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Campaign for America’s Future: Dumb Arguments about the Common Core Distract from What Matters Most

While it’s refreshing to see K-12 education become a prominent issue in the very early stages of the 2016 election campaigns, it’s unfortunate to see support for the Common Core – the contentious new standards adopted by most states – become the focus of the debate.

What’s even worse is to see Democrats saying such bewildering, even misleading, things about the Common Core as they defend it against Republican criticism.

Specifically, when the subject turns to Common Core, there is a tendency among Democrats to immediately assert their support for the policy because of concerns for equity in the public school system.

For sure, inequity is a problem – if not the problem – in American schools. Inequities related to students’ race, ability levels, English language proficiency, and income characterize nearly every aspect of the outputs and inputs of the system. The achievement gap between white students and their black and brown peers has been at the center of education policy discussion for years. Students with learning disabilities experience a similar gap when compared with their mainstream peers. Racial discrimination also plagues school discipline policies resulting in black and brown students disproportionately being targeted for punishment, expulsion, and push-out into a school to prison pipeline. And many states discriminate against students on the basis of income by giving richer school districts more money than poorer ones.

But declaring that Common Core is somehow a solution to inequities is more than a stretch – it’s disingenuous. And if Democrats want to have some credibility in the debate on equity in the public school system, they should focus on policy proposals that really have something to do with equity.

Common Core Confusion

No doubt the Common Core has become a prominent issue in the presidential race, at least in the Republican primary.

As Politico reports, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the latest presidential aspirant in that party to make a big display of declaring opposition to standards he once championed. Now, the article explains, “Virtually every 2016 Republican presidential candidate has turned against the education standards, other than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.”

This is a strange turn of events for sure given that the idea of national standards was originally a popular conservative notion, dating back to the publication of “A Nation at Risk” during the Reagan administration. Even in Republican-led states where Common Core backlash has led to revising the standards, “the replacement standards have been near carbon copies of the Common Core,” The Hechinger Report explains.

But instead of pointing out the incoherency of this, Democrat operatives respond to Republican attacks on the Common Core with incoherent arguments of their own.

Common Core Is Working?

“Common Core is working,” declare folks at Think Progress, the blog site of the Center for American Progress, which is closely allied with the Democratic Party establishment. As “proof” of its claim, CAP operatives point to Kentucky, which “saw their college and career readiness rates increase from 34 to 62 percent in just four years after the standards were put in place.” That claim is interesting because in a state with a long history of big changes in education policy, going back to 1990, its hard to believe a relatively recent change like Common Core should get all the credit.

Further, a recent analysis by Brookings on the effects of Common Core adoptions on achievement, as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress, found differences between Common Core and non-CC states to be “quite small, amounting to (at most) 0.04 standard deviations (SD) on the NAEP scale. A threshold of 0.20 SD – five times larger – is often invoked as the minimum size for a test score change to be regarded as noticeable.” And of course, “other factors are driving test score changes, unmeasured by NAEP.”

Regarding Kentucky, “That state’s NAEP fourth grade reading score declined in both 2009-2011 and 2011-2013.”

Common Core Hype Is Just Hope

Nevertheless, from its dubious factual claim about Common Core “working,” the CAP memo springboards into total fantasy, arguing, “One set of standards helps level the playing field to ensure that all kids have an equal chance at succeeding.”

Similarly, the politically centrist organization  Third Way claims the new standards “will improve our schools for all students–especially the ones who are most vulnerable.”

Before the Core, each state had its very own “one set of standards” that applied to all schools in the state. Some of those standards, such as those in Massachusetts, were arguably “better” than the Common Core, according to a report produced by supporters of the Common Core. Yet, among those states with the “better” standards, achievement levels remained chronically unequal.

Nevertheless, CAP executive Daniella Gibbs Leger expounds on the merits of the Common Core further in a guest column for The New Jersey Star-Ledger. She writes, “By providing more rigorous standards and holding all students to higher expectations, students are better prepared to exit high school with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers.”

Actually, as a result of Common Core adoptions and their associated tests, achievement gaps are likely to increase, as a recent article in The Hechinger Report explains.

As student scores on the Common Core-aligned tests administered across the country this spring trickle out over the year ahead, results will likely show widening achievement gaps. “The divergence in scores between disadvantaged students and their peers has already ballooned in Illinois, New York, and Kentucky,” Hechinger’s Tara García Mathewson writes, which were the first state to administer the tests.

Mathewson also notes that makers of Common Core tests claim that in “the long run” standards-based exams will “narrow the country’s educational inequities. That’s the hope, at least.” And “hope” is all it is.

Common Core Is A Distraction

To be fair, there are good reasons to support the Common Core.

When teachers say Common Core standards are better than the ones they had, they should be respected. When teachers are given opportunity to lead on implementation of the new standards, they should be supported. And of course, states should be allowed to adapt the standards to their needs. It seems naïve to the extreme to expect that implementations of the standards in Mississippi would mirror what happens in Massachusetts.

Conversely, there are reasons to be hesitant in giving full-throated support to the Common Core. Just to name a few: Early childhood experts have expressed concerns about the age appropriateness of the standards. And the Core’s prescription of “close reading” as a method of engaging students in analytical discussion of texts is problematic, to say the least.

So when Democrats respond to Republican Common Core criticism with unqualified support for the Core, they make themselves look misinformed. Even worse, they take the focus away from what matters more.

As popular teacher-blogger Mark Weber explains on his personal website, “If you had to make a list of the things that need to be done to improve the educational outcomes of students, rewriting the standards would be near the bottom.”

Weber asks, “Does anyone really believe that the most pressing need for a child living in food insecurity and attending an inadequately funded school is to make sure her state’s standards are aligned with those in other states? That it’s critically important to make sure her state’s old standards are replaced with the CCSS, even if her school building is crumbling around her? That, if she has a special education need, the sequence of standards that may be developmentally inappropriate for her anyway is as urgent an issue as whether or not she gets critical services in a timely manner? What does a new set of standards do to ameliorate the segregation that is growing worse in our urban schools?”

If Democrats want to present real arguments for education equity, they should propose what the federal government should do about the 23 states who give richer school districts more money than poorer ones.

They should call for measures to ensure the federal government fulfills its original promise to fund 40 percent of special education services (it has historically provided only 18.5 percent or less).

They should explain how a federal administration rededicated to equity would intervene in the twin crises of black males and females being pushed out of education into the criminal justice system.

They should propose plans for federal support of community schools that can provide the range of education, health, counseling, and cultural services needed in communities traumatized by poverty.

But to thrust support for Common Core – or opposition to it, for that matter – into the center of the education debate is an enormous distraction from what really matters.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...