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Repairing the Conservative School Reform Coalition

5:20 PM, Jun 11, 2013 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
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But would states actually embrace them—and give up their own? This was—and remains—totally voluntary, but decisions grew more complicated when the Obama administration started pushing states toward such adoptions by jawboning, hectoring, and luring them with dollars and regulatory waivers.

Whether it was the standards’ intrinsic merit, administration pressure, or the potential advantages of commonality, 45 states plus D.C. and the Pentagon’s school network signed on. (Texas and Virginia remain the big exceptions.) The top-priority education initiative in most of those places today is preparing teachers, parents, and others for these demanding standards—and for the likelihood that scores will plummet on the tougher tests that are due to be launched in 2015.

Then came the backlash. Some arose on the left from longtime foes of testing and from teacher groups wary of being evaluated against sterner criteria. Some arose from parents and educators fretful that heavier emphasis on English and math will eclipse music, art, civics, health, and the remaining components of a balanced curriculum.

The heavy artillery, however, came from the right. Much of it focused on what was presented, Tea Party style, as a federal plot—worse, an Obama plot, in cahoots with the Gates Foundation, maybe even the United Nations—to take over American schools, end local control, undermine state sovereignty, and vanquish school choice.

Some decried the Common Core as a lowering of standards because, for example, it doesn’t mandate algebra in the eighth grade. (Never mind that few eighth graders study real algebra today.) Others prophesied that Jane Austen and Mark Twain would be replaced by close study of auto-repair manuals. (The list of recommended readings that accompanies the Common Core is excellent—but bad choices by teachers or curriculum directors can subvert any standards.)

Critics of the Common Core would, of course, like all states—especially their own—to repudiate these “national” academic standards. Writing on this website, directors at the Boston-based Pioneer Institute lamented what they said was Common Core’s obliviousness to the sources of the Bay State’s (genuine) academic progress. Several California think-tankers insist that the Golden State’s school standards are superior to the new ones. And it’s true that those states are among those that our analysts deemed “too close to call” when they reviewed the Common Core alongside state-developed standards. (Little good can be said, however, about actual achievement in California—further evidence that even solid standards gain traction only when well implemented.)

The critics’ best-founded beef, however, is with the Obama administration, not with the Common Core, which was state developed and remains state owned—and voluntary. The White House and Education Department erred when they created federal incentives for states to take the plunge—and erred again when, in this year’s State of the Union address, the president claimed credit for “convinc(ing) almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards.” By tying a blue ribbon around the Common Core, he made it more problematic in red states.

Still, the fact that Obama thinks well of it doesn’t means there’s anything (else) wrong with it. This is understood by the many respected conservatives who back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They realize that academic standards are only the beginning, setting out a destination but not how to get there. They understand, however, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of shared expectations for the three R’s.

Nor are the standards’ rigor the sole consideration—or the only reason that conservatives should favor them. The Common Core can save dollars while enhancing accountability, hastening the development of powerful instructional technologies, strengthening American competitiveness, reducing remediation in college, boosting the country’s shared civic culture, and (by supplying parents with better information about school performance) advancing school choice.

Some states will surely withdraw from the Common Core, and others will only go through the motions of implementing it. Even in jurisdictions that take it seriously, implementation is apt to be uneven from district to district, and more political rapids lie ahead, when results from new tests begin to arrive, almost certainly showing far fewer young Americans to be “college and career ready” than elected officials will be comfortable with..

Yet none of this means that conservatives should come unglued over the Common Core. Rather, they should maximize the good it can do and minimize its potential harm. Here are three useful steps:

  • Draw a bright line between the standards and the federal government. (Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is onto one approach with his proposal to ban any further federal spending related to the Common Core.)
  • Overhaul No Child Left Behind as proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander and House education committee chairman John Kline, in effect rolling back the regulatory regime that has turned results-based school accountability into Uncle Sam’s business. (The tighten-the-screws alternative advanced by Senate Democrats would entangle Washington even further with states’ standards and accountability systems—as well as much more mischief.)
  • Continue to push aggressively in dozens of states for more school choice, both public and private—and allow voucher schools (and maybe charters, too) to opt out of their states’ standards and tests (Common Core or otherwise) if they can present alternatives that are just as rigorous. (Disclosure: the co-authors of this piece are still tussling over this one!)

Actions such as these might not restore harmony to American conservatism—and education most definitely is not the only hot issue—but they’d be a worthy start. Meanwhile, it's worth examining the Common Core standards with one's own eyes. (You can find them online at http://www.corestandards.org/.) We predict that you will be impressed by their rigor, thoroughness, solidity, and ambition—even their “conservative” nature. You may just agree that the United States would be better off if more of its high school graduates possessed these skills and knowledge.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael J. Petrilli are, respectively, president and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Finn served in the Reagan Administration, Petrilli in the George W. Bush Administration. Both are also affiliated with the Hoover Institution.

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