Magazine August 11, 2014, Issue

Beyond the Common Core

Can conservatives get back together on education reform?

The raucous Common Core debates of recent months have distracted many conservatives from their primary mission in the education wars: ensuring that every state and district in the land moves forcefully to raise academic standards, hold schools and educators (as well as students) to account for their performance, provide sound education choices to every family (including those with gifted or disabled youngsters), and squeeze more bang from every taxpayer buck that pours into primary and secondary education.

That quartet of reforms can have an immense and positive effect on the lives that our children and grandchildren will lead, on the vitality of our communities, and on the prosperity and security of the nation. And deciding whether and how to undertake them is — and always has been — the work of state and local officials. For too long, the Common Core has been a wedge between conservatives who agree on just about everything else when it comes to education policy, and a distraction from advancing these reforms.

Had the Obama administration never placed federal incentives for adopting higher standards on the education table, many states would have quietly adopted the Common Core or something similar anyway, both because (as we at the Fordham Institute have documented for 15 years) few individual states have done well at devising rigorous standards on their own, and because there’s obvious merit in harmonizing academic expectations in core subjects across state lines. But without the nudges and bribes from Washington, the number of states embracing the Common Core would probably have been closer to 25 than the current 42 (down from 45 before the recent uproar). It would have been more like a grand experiment — do states that make this change fare better than those that don’t? — than like a nationwide crusade. 

Under that scenario, some teachers, students, and parents in participating states would still be grumping about the extra work, and we’d still be hearing cries of alarm about the unfairness of abruptly raising standards. A few states and districts might have backed off or extended their timelines for holding kids and teachers accountable. But we’d have witnessed no giant furor about “Obamacore” or federal overreach or a national curriculum. We wouldn’t have read columnist George Will warning that the Common Core is “the thin edge of an enormous wedge.” We wouldn’t have heard rumors that Bill Gates was taking over American education to earn larger profits for Microsoft (and that’s the tamest of the conspiracy theories). No, the Common Core would simply have been an ambitious, foundation-financed, and state-generated reform that some jurisdictions opted to try while others chose to wait and see or to continue on their own paths.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the Obama team made a big mistake (admittedly egged on by such outside boosters as Gates himself and the association of state superintendents that had done most of the standards development). The best way it could have encouraged states to take the Common Core seriously over the long run would have been to bite its tongue — and offer no bribes. This state initiative would have remained entirely the property of the states. But then, of course, the president could not have claimed credit for it.

Claim credit he has done, however, and it’s no surprise that consideration of the merit of Common Core standards is being lost amid anti-Obamaism, legitimate anxiety about Uncle Sam’s grabbing parts of society and governance that don’t belong to him, and general frustration over the failings of our education system.

Yet the one-time federal incentives to states are now a thing of the past, the money put on the table is all but spent — and if conservatives don’t stop bickering about the process that begat the Common Core, only the Left will benefit. It’s already taking advantage of uncertainty about the Common Core to refight old battles and roll back hard-fought conservative reforms that hold adults and schools accountable for student learning.

Yes, we should do our best to shackle the administration’s ability to make more mischief in the realm of state standards (and assessments). One promising approach can be found in legislation proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander (R. Tenn.). He wants to bar the executive branch from using federal funds to “require or incentivize a State to enter into a partnership with another State or States to develop or implement academic content standards.”

But can we then please move on to make other essential reforms — and fight other instances of real, and ongoing, federal overreach in the education space, including the administration’s lamentable (and often extralegal) forays into realms such as discipline, the school-lunch menu, and the choices available to families (the Justice Department, for example, has tried to quash Louisiana’s voucher program)?

More broadly, states looking to improve the quality of their primary and secondary education should keep in mind the quartet of reforms we mentioned above.

Rigorous standards. The Common Core is not the only way to boost expectations for schools, teachers, and kids. States can do it themselves. (So, for that matter, can districts, charter schools, etc.) We may not all agree on the merits (much less the politics) of the Common Core, but conservatives of every stripe should unite to work with states struggling to add content and rigor to their K–12 curriculums. 

