The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A poster child for Common Core

Attendees wait for the beginning of a session at the 2015 Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Friday in Oklahoma City. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Today at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference gathering in Oklahoma, Republican 2016 hopefuls (with the exception of Jeb Bush) will be denouncing Common Core and extolling the notion that Oklahoma parents and lawmakers know best how to educate their children. This is where Common Core decriers need a reality check.

As a preliminary matter, let’s acknowledge some basic facts: Common Core was a joint project by the states to raise educational standards. It does not mandate curriculum, but rather, sets benchmarks for what students should learn at each grade level. For now, I’m not so much concerned with the routine distortions of fact that we hear from the anti-Common Core crowd.

To be blunt, Oklahoma parents, schools and lawmakers have done a lousy job — one of the lousiest in the country — in educating  children, and it is a perfect case where the anti-Common Core crowd wreaked havoc. This year we learned that “Oklahoma received a D+ grade and a 48th-place finish among the 50 states and District of Columbia in Education’s Week’s annual rankings of education quality indicators.” This is not an outlier. Oklahoma has consistently ranked below national scores on the widely used National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which measures what students across the nation know in 10 subject areas, including mathematics, reading, writing and science. Just a fraction of its students were proficient in reading and math.

And when you consider that Oklahoma students are near the bottom of the barrel in the United States, which is declining in comparison withe the rest of the world as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, you can see that Oklahoma’s kids have not been prepared to compete in the global economy. No wonder an Oklahoma student was featured in the landmark book “The Smartest Kids in the World.” Even a motivated student desiring to study abroad was entirely unprepared when encountering schools with high academic standards.

It was with this background that Oklahoma ventured to improve its schools. Sure, kids were graduating, but they weren’t learning much. The effort to raise standards was a recognition that the status quo was unacceptable. Oklahoma adopted Common Core, as many states did in 2010. The state had several years to ramp up.

But then the anti-Common Core crowd descended. It lamented the imposition of “outside” standards and worried that Oklahoma’s kids couldn’t measure up. Business leaders defended the standards and were horrified, fearing regression in education standards. Nevertheless, the politicians crumbled, and Oklahoma withdrew Common Core in 2014 before it was implemented, deciding to revert to Oklahoma’s own pathetic standards. Since Oklahoma had sought a waiver under No Child Left Behind because it was improving its schools, it lost its funds when it decided to pull out and could not demonstrate that it was implementing equally stringent standards. Not all states suffered this fate: Indiana extended its waiver “because it did what the Sooner State could not: find a suitable replacement for the Common Core.” The governor who flipped on support for Common Core was irate, saying her state was being punished. It’s hard to find much sympathy for her. (“Some have slammed Oklahoma’s decision to ditch the Common Core, given its performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only 25 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math and 29 percent are considered proficient in reading.”)

Here’s the bottom line: If activists are anti-Common Core want to pull out of a program their own state helped create, fine. But then they have an obligation to replace it with something at least as good, and if not, why should taxpayers from other states subsidize rotten schools run by people who flinch in the face of uniformed protests? A really nervy Republican would have told the crowd that Oklahoma parents, schools and lawmakers are doing a lousy job educating their kids. They have to get their schools in order, and part of that is implementing high standards. Unfortunately, these people are running for reelection. Perhaps they could at least refrain from cheering failure and pandering to know-nothingism.