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Serious Discussion: Common Core Missteps Demand a Smarter Response

I’ve discovered a new way to make myself the least popular kid on the playground or at a birthday party. All I have to do is just come running in and say with my outdoor voice, “Hey, who wants to have a serious discussion about Common Core?” Rolling eyes. Blank stares. Condescending sneers. Befuddled head-shaking. I’ve seen it all. I might as well be offering to sell my parents’ old set of encyclopedias. But I’m here today to press on and help us get closer to the core of the Common Core debate.

Some of you might be saying: “Look, there goes that [little Eddie] rushing in where angels fear to tread.” Knowing how toxic the name “Common Core” has become, I think it makes sense to migrate straight past stories about inscrutable “Common Core” math algorithms and dismissive retorts from advocates about those hayseed “Common Core skeptics.”

If you want to be far smarter about this controversial topic than all of your friends, and help lead our state to a happy solution, you simply have to start by reading Rick Hess’ new National Affairs piece titled “How the Common Core Went Wrong.”

It’s a fairly lengthy essay, but one that sets the stage with thoughtfulness, candor, and precision. The idea of voluntary common educational standards that states can adopt has a lot of merit. Yet from the top, Hess offers plenty of criticism of the approach taken by Common Core backers. The different pieces come together in a way that reveals not necessarily a bad idea or malicious intent, but something more akin to poor judgment. The standards were:

  1. Rooted in questionable research but sold with “grossly overstated” claims
  2. Crafted with ambiguities and advanced under the radar, not as a way to conceal some nefarious plot, but for the sake of convenience and to minimize controversy — many pro-Common Core folks with good intentions were too willing to overlook weaknesses or uncertainties in the standards in order to notch most states under their collective belt
  3. Implemented hastily through federal bribery and coercion to gain widespread acceptance, when a slower and more thoughtful approach with a smaller number of states likely would have been far more productive in the long run

The quiet and hasty approach has opened the door to a series of criticisms about the standards themselves that may or may not be entirely well-founded. We don’t know. The public was never told how or why Common Core would and could accomplish what the national NAEP test already offers to compare performance and the quality of standards in different states.

Yet as a result of the aggressive push, Hess points out that we are left with a political fracture in the education reform movement and, even more importantly, “a back-door way for the federal government to exert tremendous influence over education.” That right there is what keeps little Eddie off the Common Core train.

But bygones are bygones. More interesting about Hess’s devastating critique and a smaller recent piece by pro-Common Core Robert Pondiscio is the focus on a way forward. Hess says “a more modest, more promising version of the Common Core experiment is not necessarily out of reach.” And Pondiscio insists that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the Common Core bathwater by preserving what he sees as a focus on needed reading comprehension and critical writing skills promoted by the current iteration of national standards.

There may be a smarter, smaller, and more modest way to recast the standards initiative that diffuses the controversy and eventually improves the chances of success for American students, though Hess is correct to label these chances as “slight.” We ought to be willing to give such an endeavor a chance… in the future.

Colorado leaders and activists who hold the admirable goal of repealing Common Core ought to read Hess’s piece and clarify their understanding on the background and key related issues. They ought to explicitly recognize that the problematic ills of progressive education and the government-run system predate Common Core and would remain unsolved by repeal. And they ought to avoid overreaching in their counter-attack by defending reasonable accountability and testing practices.

If they promise to do that, I’ll promise to adopt a different conversational tactic at parties. Let’s call it a true Win-Win.