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Get Politics Out of the Common Core

There can be no significant reform of higher education without a major overhaul of primary education and extensive changes in secondary education. One of the reasons students are graduating without being prepared to compete in today’s workplace is that far too many arrive at college without the knowledge and background to do college-level work. They have to spend their time catching up rather than taking the courses they need for their degree programs.

That poses significant challenges and creates extra costs for colleges, as well as for students and their families. According to some studies, remedial work is necessary for as many as 50 percent of community-college students and 20 percent of students at four-year colleges. The estimated price tag of that additional instruction is $1.9-billion to $2.3-billion for community colleges and an additional $500-million for four-year colleges.

Acknowledging that what we are doing is not working and that change is urgently needed, more than 200 leaders in higher education recently formed a coalition, Higher Ed for Higher Standards, to support the adoption of the Common Core, a set of standards for precollegiate education. Timing is crucial. The standards were adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia but within the past year, they have become the target of increasingly spirited criticism from people and organizations with competing agendas, and some states are reconsidering participation. Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system, rightfully notes that “ if we start throwing in the towel now on Common Core, we won’t have another moment like this.”

Some educators and parents complain that the standards are insufficient to improve the overall quality of education; others, fearing low test results will put some students and school systems at a disadvantage, are concerned that the bar has been set too high. Some worry that the standards will curtail innovative teaching and encourage teachers to teach to the test, and as more school systems tie teacher evaluations to test results, those fears become more intense.

Amid charges that the Obama administration is forcing school systems to move too quickly, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a strong supporter of the Common Core, recently recommended a two-year moratorium on all decisions related to it. A spokeswoman for the foundation insists that move does not represent any second thoughts about the program; to the contrary, the delay is intended to allow time to increase support and facilitate smoothly putting it into effect. It is possible, however, that this tactic will backfire—critics might use the delay to muster more opposition to the Common Core.

The calculated politicization of educational reform in the last year makes that more likely. It is already clear that heated debates about our educational system will play a crucial role in forthcoming state and national elections. With Obamacare gaining traction, influential members of the Republican Party have shifted the focus of their ideological attack on big government from health care to education. The Common Core has been cast as another example of the interference of government in the lives of individual citizens. For a group of influential conservatives, its rejection is a new litmus test for potential Congressional and presidential candidates. For their part, liberals have begun to charge that the Common Core is an attack on progressive, personalized education. For example in New York State, after both houses in legislature called for a re-examination of the program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat and previously a strong supporter of the Common Core, created a group to re-evaluate it.

There is bitter irony in this turn of events because educational reform has, until recently, been a bipartisan issue. In the current climate, however, the facts in a crucial national debate are being—intentionally or unintentionally—distorted.

First and most important, as the name implies, the Common Core State Standards did not originate with the federal government; they are an example of precisely the kind bipartisanship and creative cooperation between public and private sectors that is necessary for any significant change to occur. As problems mounted with President George W. Bush’s 2002 law, No Child Left Behind, it became clear that the quality of standards developed by states to meet the law’s requirements in elementary and secondary education varied considerably. Recognizing the need for rigorous and consistent standards, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers brought together a team of educators and experts, without the intervention of the federal government, to devise criteria for assessment that would define core standards. While designed those core standards were designed to accomplish common goals, states have been allowed to develop their own plans for putting the standards into effect and given enough flexibility to adjust timetables to accommodate local conditions.

What made success possible was the willingness of state education leaders to set aside political differences in order to develop the kind of system necessary for children to flourish and the United States to remain competitive in the 21st century. Their initial success is now in jeopardy. As Congressional and the presidential elections approach, the pressure for other states to withdraw from the program will certainly increase.

In addition to support from the Gates foundation, the business community has been a strong backer of the Common Core: The U. S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, for example, have weighed in about the program’s importance. The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute (supported by the Gates foundation) recently concluded that the standards are “very, very strong,” and “clearly superior” to many existing state standards.

Leaders of the business community understand better than many educators that in a high-tech information society, economic equality presupposes the equality of educational opportunities. Educational reform is not, however, merely an economic matter: A viable educational system is essential to the quality of our personal, social, and cultural lives. If efforts to provide a quality education to not begin at the elementary and secondary level (and at pre-K), they will falter at the postsecondary level.

Unfortunately, far too many people in higher education remain so caught up in the narrow range of their own professional preoccupations that they are oblivious to the urgent need for significant reform of precollege education that the Common Core is designed to promote. The American education system is a complex network in which the strength of each sector depends on the others. Nor does it exist in isolation from other local, national, and global networks of communication and exchange that shape our world. Change requires support from educators, politicians willing to set aside partisan differences and short-term interests, and concerned leaders from the private sector. The success of any ambitious reform movement requires thoughtful debate and constructive criticism from people and organizations with different viewpoints and sometimes conflicting interests. But these debates cannot go on forever. The time for action is now.

Mark C. Taylor is chair of the department of religion at Columbia University. His book Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have Little Left will be published in October by Yale University Press.

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