Local & State Voices

Facts, not fiction, on Common Core

I was on the edge of my seat, waiting and hoping for a Candy Crowley moment in the first TV debate Tuesday of the front-running Republican candidates for Kay Hagan’s U.S. Senate seat. In the 2012 presidential debates, CNN journalist Crowley, who was the moderator, corrected erroneous information that was being stated as fact.

Alas, no moment of clarity came from the moderator at Davidson College as all four of the GOP candidates perpetuated the falsehood that the Common Core standards program is a federal initiative taking away control of education from the states. Not true, not true, not true. Did I say not true? It’s not true.

But based on that demonstrably untrue premise, conservative critics – especially tea party conservatives – are in full force attack mode. Some are now calling it Obamacore to conjure up the Affordable Care Act’s alternate moniker of Obamacare, and to more deeply foster the ruse that the idea and implementation is out of an Obama administration “federal takeover” playbook.

GOP N.C. Sen. Jerry Tillman spouted the same nonsense Thursday as a state legislative panel recommended that the state ditch Common Core for its own education standards. Said Tillman: “This bill puts education back where the Constitution says it belongs – in the hands of North Carolina,” It never left N.C. hands.

The fast pace of Tuesday night’s debate might have prevented the moderator from intervening with the facts. But let me set the record straight for those tuning in and relying on candidates Greg Brannon, Heather Grant, Mark Harris and Thom Tillis.

I first wrote about the Common Core standards in March of 2009 as The National Governors Association, in concert with other groups, was already at work on a process that could lead to national standards and assessments. In a report called “Ensuring U.S. students receive a world-class education,” the group called for states to adopt “a common core of internationally bench-marked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12.”

Neither President Barack Obama, barely three months in office, nor his administration, was part of the inception. This effort started with, and stayed with, states. Steps began in 2007 when George W. Bush was president.

In fact, the idea of common core standards was largely a Republican one, designed to help provide needed accountability for Bush’s signature initiative, No Child Left Behind. Former GOP education secretaries Bill Bennett and Rod Paige wrote in an opinion piece in 2007 that: “In a world of fierce economic competition, we can’t afford to pretend the current system is getting us where we need to go. Greater federal interference is not the answer – but neither is a naive commitment to ‘states' rights.’... Standards set nationally, daily decisions made locally – strikes the best balance.” The two added that the strategy should be “a ‘bottom-up’ approach, with states working together on a voluntary basis to forge common expectations.”

That is exactly the Common Core standards plan today.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association coordinated a state-led effort to develop the Common Core state standards. It was designed through a collaboration among teachers, school chiefs, administrators and other experts.

The standards do not – I repeat – do not set up a one-size-fits-all mandated national curriculum. Nor do they spell out how or what teachers should teach. What the initiative does do is lay out what concepts students are expected to know at each grade level.

The voluntary effort had huge support from Republican governors when it first rolled out, and it still has the ardent backing of former Florida Gov. (and expected presidential candidate) Jeb Bush. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is also a supporter.

But the initiative started getting backlash as soon as President Obama began voicing support and made such standards one factor in states getting federal Race to the Top grants. You’d think conservatives would be boastful that Obama found value in an initiative they had championed. But like so much in today’s hyper-partisan political world, Obama’s acceptance of the idea made it toxic to many on the right.

There have been legitimate concerns raised about the implementation of the initiative, including what and how many tests will be used to gauge whether students meet the learning expectations, whether teachers and students are getting the support and training they need to meet the standards, and whether the tests and other assessments will be wrongly used – either to label kids and stymie their learning or unfairly grade teachers.

Those issues should be forthrightly addressed. But the concerns are really about tests and implementation – not about the standards themselves. Other nations already have found such base-line standards beneficial in boosting student performance.

Still, whether you agree with Common Core or not, the debate should start with and rely on facts – not politicized fiction.