Pence’s Common Core Miscalculation

by Stanley Kurtz

Indiana governor Mike Pence has made a serious miscalculation on what could easily become the sleeper issue of the 2016 presidential campaign, Common Core. After dramatically withdrawing Indiana from participation in Common Core, Pence was poised to become a hero to the grassroots movement resisting this egregious bid for federal control of America’s traditionally independent and locally run education system. Instead, Pence has created the illusion of quality and independence, while installing second-rate standards that are little more than Common Core rebranded.

For some on the left, Common Core is a (misguided) bid to secure “social justice” by dumbing down the most challenging state education standards — along with the SAT. For others on both sides of the aisle, Common Core is an opportunity to pitch texts and technology to a newly nationalized education market. Unfortunately, when it comes to the constitutional principle that education should remain in the purview of America’s states and localities, Common Core is an outright disaster.

Pence may have calculated that formally withdrawing Indiana from Common Core, while effectively reinstituting it under another name, would win him admirers from both sides of the debate. Yet this baby cannot be split. Pence’s rebranding effectively keeps Indiana’s education system within the Common Core. The growing national movement of opposition to this federal power-grab will not be fooled.

On Tuesday, I expressed disappointment at Pence’s decision to merely rebrand Indiana’s Common Core, suggesting that he ought to have reinstituted Indiana’s high quality pre-Common Core standards instead. Pence’s senior policy director Ryan Streeter replied here at the Corner, denying that Indiana’s new standards are Common Core clones, and claiming that the new guidelines are actually better than Indiana’s pre–Common Core system. Streeter is mistaken.

To test his claims, I consulted two experts on math and Common Core, Dr. R. James Milgram and Ze’ev Wurman. Milgram, a world-renowned mathematician and Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Stanford University, is arguably the most authoritative expert on the subject, having been selected to serve on the national validation committee for Common Core’s math standards, as well as having been contracted by Indiana to review and give guidance on that state’s new math standards. Milgram is also an Indiana native. Wurman, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution, was a U.S. Department of Education official under President George W. Bush, and a member of the commission that evaluated California’s Common Core standards.

In a joint statement issued after they read Streeter’s post, Milgram and Wurman flatly contradicted his claim that the new Indiana standards include more advanced coursework than Indiana’s highly regarded pre–Common Core standards: “Both the old [pre-Common Core] and the new Indiana standards include content for identical sets of courses.” So both the pre- and post-Common Core Indiana standards demand more math than the Common Core, but with a crucial difference. According to Milgram and Wurman, the new standards are “rife with mathematical errors” and in quality are “far below the old [pre-Common Core] standards, even as the course names remain almost the same.” Milgram and Wurman emphasized that “both proponents and opponents of Common Core found the new Indiana standards jumbled and mediocre.”

Streeter denies that the new curriculum amounts to a rebranded Common Core, but Milgram and Wurman contradict him on this point as well: “The new Indiana standards definitely are Common Core rebranded in K-8 grades,” they say. “Algebra I and Algebra II are mostly Common Core rebranded, with some additions slapped on top of them though to be fair, the Geometry standards are largely copied from the old Indiana standards and are reasonable. Beyond that (Discrete Math and up to Calculus) they are a weak and confused hash of the old (2006) Indiana content.”

What about the claim cited by Streeter that the advanced math courses required under the new Indiana standards will prepare students for “highly rewarding STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] related careers”? In an “Open Letter to Hoosiers,” Milgram savages that selling-point.

After questioning the competence of the committee that designed the new Indiana math standards, and dismissing parts of those standards as “incomprehensible” and “truly terrible,” Milgram’s “Open Letter” arrives at what he calls his “major objection.” Milgram’s main complaint about the new Indiana math standards is that they only seem to prepare students for high quality jobs and STEM-based college majors, when in fact they do not.

The problem, says Milgram, is that STEM-prep sections of the new standards are full of errors, aren’t coherent, and don’t actually cover the advertised content. Says Milgram, “The standards for these courses are completely disorganized, and, mathematically speaking, can only be described as bizarre.” According to Milgram, one of the most highly qualified experts on Common Core math standards in the country, the very sections of the new Indiana standards that Streeter touts most enthusiastically “provide the rest of the country with a dramatic example of what not to do.”

It gets worse. The high-controversy “fuzzy math” that sparked the Indiana-based national revolt against Common Core in the first place remains in the “new” Indiana state standards. The two spunky and sharp-as-a-tack Indiana moms who led the rebellion were profiled here at NRO last year. They have every reason to want to declare victory at the changes ushered in by Governor Pence. Yet they are dismayed and saddened instead by Indiana’s rebranding charade.

I understand that Republican governors and potential presidential candidates are caught between a base that abhors the Common Core and a GOP establishment (including potential donors) that sometimes supports it. As we gear up for the 2016 campaign, however, a rebranding strategy simply isn’t going to work. I don’t agree with Jeb Bush on Common Core, but at least he’s open and honest about his position.

For the movement dedicated to stopping the Common Core to accept what Governor Pence has done to education standards in his state would be to effectively commit suicide. That is not going to happen. It’s one thing to run for the Republican nomination as a supporter of Common Core. It’s quite another to launch a prospective presidential campaign as a critic of Common Core, when the truth is exactly the opposite. Governor Pence has miscalculated. And so will any other governor or potential Republican presidential candidate who thinks they can square a circle with a deceptive rebranding strategy.