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Getting Back to the Core of the Common Core Debate

Arguments happen. We all know that. But we should also know that if we aren’t careful, those arguments can creep away from their original subject (and reality) as they gain steam. That, my friends, is how we wind up in messy food fights instead of constructive conversations.

As it is in life, so it is in education policy. The fight over the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is quickly approaching a fever pitch, and I think it’s important to pause, sort through the rhetoric, and get back to the issues and facts at hand.

Michael Petrilli (pro-Common Core) and Neil McCluskey (anti-Common Core) agree. The pair penned a joint piece for the Washington Times that aims to help set the record straight. The piece opens with the following statement:

“Over the past couple of years, a raucous debate has emerged over the Common Core, content standards in English and mathematics adopted by states nationwide. The debate has been marked by acrimony rather than analysis, but there is hope that both sides want a reset. We — one Core advocate, one opponent — want to assist by laying out the facts on which we think everyone should agree.”

The authors then proceed to set the record straight on a number of rather pervasive Common Core un-facts. They point out that the standards do not prescribe curriculum, and that they were not created by the United States government.

They also acknowledge that Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind waiver program have exerted strong pressure on states to adopt the standards, that the tests aligned with CCSS (most notably the PARCC test) could result in curriculum shifts, and that there are other programs associated indirectly with CCSS—data collection and teacher evaluations, for instance—that could pose legitimate problems.

As Petrilli and McCluskey address the national debate, Colorado also finds itself addressing a variety of contentious issues related to Common Core. I’ve written about some of my concerns before (see here and here), but they have yet to be fully addressed. Eric Gorski at the Denver Post opens a recent op-ed thusly:

“The dividing lines are many. The standards are too high or too low. The costs of taking part in the tests or sitting them out are too great. Local control over curriculum is being compromised or respected. The standards inspire critical thinking or are hopelessly muddled.”

As Gorski points out, a number of Colorado school districts have spoken out against Common Core in recent months, and a 15-member task force is currently reviewing issues related to standards and assessments. (The task force was itself created by a piece of legislation originally intended to allow districts to waive out of state PARCC testing.) Meanwhile, many Colorado legislators, nonprofits, and individuals have voiced strong support for CCSS.

There is a policy storm brewing (some would say it’s already here), and how we navigate that storm is likely to define American education for years to come. With that in mind, the argument over Common Core requires—no, it demands—that we carefully evaluate the real issues at the heart of the debate rather than argue over a series of increasingly questionable straw men on the fringes. As Petrilli and McClusky put it:

“These are the facts. Hopefully, all can agree on them and focus on the issues with which we really need to grapple: Is there good reason to think common, rigorous state standards will improve outcomes? Does the Common Core fit that bill? What roles should Washington, states, districts and parents have in deciding what standards guide classroom instruction? We have different answers to these questions, but agree on at least one thing: We must stop fighting over basic facts, and respectfully tackle these crucial questions.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. We don’t have to agree about Common Core, but we should at least agree on the basic facts that underlie it. No meaningful conversations can happen until we do.