#page#Strong accountability. Standards — whatever their source — simply describe goals to be attained. What actually drives change on the ground is results-based accountability crafted to ensure that educators (and students) make progress toward those goals in whatever manner they choose. When states and communities expend so many billions every year on schools, we should make sure that students are actually learning what they need to succeed at the next stage of their lives. (This would also prevent much of the waste we see in higher education: Both soaring costs and appalling college-dropout rates result in considerable part from weak preparation in the primary–secondary system.)

Educators, school and district leaders, and — yes — kids need to face judgments regarding the adequacy of their progress. They should also face interventions when that progress is insufficient. A student might go to summer school, repeat a grade, even be denied a diploma. A teacher might be put on probation or not get rehired. A school might get a “D” or an “F” grade, be assigned a new principal, even be closed down, turned into a charter, or entrusted to an outside operator. Conversely, success should be rewarded with praise, accelerated advancement for students, bonuses for educators, and autonomy for school leaders to make their own decisions about staffing, budget, pedagogy, and more.   

Parental choice. The market will provide its own form of accountability if we ensure that families can remove their kids from unsatisfactory schools. This freedom affords students a pathway out of poverty and a way to circumnavigate glacial education bureaucracies. It also reaffirms, as the Supreme Court put it in 1925, that “the child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” 

After years of strong gains on the charter-school and voucher fronts, much low-hanging fruit has already been plucked in a number of states. Besides redoubling their efforts to reach higher on the school-choice tree, conservatives should advance such innovations as choices among individual school courses and course providers, tax-sheltered scholarship programs to cover private-school tuitions, and even debit-card-style savings accounts that parents can tap for their children’s education.

Fiscal responsibility. Finally, the public-education system needs to become more efficient. Technology should play a role in this. Rightly implemented, it can afford school- and course-level options, customization of the modes by which a child learns and of the pace at which he moves through school, more time for teachers to help pupils by providing individualized instruction, and significant budget savings. (If kids spend, say, 40 percent of their day learning online, the school will need fewer — and perhaps can hire better — full-time teachers.)

But that’s just the start. Pension systems need reform, salary scales overhaul, funding streams consolidation, budget practices systematization and transparency. Limits may need to be placed on such runaway-spending categories as special education. Structural and governance arrangements would similarly benefit from a 21st-century rethink. If schools are largely self-governing, what’s the role of districts? In any case, why does a state like Ohio need more than 600 of them, some with just a handful of students but every one with its own bureaucracy, busing contract, and more? Where the Left sees added dollars as the solution to stagnant academic achievement, conservatives need to squeeze the most learning from every education dollar while preparing every child for what lies ahead.

That’s an education agenda worth rallying around. It’s good for kids, good for the country, and good for taxpayers. It’s good politics, too, in ways that Common Core brickbats are not. Both recent polls and Republican-primary outcomes have shown that slamming the Core is not an effective vote-getter. (A June 2014 poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found just 31 percent of adults opposed to the Common Core versus 59 percent in favor.) Its divisiveness not only helps the Left win general elections, but can suck oxygen from worthwhile education reforms and take the focus off serious problems.

The American public wants higher academic standards, stronger accountability, more school choice, and greater efficiency in the education system. Yes, many are complacent about the schools their own kids attend. Yes, the education establishment — Bill Bennett termed it “the blob” — doesn’t want to change anything much, let alone work harder or be held to account. But conservatives should consider it their mandate to defend the interests of children, families, and taxpayers, and to focus on what’s good for the country, not for employees of the education system. We should also make it our job to awaken those who are asleep to the threat that a mediocre K–12 system poses to a robust, competitive economy. Pursued the right way — and in unity — these goals win elections, as Ronald Reagan (and sundry others) have shown. It’s a lot more fruitful than attacking one another over a set of academic standards that would barely have been noticed had Obama just left them alone.

– Mr. Finn is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Mr. Brickman is the national policy director.

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