"Republican strategist" Rich Galen takes to the pages of Politico to make perhaps the weakest argument for Common Core education standards yet put into words. Targeting his fellow conservatives, he warns them against shoehorning students into vocational tracks when the future is so bright for kids with the "college-prep set of skills" offered by Common Core that they gotta wear tinted contact lenses. But while there may be vocational track advocates among Common Core critics, that's hardly the heart of the opposition. And whether or not Common Core actually provides kids with improved education is at the…well…core of the debate over the standards.
Under the headline, "Why the Right Should Love the Common Core," Galen scribbles:
Common Core is the shorthand for a requirement that, beginning as early as possible in elementary school and continuing throughout high school, students be exposed to, and become comfortable with, a college-prep set of skills. These skills—especially in mathematics and English—will provide a foundation for students to go in any career direction.
This is so transparently a good thing that it's hard to figure out why anyone would be opposed. That's especially true for conservatives, who have long believed our education system is underperforming; that student progress needs to be measured; and that teachers and school superintendents should be accountable for better outcomes in the classroom.
Conservatives are instinctively pro-standard. And yet the latest round of opposition to Common Core comes primarily from the right. What gives?…
Not every high-school student needs to go to a traditional four-year college. But, those who claim we are wasting the time of students who are likely to get on a vocational instead of an academic track are settling for low expectations at a time when we should be setting high expectations.
This isn't just a leap of logic—it's the triple lindy of intellectual gymnastics.
First of all, Common Core is a set of education standards intended to "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them," according to the official mission statement. The criticisms of Common Core (because there are several) aren't over whether it's a good idea to give kids a decent education; they're over Common Core's ability to meet that goal as a uniform standard imposed across the country on kids of varying skills, interests, and developmental levels.
Some critics advocate the idea that some education approaches are right for certain kids, but not for others. They support the goal of well-educated kids, but don't believe that cookie-cutter standards are the right approach. At Montessori Madman, Aidan McAuley asks:
The first question I have is whether a government should create or even suggest what types of content curriculum should include. When a government determines curriculum it is inherently placing more value on some types of content and less on other types. There are two problems with this: 1) It assumes government somehow knows which content will provide the most return to its economic engine in the future (this is impossible to know) and 2) it creates an impersonal culture of education derived from logistics and efficiencies built on the false premise that all children learn in the same way and should know the same things by a certain age. A child is not a product to be manufactured by a government and should not be commoditized as such.
Other critics look at the high, but also rigid, standards set by Common Core, and worry that it treats children as if they're an army of clones, all ready to learn the same lessons at the same rate. My wife, a pediatrician, looked at the math standards our third grader is expected to meet, and remarked, "I'm not sure third-graders are developmentally ready for this. Their brains may not be able to handle it yet."
That's been a common concern. A Washington Post article on just this issue quoted Stephanie Feeney, professor emerita of education at the University of Hawaii, noting, "The people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education."
Admittedly, the critics quoted above aren't necessarily conservative, but the Pioneer Institute is. That organization's concerns, outlined in A Republic of Republics: How Common Core Undermines State and Local Autonomy over K-12 Education, prefaced by U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), focus on the loss of local control and narrowed diversity of educational approaches inherent in the standards:
the CommonCore State Standards will extensively define what students should know and be able to do in each grade. They are not a curriculum—local curricula will still be defined at the school and district levels—but they do dictate the first component any curriculum content. The standards also drive how local curricula are sequenced and, by virtue of these first two things, will constrain some of the materials teachers use.
These aren't the only critiques of Common Core, but they're much more typical than complaints that the standards won't let schools convert students into a generation of Brave New World-style Epsilons—grunt workers victimized by low expectations.
It's nice that Common Core supporters are now engaging with their critics rather than dismissing them, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did with his snark about "white suburban moms." Soon, they may start engaging with real opponents rather than ones from their imagination.