Common Core might be the most important issue in the 2016 Republican presidential race. Here’s what you need to know about it.

This post was updated at 9:35 p.m.

Sometimes, a policy is so dense, so politicized or so boring that it begs for explainers and analyses and charts. It happened with the debt ceiling, it happened with Obamacare and it's happening with Common Core.  What to do when there are so many explanations that a curious individual has difficulty deciding which explanation to trust?

Here's an effort to try to understand Common Core -- and shifts of perceptions of the education standards -- through the lens of the stories that tried to explain them and the people who explained why they don't like the standards, including many of the politicians considering a presidential run in 2016.


(Steve Ruark/AP)

What is Common Core?

Common Core is a set of education standards -- for English and math -- that were adopted in 2010. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia decided to follow the new guidelines. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia opted out, while Minnesota decided to only adopt the English standards (with others perhaps joining them soon). These states began implementing the standards last year.

The standards haven't created national curricula -- state and local educators are still in charge of that. Instead, they establish benchmarks that make it easier to compare how students are doing across state lines, and to make sure students across the country are learning the same essentials.

They look complicated and have many vocal opponents, including parents, teachers, education reformers, politicians, Republicans and Democrats. The opposing ranks are growing, and some of the standards' staunchest supporters are beginning to balk. And sometimes, the politics of the issue have occluded the debate over the effectiveness of the standards. Because of the complex battle surrounding Common Core, the explainers not only have to explain the new policy -- they have to explain the many, many different reasons they have compelled people to fight over it. No wonder everyone is confused.

Let's take this step by step.

Where can I learn about what the standards do -- and stay away from the politics?

You might as well start at the source. The Common Core Web site tries to explain what they think the standards are trying to accomplish in under three minutes.

Three-Minute Video Explaining the Common Core State Standards from CGCS Video Maker on Vimeo.

Many state education boards wrote long, detailed explainers soon after the standards were adopted, no doubt spurred by a flood of confused parents. Plenty of news organizations around the country wrote explainers, too.

If you want a far more in-depth explanation of what the standards are, the Council of the Great City Schools has a grade-by-grade breakdown of what students are supposed to learn each year.

Perhaps the best single story you can read about Common Core is this article from Smithsonian Magazine, which explains how individual teachers have changed their classrooms -- and what all the fuss is about.

Why were the standards implemented?

Because state and local authorities are in charge of implementing curricula, kids across the country are learning different things and being assessed in different ways. That's makes it nearly impossible to compare how students in Kentucky are doing compared to kids in Michigan. So, state governments and governors teamed up with a few nonprofit organizations to create a rubric that all participating states could follow, which would then create data to paint a far more complete portrait of how American students are performing.

Common Core is not only a data-collecting effort, the guidelines hope to make American students more competitive globally, and in higher education. Up to 40 percent of college freshman take remedial classes; their high school diploma wasn't enough to prepare them for the next level. One of the ways the standards hope to do this is by encouraging schools to teach far fewer subjects, at much greater depth. Kids will also be doing writing and reading assignments in far more of their classes — essays in science, reading articles in music class.

The basic hope is that the standards will reorient schools toward teaching students things that will be more useful in college and life — more nonfiction and articles than fiction, more explaining how to do math problems than memorizing formulas. Whether the standards are in fact tougher than existing state plans is a big part of the debate. In some states, they will certainly represent a big jump in difficulty. Other states have had rigorous curricula for a long time.

The federal government did not help to create the standards, debunking one of the main reasons many conservatives oppose Common Core. But, the federal government has supported them. As The Washington Post wrote this morning,

The federal government had no official role in developing the standards. But the Obama administration has supported them, giving $360 million to the group of states that is writing new Common Core tests. It also used Race to the Top, its competitive grant program, as an inducement, saying that states adopting “college and career ready” standards had a better chance of winning federal dollars under the program. Most states understood that phrase to mean the Common Core.

