plain what is we know is so: That all kids, regardless of background, can master college-preparatory curricula, and should get high-quality teaching, nurturing school cultures, and strong school leaders.

By opposing Common Core, opponents such as Greene, Evers, and Stergios find themselves giving comfort to the thinking of the very Poverty Myth thinking (along with other traditionalist policies and practices) that they also decry. After all, among those who oppose the standards are folks such as Marion Brady, who argues that implementing the standards is a waste of time because of his belief that high-quality education cannot overcome the effects of poverty (which are often as much a consequence of American public education’s failures as of the rest of society). As Foundation for Excellence in Education research czar Matthew Ladner noted earlier this week in his own piece on Common Core, reformers should not “labor in the defense of the indefensible status quo”. And giving succor to poverty mythmaking is absolutely unacceptable.

The school reform movement can no longer give aid and comfort to the Poverty Myth. Abandoning the No Child waiver gambit and ending opposition to Common Core standards would do plenty to force traditionalists to end their amoral and impoverished views of our poorest children.

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The Moral Importance of Common Core Standards

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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…

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

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.

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