There are two big problems with the hysteria from right-wing critics and teachers’ unions over Common Core: lack of easily available alternatives with comparable rigor to Common Core standards, and timing. In more than 40 states, Common Core is already happening, although the implementation issues are not trivial.
Let’s start with the sort of data that prompted state education experts to rally around the idea of national standards: “U.S. schools seem to do as badly teaching those from better-educated families as they do teaching those from less well educated families. Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).” Regardless of the educational backgrounds of their parents, U.S. kids do worse than their international counterparts. U.S. students at the low end do worse than foreign kids of parents with minimal education. (“Only 17 percent of these U.S. students are proficient in math . . . . This is half or less than the percentage of similarly situated students (those whose parents also have low levels of education) in Korea (46%), the Netherlands (37%), Germany (35%), and Japan (34%).” If you think this is merely a reflection of gross income disparities or other social inequities, think again:
The percentage proficient of 15-year-olds from families with high parental education is conventionally thought to be the exception to this bleak picture. Indeed, the proficiency rate of 43% is higher than the rate for families with low (17%) or moderate (26%) levels of education. But the relative standing of the United States vis-à-vis other OECD countries remains near the very bottom (see Figure 3), at the 28th rank. When viewed from a global perspective, U.S. schools seem to do as badly teaching those from better-educated families as they do teaching those from the less well educated.
In short, Common Core advocates saw a real problem, recognized the advantages of working in unison (pooling data, creating sufficient market for challenging textbooks, etc.) and came up with Common Core standards, which are not curriculum and are not descended from on high from the Obama administration. (Read for yourself the Common Core standards, and you’ll see they are devoid of the subversive elements right-wing critics claim.) Experts may differ over which of the standards are too weak and which too stringent, but this really should not be a politicized issue; it is a pedagogical debate (e.g. Are the standards properly ordered? Are they strenuous enough? Are they missing key components for math proficiency?). Only by mislabeling Common Core as a left-wing federal plot does it become a political litmus test.
The alternative to Common Core is either to ignore the problem or devise state-specific standards. The latter is happening in Indiana. Right-wing critics see that the new Indiana curriculum duplicates a lot of the Common Core. (Sure enough, you need to master algebra and reading comprehension in both!) Academic critics say the Indiana standards were diluted or contain errors. We will see how the development time and expense, implementation, curriculum and test results in a state with its own standards match up against the 40-plus states using Common Core. But if the critics’ alternative is for every state to go through this process, which inevitably involves copying a lot of what is in Common Core and very likely will come out no better, the objections seem to be overwrought. (And if a handful of states that already have superior standards, they claim, want to keep them or others want to use them, then all the better.)
Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane of the American Enterprise Institute write that the “impulse to undo an ambitious reform that was adopted with little scrutiny or debate is a healthy and understandable one. But criticism unaccompanied by solutions is a self-defeating strategy. Common Core critics need to make sure they’re saying more than just ‘no.’ ” And they should make sure the no is based on what Common Core actually is, an academic assessment of the pros and cons of the system, and a reasoned argument as to why it is bad per se to use standards developed jointly by states.
Then there is the matter of timing. Common Core, like it or not, is already happening. A 2013 report confirms that “the efforts under way to make teachers aware of the standards and the instructional shifts they imply are unprecedented in their scope and intensity. And because the standards have been adopted by  states and the District of Columbia, cross state and national efforts, which could not have happened when each state developed its own standards, are now possible.” As of last year, “in 30 states, curricula aligned to the common core were already being taught in at least some districts or grade levels. All states surveyed had developed and disseminated plans for implementation; nearly all had conducted analyses comparing the common core standards to previous state standards; 29 had developed curriculum guides or materials aligned to the common core; and 18 had revised assessments to reflect the standards (another 15 planned to do so in the 2013–14 school year.” The economies of size are also unfolding. (“While state-level efforts are under way, national organizations and firms are also engaged in developing materials and preparing educators to revamp instruction and supervision around the common core standards. The fact that the standards have been adopted by so many states makes possible cross state partnerships that could not have taken place when each state developed its own standards. The most extensive cross state effort to implement the common core standards is being undertaken by the two state consortia that are developing the assessments to measure student performance against them.”) The train has not only left the station but is halfway to its destination.
In some ways this is a typical right-wing flap. The opponents’ arguments are contrived and largely factually incorrect, and it’s rather late to do anything about it unless they propose even more disruption. One can vent over Common Core, call foul, use it to vilify insufficiently pure conservatives and have no responsibility for doing anything constructive. Perfect for the anti-immigration, pro-shutdown, purity squad!
This is a shame not only because it is dishonest and stirs animosity while doing nothing to improve education, but also because there are some real issues that could use attention. AEI’s Daniel Lautzenheiser writes, “I think that one can make a compelling conservative case for both high standards, period, and for greater information on student performance to foster a more vibrant K-12 education market (high expectations and markets being bedrock conservative principles). I think fears of federal overreach are largely (though not entirely) overblown. That said, every grandiose vision needs to grapple with difficulties on the ground.” He complains about lack of transparency in the state testing consortia. Other concerns include teacher training, developing curricula that will prepare students to meet the standards and gathering feedback that will allow corrections and adjustments to the new standards.
It is not a legitimate complaint to say, “But our kids will flunk!” That is a confession of educational malpractice and conveys either hopelessness or resistance to bringing K-12 education up several notches. If parents and schools want to keep fooling themselves that what they did in the past was sufficient (but simultaneously insufficient to meet tougher standards?), they can, I suppose, muddle along. But the results will speak for themselves. Governors, school administrators, teachers and parents who choose to dump Common Core — just like the governors, administrators, teachers and parents who are wrestling with it — will be held accountable for the results. If a state wants to keep a K-12 system that produces students who compare unfavorably to kids in a number of Asian countries and places such as Portugal and Latvia (!), they can hardly complain if their kids aren’t able to compete in a global economy, businesses won’t locate there and employers seek more immigrants to fill the brain gap.