Why There’s a Backlash against Common Core

by Lindsey M. Burke
Decisions about standards should be made at the state and local level.

The federal government has spent billions to move Common Core forward, and it has put billions more on the line. Unfortunately, parents, teachers, tea-party activists, and governors have every reason to believe Common Core represents major, unprecedented federal intervention into education.

In a speech to the National Governor’s Association in 2010, President Obama stated:

I want to commend all of you for acting collectively through the National Governors Association to develop common standards that will better position our students for success. And today, I’m announcing steps to encourage and support all states to transition to college and career-ready standards on behalf of America’s students. First, as a condition of receiving access to Title I funds, we will ask all states to put in place a plan to adopt and certify standards that are college and career-ready in reading and math.

In addition to the rhetorical support, Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously chastised South Carolinians for even considering withdrawing, calling the Palmetto State’s concerns “a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy.” 

Washington is financing the two national testing consortia that are creating the Common Core assessments. Lawmakers have tied $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to the adoption of standards similar to those found in a significant number of states, and they’ve made the adoption of Common Core a major factor in securing a No Child Left Behind waiver. And now, they have established a technical-review panel to work with the testing consortia on item design and validation.

For an undertaking that claims to be largely free of federal involvement, Common Core has quite a few federal fingerprints on it.

Concerns about nationalizing the content taught in every public school in America aren’t limited to “tea-party activists,” as Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern implied on NRO last week. Nor should the concerns of the Tea Party be dismissed. They express the understandable fear of many moms and dads and teachers that the federal government is on the brink of dictating the content taught in every school. Their concerns are echoed by a wide array of groups and citizens, including academics, members of state boards of education, residents of local school districts, and analysts at public-policy foundations.

Their sentiments mirror the concerns of the governors who have opposed Common Core national standards from the beginning. “I don’t want to have a federal bureaucracy monitoring whether or not we are having the right programs in our schools,” said Virginia governor Bob McDonnell recently. “The bottom line is, we don’t need the federal government with the Common Core telling us how to run our schools in Virginia. We’ll use our own system, which is very good. It’s empirically tested.”

Texas governor Rick Perry, never one to mince words, said, “The academic standards of Texas are not for sale.”

A bill introduced by the chair of the Senate Education Committee in Alabama to reverse the state’s Common Core adoption failed by just one vote in committee last month. Common Core opponents have vowed to keep fighting. Colorado recently held hearings taking a second look at Common Core adoption. “It’s a discussion that had never occurred but needed to occur,” said Bob Schaffer, former chairman of the state board of education.

Concerns about Common Core national standards have been voiced — repeatedly and often — by experts in mathematics and English.

“They may be higher than some state standards, but they are certainly lower than the best of them,” wrote Ze’ev Wurman of the mathematics standards. Wurman is a former member of the California State Mathematics Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee, and a former U.S. Department of Education official.

In testimony before the Texas legislature in May 2011, Stanford professor emeritus of mathematics James Milgram described the Common Core standards as “in large measure a political document that, in spite of a number of real strengths, is written at a very low level and does not adequately reflect our current understanding of why the math programs in the high achieving countries give dramatically better results.”

Milgram — who sat on the Common Core mathematics validation committee and was the only mathematics content expert — refused to sign off on the standards. Porter-Magee and Stern claimed on NRO last week that Common Core gives “essential math skills” a “high priority” and that its “math standards . . . coherently build on one another over time.” Milgram clearly disagrees.

University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky developed Massachusetts’s widely praised English Language Arts standards. “The fatal flaws in the Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) standards went unnoticed because over 45 state boards of education and/or their governors hastily adopted the standards in 2010, in some cases long before they were written or finalized,” she wrote in an issue brief for the Heritage Foundation.

Like Milgram, Stotsky was a member of the Common Core validation committee. She likewise refused to sign off on the English Language Arts standards. “By reducing literary study,” she said, “Common Core decreases students’ opportunity to develop the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group by the vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.”

The Common Core standards “simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college and career,” Porter-Magee and Stern wrote. “They are not a curriculum; it’s up to the school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.”

But when the decision was made about “delineat[ing] what children should know at each grade level,” parents were far removed from the discussion. And if Common Core national standards are implemented, parents will have take any concerns they have to the federal Department of Education.

Those who are closest to the child, not national organizations or bureaucrats in Washington, are best equipped to improve educational outcomes. Decisions about standards and assessments should be made at the state level, or better still, at the local level, where parents, teachers, and business leaders, who understand the skills students need for success at work, can provide real input.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to reverse course. Efforts in the 1990s to nationalize curricula, despite significant momentum, were ultimately rejected by governors. States and local school districts understood that Washington was overstepping its bounds to an unprecedented extent and chose instead to retain their educational sovereignty.

It’s time once again to stand up for educational freedom, and reject this latest — and perhaps greatest — overreach.

 Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.