What does this mean in practice?

Policymakers, politicians and journalists explained Common Core to parents and observers, but seeing the standards in action just confused them even more. The information being taught to kids is the same — it's just being presented in a very different way, as Stephen Colbert showed.

Libby Nelson at Vox tried to explain the odd math problems in her article, "The Common Core makes simple math more complicated. Here's why."

Arithmetic has usually been taught like it's a recipe: Take the raw ingredients (the numbers), follow a series of steps, and end up with a tasty end result (the answer). While an experienced baker knows why you cream butter and sugar before adding eggs, then add flour last, a beginner just following the steps is in the dark. They might know what to do, but they can't explain why.

In the past, "students had this sense that math was some kind of magical black box," says Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher studying math education at Stanford University. "That wasn't good enough."

Plenty of parents disagree. If it was good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for their children? Case in point, Louis C.K.

If you're more interested in the English language standards, an NPR reporter took a practice test similar to one that students will use in several states, and explained how it was different from the old tests.

Although many parents have been disappointed after seeing the new standards in action, plenty of students haven't noticed any significant changes. The Hechinger Institute, an education journalism nonprofit, asked kids in New Orleans whether they had noticed anything different about school last year. They didn't -- although one conceded, "It’s a lot harder. A lot more homework. Last year was more relaxed and chill. And I liked that year way better."

Who doesn't like Common Core?

Let's run through some of the biggest complaints. These aren't necessarily all from people who are completely against the new standards, but run from tentative reservations to full-on calls for getting rid of them.

Conservatives

At first, it looked liked Common Core support split on partisan lines. And there are plenty of conservatives who don't like Common Core, afraid that it is a federal takeover of education. It's not — curricula is still in states' hands — but that hasn't stopped people from calling the standards ObamaCore.

Conservative pundit Glenn Beck has been among the right's leading opponents of the standards. He held an event in movie theaters across the country July 22 detailing what he saw to be the biggest failings of Common Core.

Republicans thinking about the 2016 presidential race

This list comprises many of the most recent additions to the anti-Common Core list. Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker asked the state legislature to abandon Common Core. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is asking the state to examine the standards. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the Common Core standards' big supporters in the beginning, called on his state to develop its own standards. A group of teachers and parents are now suing him, saying that school is starting in a few weeks and they have no idea what to teach the incoming children now. Sens. Rand Paul (Ken.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) were all against the standards last year.

Other conservative governors not thinking about a national stage are starting to rethink the standards, too. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation this week that could start a revisionist process for how -- or if -- the state implements the Common Core standards. North Carolina introduces another variable that will still make it hard to compare student performance across state lines if all of these states don't leave the program en masse -- the state education budget has seen significant cuts in an effort to reduce spending, as have budgets in other states. When states have different resources to test kids on the same requirements, you're measuring more than teacher efficacy.

The fears of these presidential hopefuls reinforces how politically volatile this issue is. If the country's most visible politicians can't support the standards, it seems doubtful they can withstand the criticism. Whether that leads to standards altered by feedback or abandoned reform remains to be seen.

Parents

Many parents don't even know what the Common Core standards are. A Gallup poll from April found that 37 percent of public school parents had never heard of the new standards or had no opinion on them. Thirty-five percent had positive feelings about the changes, while 28 percent had negative opinions. Many parents are leveling complaints that sound similar to worries prior to Obamacare's implementation. Like the Americans who were worried that the quality of their health care would drop on January 1, 2014, many parents of smart kids with good grades were afraid that the quality of their children's education would drop, too. Hence the Common Core explainer publlished in Westchester Magazine.

Teachers and Teachers Unions

Most teachers unions still support Common Core, but that doesn't mean they don't have worries. They are worried that the Common Core's testing system is too difficult, and that teachers' jobs will be in danger because the standards aren't only designed to compare students nationally, but teachers too. And, studies have found that measuring teacher quality on test scores can usually lead to inaccurate results — as well as doing little to help the kids, or do anything but collect data. The American Federation of Teachers held a long debate about what should be done with Common Core at their July conference.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said last November, "You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse."

