Laslo Boyd: The Common Core Debate’s Strange Political Bedfellows

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By: Laslo Boyd 

It all started out so peacefully.  An effort led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers resulted in 2010 in a plan signed off on by 46 states and the District of Columbia.  In broad terms, the objective was to raise the overall educational standards of the nation’s schools to better compete with students from other nations and to reduce the significant gaps that exist among schools systems around the country.

Maryland was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the Common Core State Standards.  Even with its high national ranking, State officials saw the need to raise the bar for student achievement and to make Maryland more competitive in the international education arena.

The relatively quiet early days of the Common Core are definitely over.  The subject of the Common Core has become incredibly contentious in recent months in Maryland as well as across the country.   Many factors — the inevitable challenges of implementation of a major change; anxiety about the evaluation component of the new initiative; political opposition based on ideological grounds; and a raft of misinformation — have combined to create a perfect storm of controversy.

Lost in much of the angry rhetoric is the problem that the Common Core was intended to correct.  With 14,000 school districts in the United States, the variation in what students are taught and expected to learn is enormous.  Moreover, each year that international tests show American students falling farther behind their peers from other nations confirms that too many of the standards in those 14,000 school districts are not nearly rigorous enough.

One of the misperceptions about the Common Core is that it dictates the curriculum and teaching methods required in every classroom in the nation. “Common” does not mean uniform.  I noticed a sign held up by a protester in Annapolis that said: One Size Does Not Fit All.  The trouble with this argument is that it bears no relationship to reality.  Teachers will have plenty of latitude to figure out how to meet the standards for each grade level and subject area and will be provided with resources to help them achieve the standards.

Some teachers have argued that they need more time to develop curriculum that aligns with those new standards.  Both criticisms—that the curriculum is dictated or that teachers need to redesign their class materials to fit the new standards-- can’t be true at the same time.

Transitions are usually hard.  When Maryland implemented a new testing regime 10 years ago, there were very similar complaints and arguments about the shift.  Public reports about the challenges of transitioning to the Common Core have overlooked a couple of key facts.  First, the process of implementation has actually been going on for two to three years in many school districts.  You could easily get the impression from press accounts and critics that the process was sprung on teachers in the middle of the night one day last week.

Lots of teachers have been working very hard to make the Common Core transition work and are making great strides.  Does that process have bumps and difficulties?  Of course.   Are there enough resources?  That’s always a challenge.  But the other missing piece in the discussions about the implementation process is that the next two years after this one will be used to evaluate and adjust the overall system.

Parents have also been among the critics of the implementation.  To what extent they are reflecting the anxiety and nervousness of teachers is hard to verify.   Worrying about what the impact will be on their children’s test scores is certainly an understandable concern.  There’s also a lot of misinformation out there, although if you go to the Maryland State Department of Education web site, there’s plenty of useful and easy to comprehend material.

The general issue of testing raises concerns for many people as well.  Too much emphasis on test scores and the resultant risk of “teaching to the test” shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.  On the other hand, the desire of public officials who vote for school budgets to have some system of measuring accountability insures that testing will continue to play a prominent role.

And then there’s the problem that some factions have decided to politicize the debate about the Common Core.  The Tea Party narrative that this is an example of the Federal Government dictating to locals and taking over schools has no basis in fact, but when has that stopped people from making claims?

If you check which politicians are leading the charge against the Common Core in Maryland, you’ll find two Republican gubernatorial candidates and a number of Republican legislators.  Some Democrats have also raised concerned, but the attacks here and nationally have had a distinctly partisan slant.

The objectives of the Common Core are important if the United States is to remain competitive in the world economy.  Similarly, if we really care about all students having a chance to become educated and productive citizens, the implementation of the Common Core will establish standards to make a high school diploma meaningful rather than just a piece of paper.

The details of implementation matter.  There will have to be adjustments and corrections over time, but giving in to those who want to repeal the Common Core or want to engage in endless delays is the wrong approach.  Imperfect solutions can be improved.  Not trying guarantees continuing to fall short.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.