The Common Core education standards have become increasingly controversial since their creation in 2009. Supporters have pointed to the need for higher, more consistent standards; much of the opposition has focused on the confusing new method of teaching math. But both of these arguments ignore the fundamental problem with Common Core: federal involvement.
By using heavy-handed incentives to compel states to adopt the standards, the federal government destroyed the notion that Common Core was a legitimately state-led effort. Washington's actions made it nearly impossible for education leaders to adjust the standards to meet the needs of states and school districts, and prevented them from testing the standards against alternatives. In short, they created a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to education policy.
This problem has now been recognized by education experts across the Common Core divide. Chris Minnich, chief executive of the Council of Chief State School Officers and a prominent Common Core supporter, acknowledged as much on Wednesday at a panel discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), when he said:
"The federal involvement in this has just been not helpful, in every scenario…I think it's pretty clear that most of us, I can't say 'all of us who support the standards,' but most of us, believe that declaring our independence [from federal involvement], making sure it is and remains to be state-led, is critical."
Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at AEI, agreed with Minnich, pointing out that that federal involvement was not only unhelpful but also unnecessary:
"If the federal government had never waded in to this, back in 2009, I think…about 15 states probably would have gone ahead and done the Common Core on their own. I think they would have figured out a way to do a common assessment…and I think what we would have seen was a truly and genuinely state-led effort, which, if it was working and if it was being implemented well, other states would have wanted in [on]."
Had Common Core remained a voluntary, ground-up initiative, it would be far less controversial. States would have the freedom to tailor its implementation according to their needs, and comparing outcomes would offer evidence on whether the new method of teaching math is actually worth the hassle.
This would have meant that Common Core was not a set of national standards, but that is not a bad thing. On the contrary, having state rather than federal standards allows for experimentation and competition. That's a feature of competitive federalism, and it's why education policy was never meant to be the federal government's responsibility.