Ask any parent of a school-age child: It’s not unreasonable to expect some objective measures of achievement.
First-graders should know how to count to 100 and add and subtract up to 20. Third graders should know the difference between a noun and a verb. High school seniors should be able to solve basic problems in algebra and write essays using facts to support opinions.
Standards such as these have been voluntarily adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia. But these standards also bear the label of “Common Core” – now fighting words among certain conservatives for whom the Common Core is as anathema as Obamacare.
For the past several years, activists have waged war against states’ adoption of Common Core State Standards, and so far this year, they’ve persuaded lawmakers in 19 states to introduce legislation proposing their repeal.
But for all the sound and fury, Common Core opponents have accomplished next to nothing, succeeding in just one state – Oklahoma. And while some may see the right wing’s losing fight against the Common Core as simply evidence of their waning political muscle, the real reason behind these losses is an optimistic one: the Common Core remains intact because it’s good policy. In a political landscape littered with the victims of ideological warfare, this is one battle where common sense is prevailing over demagoguery.
While Common Core opponents have sought to cast the standards as just another egregious example of federal over-reach (i.e. by President Obama), these charges have foundered on the shoals of reality.
For one thing, the Common Core State Standards are the consensus product of a state-driven process, led by state school chiefs and governors from all but a tiny minority of states, that began in 2009. Although the federal government has taken a few steps to endorse the Common Core’s adoption, a federal power grab this certainly isn’t.
Second, the Common Core State Standards have the staunch support of the business community, long distressed by the ongoing shortage of skilled workers. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, for example, have invested major resources garnering support for the Common Core, including through grass-roots campaigns and lobbying.
The business community’s self-interest in an educated workforce isn’t hard to grasp. While the Census Bureau reports that roughly 42 percent of Americans over age 25 now have an associates’ degree or more (a marked improvement), it’s far short of what the U.S. economy needs – and far behind what our international competitors are achieving.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that two-thirds of jobs by the end of the decade will require some sort of post-secondary credential. Yet the Lumina Foundation reports that America ranks 11th globally in post-secondary achievement, and in countries such as South Korea, Japan and Canada, the percentage of post-secondary graduates is already at or above 60 percent.
The shortage of skilled workers is acute even in manufacturing, which is increasingly technology-driven. The Manufacturing Institute’s 2015 skills gap report predicts that while manufacturing will generate 3.5 million jobs over the next decade, as many as 2 million jobs will go unfilled for lack of skilled workers.
But perhaps the most significant hurdle for Common Core opponents is that they’ve posited no practical alternative to its repeal – thereby rendering their “opposition” substantively meaningless.
“There’s a big difference between what sounds good politically and what actually makes sense legislatively,” said Karen Nussle, Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success, in a recent briefing for reporters.
As a case in point, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli cites the experience of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who acquiesced to a do-over of the state’s standards at the behest of his Tea Party base.
“[Pence] had a group work on new standards,” Petrilli told reporters. “And guess what? They looked a lot like the Common Core.” Petrilli continued: “That’s because reading is reading, and math is math.”
In a hopeful sign for future pragmatism in politics as well as in policy, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently defended his support of Common Core standards at conservatism’s signature confab, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., arguing that the Common Core isn’t the “federal takeover” of education its detractors have claimed.
While there are certainly plenty of issues where ideology, not sound policy, continues to carry the day, the triumph of reason in the Common Core debate may signify a broader thaw in the deadlocked politics of today.