Politics & Policy

Bennett’s Tepid Defense of the Common Core

(Kostyantin Pankin/Dreamstime)
He likes the idea but skips major questions about what comes after.

Support for the Common Core is collapsing. Just a year ago, Gallup reported that 62 percent of Americans had never heard of the Common Core. The minority who had heard of it were generally supportive. This August, Gallup reported that 60 percent of Americans now oppose the Common Core, including 76 percent among Republicans and 60 percent of independents.

In response, Common Core advocates are redoubling their efforts to find credible Republicans to embrace the Common Core. On Thursday they got former secretary of education Bill Bennett to restate his support for the Common Core in a Wall Street Journal editorial. You can just picture the Common Core’s (predominantly liberal) champions high-fiving in celebration. But they should restrain themselves, because the Bennett column illustrates why the Common Core’s “conservative problem” isn’t going away anytime soon.

Bennett’s thinking is always sharp and deserves careful attention. In this case, such attention highlights just how tepid his endorsement turns out to be. Bennett’s big “defense” of the Common Core mostly argues that conservatives should favor rigorous academic standards, mastery of mathematics, and common assessments. (He also rebuffs the wrongheaded claim that the Common Core includes a leftist reading list and argues that Obama-administration involvement isn’t cause enough to abandon the enterprise.)

But Bennett never even attempts to make the case that the Common Core standards are “good,” or to alleviate concerns about potentially problematic consequences. In this, his column is pretty typical of what passes for conservative advocacy. Conservative champions tend to argue that high standards and common tests are good and that, ipso facto, the Common Core must be good.

In fact, the virtues of the Common Core should be regarded as an open question. (For discussion, see my National Review column from last week.) The quality of the new assessments is not yet clear, and a host of state withdrawals from the two major testing consortia has made these common assessments something less than common. Most tellingly, there are a number of important efforts to change what and how schools teach that are quietly embedded in the Common Core. These changes aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re hugely significant, have little or no empirical foundation, and received no public airing before states signed on. They should be scrutinized and road-tested before they’re allowed to remake America’s schools.

The Common Core endorses a number of “instructional shifts,” though these have been little discussed and are little understood. In fact, the Common Core is very much an open canvas. Given the faddish pedagogies endemic to American education, critics are hardly unreasonable when they worry that it may well invite new-age goofiness in the classroom rather than the rigorous math Bennett hopes to see. It’s true that some advocates insist the Common Core is about arithmetic, phonics, and a content-rich curriculum, but plenty of others claim that the Common Core is really about faddish notions like “21st-century skills.”

For instance, on Bennett’s point regarding the value of rigorous math, advocates say we should disregard all those infuriating math worksheets and worrisome YouTube videos that raise red flags about Common Core math instruction. They say these are one-offs and there’s no cause for alarm. Well, maybe. But the Common Core explicitly emphasizes a notion of math instruction that I think of as “picture-driven arithmetic.” That’s why all students are being asked to draw the answers at such great length, even when it may seem unnecessary or inappropriate. Is this the optimal way to teach large swaths of math to all students, in every school in the land? That’s very much an open question.

Similarly, the Common Core stipulates that 70 percent of what high school students read should be “informational texts” and just 30 percent should be literature. To hit that bar without squeezing fiction out of English classes, advocates want students to read much more nonfiction in math, science, and so on. Now, it’s possible that having chemistry students read EPA reports rather than do labs is a better way to teach science, but there’s certainly no evidence proving the point.

The claim is not that these various shifts are necessarily bad, but that they are pretty radical and largely unsupported, and leave much room for mischief.

It’s surprising that the aspirational allure of high standards has led some conservatives to dismiss the uncertain, potentially disconcerting implications of the Common Core. Usually it’s progressives who argue that, if a cause is good, something must be done — and the solution must, therefore, be good. This is how Obamacare boosters argued for the Affordable Care Act. “We have a problem,” they said, “and we have a solution. So let’s do it.” Conservatives usually, wisely, try to tap the brakes on grand schemes to remake the nation.

Why are some conservatives inclined to give the Common Core a pass? For one thing, there’s a degree of understandable confusion. Because the Common Core was never debated or publicly discussed in any meaningful way before it was adopted by more than three dozen states in 2009 and 2010, many of these issues were not advertised, have never aired, and have thus not been well understood. Indeed, advocates have displayed a studied disingenuousness, insisting that the Common Core is “just standards, not curriculum” in one breath, and then talking enthusiastically about big “instructional shifts” in the next. It seems that many conservative backers are either unaware of this slipperiness or unwilling to challenge it.

It’s also the case, though, that critics must shoulder a fair share of the blame. Efforts to subject the Common Core to serious scrutiny have been hampered by the hysterical reaction of some talking heads and shock-value voices. Think back to how Sarah Palin’s “death panel” remarks in 2009 helped spur opposition to the Affordable Care Act, but ultimately marked the opposition as unserious — until long after the issued was settled.

Bennett’s column is a reasonable celebration of high standards and a useful response to silly claims about Common Core reading lists. That’s all well and good. It’s just that it doesn’t actually do anything to make the case for the Common Core.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include Common Core Meets Education Reform.

Frederick M. Hess — Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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