Despite the unions' recent reservations about implementation, they have been strong supporters of the Common Core standards. The unions have been trying to provide resources to help teachers make the transition as smoothly as possible.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, wrote a blog post titled, "Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards" in February 2013. Her major complaints include the fact that little field work was conducted before implementation, and the fact that the standards were tied to $4.35 billion-worth of federal funding -- making states far more likely to adopt them. She also doesn't like the idea that test scores are scheduled to drop as the more difficult standards become de riguer. 

People who hate education-centric corporations

Teachers — and many other people — are also worried that the new testing and rush to implement the standards will make textbook and testing companies a fortune. The last thing they want to do is give corporations more power in the education system. When the Common Core standards went on their trial run this year, teachers and schools needed to rush to find new lesson plans and curricula — a process that will only grow more intense in advance of the first Common Core testing next year. Textbook companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill quickly filled the void, but the books don't quite match the standards yet. NPR talked to someone at the Association of American Publishers, who said, "There's been no time in American history where this number of school districts wanted to swap out all their reading and math materials at all grades for new things."

The brains behind the Common Core standards, David Coleman, became president of the College Board last year.

There's also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the implementation of Common Core and buoyed up its popularity in its initial stages — spending more than $200 million on the effort. The Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton wrote a detailed story on where the Gates Foundation money went in June.

The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.

Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core.

Progressives

Progressives are starting to resist Common Core for an amalgamation of the above complaints. The mix of more testing, more opportunities for corporate influence of education and fear of failing kids has liberals worried about the reform.

Literature Buffs

The Common Core standards are trying to up the emphasis on teaching kids to read nonfiction and articles — which has riled up many literature devotees. Teachers are  worried too — getting kids to read fiction is hard enough without introducing texts that look suspiciously like the textbooks they avoid at all costs. Shakespeare remains a required read for students. An article in the Atlantic wondered what one great writer might think of Common Core. It decided, nope, Mark Twain probably wouldn't have liked it.

Lots of other complaints about Common Core aren't true. Here's a list of myths about the new standards. Many of the arguments made in support of Common Core are also false. Here is another list of myths about Common Core -- these covering the more positive fabrications.

Who still supports Common Core?

The Brookings Institute published a paper in March in support of the Common Core standards, arguing that national standards will help states learn from the successes and failures of their neighbors. Education Secretary Arne Duncan still believes in Common Core, and has been brutal to the standards' critics. He told a groups of school superintendents last November that he was "fascinated" by the backlash from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush still supports Common Core, too. His career's laurels rest on education, and he has long advocated for more accountability when it comes to assessing teachers and schools. His nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education released a statement in June — regarding concerns about whether teacher accountability should be put briefly paused while schools implemented the new standards — that read, "Pressing pause means stopping forward momentum. And when that happens, things can go backwards." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this election cycle's strongest supporter of establishment Republicans, has also continued its support of the standards.

We're still in a war of explanation over Common Core, and, as many of the standards' detractors have noted, there isn't enough data or evidence to know whether the reforms will be a success. And, because there is still such a large portion of the country that doesn't even know what the standards are, there is a lot of room for the explaining and politicking to go either way. During the next school year, when students are tested on the Common Core standards, we will probably see public opinion settle, unless the politics dismantle it first. Even if you haven't heard that much about education reform lately, this busy summer of protest likely augurs upcoming months of political chaos — and maybe a presidential campaign revolving around it, too.

Correction: This post originally said that the federal government was in charge of helping create the Common Core standards. Instead, state authorities, along with several nonprofit entities, led the way. An earlier draft of this post also noted that the tests will all be taken online. Most schools do not have the resources to do this immediately, so most testing will be completed on paper for the near future. 

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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