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Topic: Common Core

A Response on the Common Core

On Thursday, I wrote about the problematic rollout of the Common Core and its parallels to the process by which ObamaCare ran into similar trouble, noting the difficulty of significant reform at the national level. I received the following response from Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

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On Thursday, I wrote about the problematic rollout of the Common Core and its parallels to the process by which ObamaCare ran into similar trouble, noting the difficulty of significant reform at the national level. I received the following response from Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

ObamaCare is a federal program through and through. Created by an act of Congress, it puts federal bureaucrats in charge of one-sixth of the economy, overrules state regulatory bodies (regarding insurance and much else), involves a massive redistribution of public and private dollars, and excludes any sort of “opt out” provision for states. (Thanks to the Supreme Court, states can refuse the Medicaid expansion, but they are stuck with everything else.)

The contrast with the Common Core could not be starker. This was an initiative launched by the governors and state school leaders well before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency, much less seated in the White House. It had momentum prior to the 2008 election as state policymakers came to understand that their own academic standards for public schooling were far too low—and sadly uneven—and that a joint effort to create common standards might provide the political cover to aim higher. Smartly, the federal government was kept out of the standards-drafting process, which was funded by the states and by private entities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But then, yes, the Obama administration fatefully decided to award extra points to states adopting the Common Core when deciding which would get big grants under its stimulus-funded Race to the Top program. So 45 states plus D.C. quickly did so—surely more than otherwise would. And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put $300 million into the development of common assessments to go along with the standards.

But that’s it. That’s the extent of federal involvement. I understand that, for many conservatives, these incentives and investments tainted the entire Common Core project. But they don’t come close to turning Common Core into “Fed Ed,” as pundits like Michelle Malkin like to say.

Let me be clear: I do not defend the administration’s actions on Common Core, the rest of its education agenda, or anything else. The charge of Obama’s being an “imperial presidency” has legs, in my view. Arne Duncan’s aggressive use of “conditional waivers” from the NCLB mandates is both unconstitutional and unwise, and his ham-handed push for test-based teacher evaluations and school discipline quotas is apt to cause serious harm to America’s schools. (That the Tea Party isn’t up in arms about the latter is completely baffling to me.)

But get beyond the surface debates and any fair-minded observer can plainly see that the Common Core doesn’t fit into this narrative. It started in the states. Many Republican governors still support it. Many prominent conservatives do, too. The federal government played a role, but a limited one.

My own theory is that many conservatives, including those at the state level, are rightly frustrated at ObamaCare, and doubly frustrated that they can’t pull their states out of it. But they can pull out of Common Core—precisely because it’s not a federal mandate!—and might do so to blow off some steam at the president.

But if you believe that these rigorous new academic standards for English and math are importantly stronger than what states had before, and are likely to improve teaching and learning in U.S. schools, then pulling out of the Common Core to spite the president starts to look like a pretty silly idea. It’s certainly not a conservative idea—and it’s definitely not good for kids. Conservatives should find another target.

Michael J. Petrilli

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ObamaCore? Education Reform Hits a Snag

Wherever you stand on the Common Core, an attempt to provide a set of nationwide education standards, it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.

As the Heartland Institute noted in 2011, “The Obama administration made adoption of the Common Core a criterion for winning part of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, and states receiving Title I appropriations in the future may be required to adopt the standards,” after which “Forty-two states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in 2009 and 2010 in hopes of winning Race to the Top money.” This led to the first major complaint about the Common Core: conservatives worried the federal government was taking control of state-by-state education policy.

Liberals responded exactly as they did during the ObamaCare debate. Writing for the New York Times, for example, Bill Keller resorted to name-calling and equated conservative concerns about the Common Core standards to birtherism. Keller’s complete and utter disregard for even elementary intellectual engagement with conservatives was indicative of a defensive posture: it seemed the self-conscious ranting of an advocate of a weak policy for which he didn’t have a serious defense.

It portended darker days ahead for the Common Core. After all, there were real concerns about the Common Core from an educational perspective. They wouldn’t go away just because the left wanted them to. And then, true to form, the complaints piled up. The administration responded in typical fashion: Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed white resentment. Obnoxious racial politics and bureaucratic conceit aside, Democrats were also turning on the Common Core.

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Wherever you stand on the Common Core, an attempt to provide a set of nationwide education standards, it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.

As the Heartland Institute noted in 2011, “The Obama administration made adoption of the Common Core a criterion for winning part of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, and states receiving Title I appropriations in the future may be required to adopt the standards,” after which “Forty-two states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in 2009 and 2010 in hopes of winning Race to the Top money.” This led to the first major complaint about the Common Core: conservatives worried the federal government was taking control of state-by-state education policy.

Liberals responded exactly as they did during the ObamaCare debate. Writing for the New York Times, for example, Bill Keller resorted to name-calling and equated conservative concerns about the Common Core standards to birtherism. Keller’s complete and utter disregard for even elementary intellectual engagement with conservatives was indicative of a defensive posture: it seemed the self-conscious ranting of an advocate of a weak policy for which he didn’t have a serious defense.

It portended darker days ahead for the Common Core. After all, there were real concerns about the Common Core from an educational perspective. They wouldn’t go away just because the left wanted them to. And then, true to form, the complaints piled up. The administration responded in typical fashion: Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed white resentment. Obnoxious racial politics and bureaucratic conceit aside, Democrats were also turning on the Common Core.

And then came the warning that the rollout of the Common Core standards risked looking a lot like the botched rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges, with potentially disastrous results for American education:

The education world is scrambling to avoid its own version of a full-scale HealthCare.gov meltdown when millions of students pilot new digital Common Core tests this spring.

Technological hiccups, much less large-scale meltdowns, won’t do: The results of the Common Core tests will influence teachers’ and principals’ evaluations and other decisions about their jobs. Schools will be rated on the results. Students’ promotion to the next grade or graduation from high school may hinge on their scores. And the already-controversial Common Core standards, designed to be tested using a new generation of sophisticated exams that go beyond multiple-choice testing, may be further dragged through the mud if there are crises.

Indeed, Democrats in Republican-leaning states began criticizing the Common Core rollout as a “train wreck.” Then liberal states–and early supporters of the program–turned against it:

But the newest chorus of complaints is coming from one of the most liberal states, and one of the earliest champions of the standards: New York. And that is causing supporters of the Common Core to shudder.

Carol Burris, an acclaimed high school principal on Long Island, calls the Common Core a “disaster.”

“We see kids,” she said, “they don’t want to go to school anymore.”

If it followed the ObamaCare playbook, it was only a matter of time before the unions joined the chorus of opposition. Sure enough, Politico reports:

The nation’s largest teachers union is pulling back on its once-enthusiastic support of the Common Core academic standards, labeling their rollout “completely botched.”

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said he still believes the standards can improve education. But he said they will not succeed without a major “course correction” — including possibly rewriting some of the standards and revising the related tests with teacher input.

And to complete the cycle, the Common Core’s supporters are now taking the posture that opponents shouldn’t just be against the Common Core but must propose their own ideas: “If someone offers a better option, we will support it.”

None of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is. And the Common Core’s supporters have a point when they note that some of the arguments against it are based on misconceptions, fears, or unsubstantiated rumors.

But there is an overarching lesson here about the difficulty of national reform, the problematic hints of federal coercion, the humility that desperately needs to be applied to the way our government–or any sprawling bureaucracy–operates. Common Core may in fact have much to offer in the effort to restructure standard education curricula. But it isn’t conspiratorial thinking to be suspicious of grand, one-size-fits-all schemes in a federal republic–a lesson we apparently need to keep learning.

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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.”

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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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