It seems we cannot have a reasoned debate about the Common Core.
This is partially a problem of some Core opponents saying wild things—no, the Core isn’t from the United Nations. But even more, many Core supporters appear unwilling to deal with numerous, substantive concerns.
The fact is there are numerous, powerful reasons why we should oppose centralized standards, and we need to address them openly and honestly.
The first is that all children are different. They learn different things at different rates, have different interests and possess different talents.
Yet the Common Core, by its nature, must treat every child as essentially the same. Indeed, it is the only way the Core could meet the oft-expressed goal of ensuring children who move from one state to another can seamlessly pick up where they left off.
That also, by the way, means the Core must heavily influence curriculum, which it does by setting a box around what curricula can include, and sometimes specifying not just what children should be able to do, but how.
Next, there is the negative impact that imposing one set of standards would have on innovation. No person, or even group of really smart people, is omniscient, so even if there could be one, best standard for all children, no one knows for sure what it is.
In light of that, we need a system in which different standards can compete. That is how we would learn what doesn’t work, what does and what might work even better.
But by creating a national market, won’t the Core spur innovation? Not education-wide. Forcing all Americans to ride bicycles might spark innovation in cycling, but it would destroy innovation in transportation. The same is true for Common Core and education.
Finally, the idea that government will maintain rigorous standards, stringent tests and meaningful ramifications for performance—what some national standards advocates call a necessary “tripod”—is quixotic. It has been tried repeatedly, yet the combination of tough government standards, testing and “accountability” has almost never existed in this country.
This is because teachers and administrators who would be judged by the tripod naturally tend to hate it, and as the most easily organized, highly motivated groups in education, they have disproportionate political power.
Which brings us to arguably the most crucial fact in the Core debate, but one repeatedly downplayed or ignored by Core supporters: State adoption of the Core was heavily pushed by the federal government. It was intended to be so by the Core’s creators and it will have to be federally driven in the future.
Groups that support the Core argue that it is essential because states have shown that on their own they will not establish high standards coupled with tough tests and sanctions. But if states won’t do these things voluntarily, what entity has the power to make them? Only the federal government.
The Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association almost certainly had this in mind when—in formally proposing common, internationally benchmarked standards—they called on the federal government to encourage adoption through funding and regulatory relief. They later reiterated that call on the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s website.
Those pressures were precisely what the Obama administration provided, first through the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program—which required states to sign on to the Core to maximize their chances of winning—and then through No Child Left Behind waivers, which required either adoption of the Core or a public college system to certify a state’s standards as “college- and career-ready.” Washington also selected and funded consortia to create tests to go with the Core, and appointed a review committee to vet their work.
There are numerous reasons rational people should be concerned about the Common Core. Sadly, its supporters seem not to want to deal with them or to even acknowledge basic Core facts.
Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards.
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