America was swamped a generation ago by "the rising tide of mediocrity," in the apt phrase of Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education. We're still trying to keep our heads above water. A high-school diploma still doesn't mean what it should mean.
Following the Reagan push for reform, for one brief moment we thought the Common Core curriculum was the answer, that it might impose the tough standards to cure what ails American education and make the nation competitive against the nations whose youngsters were leading the way, as verified in the abundance of international tests.
Common Core soon had momentum. Most of the states adopted it, and it won strong support from academics and reformers ranging from Michelle Rhee, who was briefly superintendent of the woeful public schools in Washington, to the teachers unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That bed of strange bedfellows was suddenly crowded, indeed.
But now, not so much. Over the past year, Common Core has been caught in the crossfire of politics, its flaws overlooked in the public eagerness to do something. Oklahoma and Indiana have dumped it; and in South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley has signed legislation to write new standards for her state. More than a hundred bills are pending in the legislatures of 26 states to rewrite the Common Core standards.
The turnaround has been initiated by a coalition of critics on both the left and the right who argue that standards imposed by Washington, written from a narrow perspective, force teachers once again to "teach to the test," to get high test results -- whether or not the kids are actually learning what they should. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested over $200 million in Common Core standards, worries that there hasn't been enough time to prepare for the test and wants a two-year moratorium against making any "high-stakes" teacher and student evaluations.
Its defenders, and it has some, insist the standards give sufficient flexibility to the states and to teachers, who can shape the curriculum with the exercise of a little creativity. It's clear to me, though, that the stipulated emphasis on "soft skills," the inevitable cross-cultural relativism and general mushiness teaches the kids sloppy conceptual thinking.