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.
Some conservatives call it "Obamacore." It's unfair to compare Common Core to the disastrous government takeover of health care, but it's true that many states adopted Common Core standards because they were tied to more than $4 billion in "Race-to-the-Top" grant money. (We're pretty good at catchy slogans.) Common Core doesn't promote "godlessness," as some Christian critics charge, but it does narrow the perspective as literary and historical texts are shorn from the larger context.
The sharp criticism and re-examination of Common Core reveals dangerous fault lines. There's an overreaching by the political and philanthropic power in an alignment of the Obama administration with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There's the risk of liberal-bias creep.
Common Core "sowed suspicion and distrust" when those who were pushing it ran roughshod over public questions and concerns, says Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration. The process of adoption lacked transparency, field testing and a way to appeal its decisions. Teachers were mostly absent from the development of standards, and the public was a bystander.
"Education without representation," as bloggers put it.
The Common Core was instituted in many states without a single vote taken by an elected lawmaker, observes Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post. "Kentucky even adopted the standards before the final draft had been made public." But Kentucky officials knew that eight of every 10 students in their community colleges were taking remedial courses, a clear indictment of their public school system. Kentucky was not alone with failing educational systems.
There were exceptions. Massachusetts reformed its schools without Common Core, writing high standards with rigor and discipline, teacher testing and high scores on student tests. Scores rose to the best in the nation, competitive in math and science with Japan, South Korea and Singapore, which led on the international index. Massachusetts then, not so inexplicably, bought into Common Core. There was all that federal money that came with Common Core.
Conservative politicians are reading their future in criticism of Common Core. Although a long shot for the Republican nomination for the presidency, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana sees an opening with such criticism, joining popular Tea Party favorites Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, are so far sticking with it.
As states peel away, a new debate can be joined, and Common Core will get the close examination it was denied earlier. But time is running out for the next generation of graduates. Something has to make their diplomas worth something.