The Magazine

The Common Core Commotion

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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It has been five years now since America got the news, or was supposed to: Henceforth our children would enjoy a revolutionary new approach to learning in the public schools, in the form of national educational standards. They’re called the Common Core State Standards, or Common Core for short—or if you’re in a particular hurry, CCSS. Why national standards should bear the official title “State Standards” is one of the many peculiarities that make Common Core interesting to think about. Anyway, as we enter the sixth year of this revolutionary phase in our country’s history, it’s not clear how many Americans know they are about to reap its benefits. Only 39 percent of us have heard of Common Core, according to a poll this spring, and those who have heard of it aren’t crazy about it. In fact, the more knowledgeable people are, the less likely they are to think the whole thing is a good idea.

AP/IndyStar/KellyWilkinson

AP/IndyStar/KellyWilkinson

Too late! Forty-five states agreed to accept the Common Core standards immediately after they were introduced—in one case, even before they were introduced. A few states have since reneged, in response to protests from a small but passionate group of conservative parents ranged across the heartland, as well as some local unions and a handful of left-leaning educationists. But for a large majority of schools Common Core is here to stay, a done deal already—the newest of the new regimes, latest in a long line of revolutionary approaches designed to improve our public schools.

The indifference most Americans are showing to Common Core is likely a symptom of reform fatigue. Reform of an “unacceptable status quo” in public education has been going on so long that many of us can’t recall what the pre-reform status quo was, or why it was unacceptable. 

Common Core was announced only eight years after President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy introduced another revolutionary approach to learning in public schools, an expensive and ambitious program called No Child Left Behind. NCLB, as it’s referred to in the acronym-crazed world of education reform, forced states to raise their academic standards, which were considered too low, and to improve scores on standardized tests, which ditto. 

NCLB itself came eight years after President Clinton thought up Goals 2000, a nationwide school reform program to enact “standards-based reforms” and thereby improve test scores. Goals 2000 was a reworking of a school reform plan called America 2000 that President George H.W. Bush launched in 1990 as a way of raising standards and getting better test scores out of America’s public schools. He wanted to be called “the education president,” President Bush did, and his approach, he said, was revolutionary. 

And in 1983, only seven years before the ambitious launch of President Bush’s America 2000, the nation received an alarming report commissioned by President Reagan, who was troubled that test scores, along with standards, were too low among public school students. The report was called “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” It concluded that higher standards were necessary to raise test scores. “A Nation at Risk” was written by a blue-ribbon commission in an attempt to end-run the Department of Education, which had been started in 1979. The department was Jimmy Carter’s idea. He worried that lax standards were destroying American public education. A federal department, he reasoned, might be able to oversee a revolutionary new approach that would set things right. 

For nearly 40 years, it’s pretty much been all reform, all the time for the nation’s public school students, teachers, and parents. Many of the children whose schools were supposed to be revolutionized by America 2000 in 1990 now have the chance to see their own children’s education revolutionized by Common Core. Nothing can stop the impulse to reform our nation’s public schools. For professional policymakers, it is the itch they just can’t scratch. 

There are at least three reasons for this. First, whenever a new education reform program is introduced, a nice effusion of private and public money follows, and while the reformers always insist that the sum is scandalously inadequate, it is always just large enough to keep the appetite whetted for reform.

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