When Jeb Bush recently defended Common Core, of which he is a major advocate, the right once again exploded, claiming that it would be his downfall (if he wasn’t already doomed in their minds by his support for immigration reform). Many of the familiar criticisms are based on misconceptions about Common Core, but the jury is still out on whether the Common Core standards are the right ones, whether they will be implemented properly and whether they will make a difference.

Common Core, if you listen to many conservative critics, is a left-wing plot from Washington descending on states that will inculcate our kids with all manner of propaganda while destroying local control. All of that is wrong. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education explains: “The Common Core efforts are at the discretion of state-level policymakers to either join or withdraw from participation, and it’s important to note the federal government was NOT involved in the development of the standards.” Likewise, “Common Core State Standards define what students need to know; they do not define what teachers should teach or how students should learn. That decision is left to each state. . . . Local teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards will continue to make decisions about curriculum and how their school systems are operated.”

The rationale for Common Core is that state standards, even the best of them, are far too low, leaving our kids in the dust behind international competition. (“A 2009 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found no state had reading proficiency standards as rigorous as those on the highly respected and internationally benchmarked NAEP 4th grade exam. Only one state, Massachusetts, had an 8th grade test as rigorous as the NAEP exam. Worse still, a large number of states had reading proficiency standards that would qualify their students as functionally illiterate on NAEP.”) At a dinner with a group of journalists a year or so ago, Bush explained to us that while middle-class families in good school districts may think they are getting a good education, a significant percentage of their kids are not college ready and, in any case, match up poorly against foreign competition.

Moreover, complaints about “teaching to the test” are not Common Core’s doing. Parents rightfully are annoyed that learning stops in May after the tests are given or that the tests put too high a premium on rote memorization rather than analytical reasoning. But that’s the result of existing state standards and enforced testing designed to show progress.

Unfortunately, all of the hullabaloo over specious claims has overshadowed very legitimate questions:

Are the standards high enough?
Are teachers prepared properly for the new standards?
How do you implement standards, say for fourth grade, when the children’s third-grade education was substandard?
Will it make any difference?

The last question is the most intriguing and goes to the issue of why U.S. kids fare so poorly. There is little agreement. It’s inequality. It’s uninvolved parents. It’s underpaid teachers. It’s untrained teachers. It’s the plethora of non-academic time-wasters in school. We glorify supports and not education. It’s all these things. And there are even those who defend the U.S. substandard performance. (You want our kids to have suicide rates like they do overseas?)

Bill Gates, speaking last month at the American Enterprise Institute, gave a cautious defense of Common Core, but with some important caveats:

Nobody is suggesting that the federal government will, even in this area, which is not curriculum, dictate these things. States can opt in. They can opt out.
As they do that, they should look at this status quo, which is poor. They should look and find something that’s high achievement, that’s got quality. And if they can find something that’s that, if they have two they’re comparing, they ought to probably pick something in common, because to some degree, this is an area where if you do have commonality – it’s like an electrical plug – you get more free market competition. Scale is good for free market competition. Individual state regulatory capture is not good for competition.
And so this thing, in terms of driving innovation, you’d think that sort of pro-capitalistic market-driven people would be in favor of it, but, you know, somehow, it’s gotten to be controversial. And, you know, states will decide. Whatever they want to decide is fine. But, at the end of the day, it does affect the quality of your teaching, does affect when your kids go to take what are national-level tests, whether they are going to do well or not do well.

Moreover, Gates is plainly not sold on the notion that standards are the magic bullet to cure what ails U.S. education. To the contrary: “We took 20,000 hours of video and looked at various measures, you know, what were they doing differently? And we created a lot of model districts where there are so-called peer evaluators who are in the classroom, observing, giving feedback. And, you know, it looks like the results on that are very good. And so there are points of light that if we could get it adopted permanently and scale it up, it would start to move the dropout rate and the math and reading achievement.” (By the way, according to Gates’s data, the amount of spending and whether the teachers are unionized aren’t indicative of student performance.)

The good news is that we will begin to get some results, provided that there is widespread launch of the standards in multiple states. The sooner the discussion moves from “Is this a left-wing plot?” to “Does it work?” the better for the students, schools and states — and for Jeb Bush. It may take time (perhaps not in time for the 2016 election) but soon we can see whether Common Core helps, hurts or was a major distraction from the real drivers of school deficiency.