Political Battles Ahead for the Common Core Standards

Political Battles Ahead for the Common Core Standards

By Emily Cadei

Kindergarteners at George Buck Elementary School in Indianapolis, March 25, 2013.


Everyone wants American kids to learn better. Agreeing on how to accomplish that and do it well: not so easy.

By Emily Cadei

National education standards for public schools: Most Americans, it turns out, like the idea. 

Who knew?

There’s no clue of that in the noisy reaction to the Common Core standards, which are being rolled out now in 45 states following an initiative from state governors. Get ready for more noise, because the backlash promises to grow bigger over the next year as the program gets going, just in time for the kick-off of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The clash is fundamental. And it’s not about the principles for most people. From textbooks to testing regimes, a lot is changing fast. And when the results of the new approach, and the test scores, start coming back next year, many people — parents, students, teachers and their unions — are certain to be unhappy.

”…a recipe for an explosive political brew.”

“What lies ahead … might dwarf anything we’ve seen so far,” says Chester Finn, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, referring to the expected backlash.

States will start conducting tests across all their schools in the spring to see how well students are actually learning the new curricula. Results will start arriving in the summer just as the presidential campaigns gear up, creating a recipe for an explosive political brew. Will campaigners for national office be able to dodge the issue? Unlikely.

Common Core already faces a growing, if predictable, ideological backlash from conservatives. Tea party groups and others in states like Indiana, Louisiana and Florida have attacked the use of standard national targets as usurping state and local authority, successfully pressuring governors to reverse previous support. Those governors include 2016 Republican hopefuls like Bobby Jindal and Mike Pence.

In one sense, it’s an odd development. Common Core started as a coordinated effort by the nation’s governors to encourage more rigorous curricula and help American kids learn critical thinking skills. Only later did the Obama administration embrace the move.

Two consortia of states have developed different tests to evaluate whether schools and kids are meeting Common Core targets, and both are going to be ready next spring. 

Finn, who is now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy think tank that supports the standards, predicts that given the patchy roll-out of Common Core curricula across states and districts, the tests are going to end up making a lot of schools, teachers and kids “look pretty bad.”

Portrait of Chester E. Finn, Jr., wearing a suit and glasses.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Source Redux

And that means pretty mad, likely provoking a strong public reaction from parents that is much broader than the current pockets of opposition. 

So far, the anti-Common Core movement has been ideological — as Finn describes it, “a bunch of tea party types have decided to make this one of their anti-Obama, anti-establishment issues.”

The concerns have been about state sovereignty — even though it was the states that initiated the standards. They also stem from a general distrust of anything that smacks of nationalized education, or national-level interference, period.

…the bumps and bruises of putting this into place.

Portrait of Jennifer Necci Dineen

Jennifer Necci Dineen, director of the UConn Poll

In fact, most Americans like the idea in principle, according to a national survey conducted by the University of Connecticut in April. The pollsters found that 73 percent of those surveyed believe having one set of national education standards is “a good idea.” That includes 85 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans.

Common Core, however, is much less popular, a signal of the challenges of implementing it as well as how politicized it’s become. The UConn Poll found that among those who’ve heard of Common Core, 54 percent of Democrats consider it good policy, while just 30 percent of Republicans do. 

Jennifer Necci Dineen, the director of the UConn Poll, says the gap speaks to the way it’s being implemented — with different methods and paces in each state and in local school districts.

The across-the-board fall in support, Dineen says, “indicates to me what we’re feeling is the bumps and bruises of putting all of this into place.”

“All of the states that have signed on to this have asked a good amount of their local schools,” she says, including implementing many new ideas and materials at the same time. Schools are also struggling with the technological side of the testing, which is supposed to be conducted online.

Pulling all of that off, says Dineen, is “a hard thing to do.”

Indeed, a growing number of states are starting to shift and delay plans, particularly when it comes to next year’s testing phase. That includes states like Tennessee and Michigan, which are run by Republican governors, but also deep-blue Democratic states like Massachusetts and New York.

Teacher standing in between rows of students, speaking and holding papers in her hand.

Trisha Matthews teaches fourth graders using Common Core, at P.S. 397 in New York, 2014.

And many teachers unions, while originally supportive, “have been slowly but steadily backpedaling,” Finn notes. The American Federation of Teachers, for one, passed a resolution at their convention this month calling for Common Core standards to be revised. They’re particularly concerned about using the tests to assess teacher performance, a controversial issue no matter how it’s done.

Ultimately, Finn suggests, a backlash from the left “might be more meaningful” than ideological opposition from Tea Party groups, which he predicts will die down as the standards become reality. 

Finn and others who have criticized states’ rollout of Common Core believe that ultimately the goals are right. But the process is messy and benefits will take years to show up because, as Finn points out, “kids don’t change that fast.”

In the meantime, the pols will have at it.