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Education Reform and the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which seeks to set consistent educational standards nationwide (by having the states join voluntarily), has been the subject of intensifying debate. Some see it as a roundabout way to remove states’ discretion on their own educational programs. Others worry it ignores important research on child education, or that centering a program of learning on standardized tests repeats the mistakes of past such efforts. The criticism is bipartisan, and it covers even more ground than that.

There are educators who support it and educators who oppose it. And there are even some who once supported it but are having second thoughts. Meanwhile, support for Common Core is also bipartisan, including claims that the core brings accountability to teachers and schools and levels the educational playing field. The question of how to educate a vast country in a changing economy and with costs rising and competition increasing is a complex one, fraught with emotion, tradition, and the consequences of letting a new generation fall behind.

But you wouldn’t know all that from the New York Times’s Bill Keller. According to Keller, opposition to the core is based in the same fever swamps that produced birtherism and other anti-Obama conspiracy theories. That opposition is gaining steam because, he says, “today’s Republican Party lives in terror of its so-called base, the very loud, often paranoid, if-that-Kenyan-socialist-in-the-White-House-is-for-it-I’m-against-it crowd.”

There are thoughtful, interesting arguments both for and against Common Core, but such thoughtfulness is not on Keller’s agenda. What he has in spades is anger, as he rages against deep discussion and balanced consideration of educational strategies. Conservatives, he says, are stupid:

I respect, really I do, the efforts by political scientists and pundits to make sense of the current Republican Party. There is intellectual virtue in the search for historical antecedents and philosophical underpinnings.

I understand the urge to take what looks to a layman like nothing more than a mean spirit or a mess of contradictions and brand it. (The New Libertarianism! Burkean Revivalists!) But more and more, I think Gov. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Republican rising star, had it right when he said his party was in danger of becoming simply “the stupid party.”

Now, there is one scenario worth contemplating. It’s possible, I suppose, that Keller’s inability to argue the point without schoolyard insults and name-calling is meant as political satire to demonstrate the necessity of reforming the American education system. But if this is all written in earnest, then it’s no wonder the momentum has begun swinging back against Common Core.

As Keller’s anger rises, he manages to get out a reference to the Koch brothers (which, in fairness, he may just be contractually obligated to do) and then makes an unintentionally revealing accusation:

Local control of public schools, including the sacred right to keep them impoverished and ineffectual, is a fundamental tenet of the conservative canon.

It would be easy to miss the real value of that sentence, distracted by the parade of straw men and the bilious contempt Keller has for his fellow Americans who might vote for different candidates than he does and are therefore, in Keller’s mind, morally repugnant monsters. But if the public schools are already “impoverished and ineffectual,” it surely isn’t the fault of the birthers and the Koch brothers. Public-union dominance has ravaged the educational landscape (as Keller’s own paper has explained), and the government using its monopoly to turn over control of the schools to reliable Democratic Party special interests and donor networks hasn’t worked out so well for the students.

It is, in fact, an argument for breaking up the government’s monopoly on public education and makes it easier to understand why some would be skeptical that the government could be trusted to reform the system it keeps reforming unsuccessfully.

In any case, here is how the Washington Post’s education writer Valerie Strauss describes the well-intentioned sides of the argument, excluding from her analysis any discussion of a Koch-funded birther revolt:

Many Democratic critics say that while they don’t oppose the idea of national standards, the Common Core is not based on research and that parts of it ignore what is known about how students learn, especially in the area of early childhood education. They also say that despite promises to the contrary, the core-aligned standardized tests won’t be dramatically better in assessing student achievement than the older tests. Some former core supporters, such as award-winning New York Principal Carol Burris, changed their minds after learning more about the standards and the core-aligned tests. (You can read some of her critiques here and here).

Supporters of the core — which include educators who are implementing the standards — are somewhat incredulous at the opposition, saying that the old system of each state having its own set of standards proved to be untenable because student achievement was uneven across the country. (This line of thinking presumes that standards themselves are real drivers of quality.)

And there is much more to the discussion on both sides. The point here isn’t to endorse either side in the Common Core debate, but instead to recognize that there is a debate at all. Rather than caricaturing opposition to it, Keller would do well to ask why educators have changed their minds–presumably without funding from the Koch brothers–on Common Core.

More fundamentally, Keller and others on the left might ask why public schools are so desperately in need of thorough reform, and whether, beyond a curriculum centered on different standardized tests, they might be willing to entertain solutions that would really challenge both their own assumptions and proclaimed blamelessness about the problems plaguing education in America.


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