TPM Cafe: Opinion

Despite All The Conspiracy Theories, Common Core Is Actually Just Boring

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AP Photo

Even if both sides are trying to sober their attacks a bit, we shouldn’t confuse that for a cessation in hostilities. The end of the most cartoonish rhetoric is a sign that what was until pretty recently just a “fight” (mostly conducted out in fringe territory) is fast becoming a full-on political “war.” That means that both sides need to reach out to the large group of Americans heretofore uninvolved with the Common Core trenches. These are folks who aren’t necessarily inclined to embrace the standards at first blush, but who aren’t likely to be convinced by wild-eyed charges that the standards are part of an extensive neo-Hitlerian plot (complete with iris scans).

And honestly, even if everyone involved takes it down a notch, we’re not going to get a serious discussion of the Common Core’s actual merits. This is political rhetoric, after all, and a certain amount of exaggeration comes with the territory.

But it’s time for all partisans involved to admit it: the Common Core is actually not that big of a deal.

Really.

Skeptics: not only is the Common Core not a nefarious U.N. plot or a national curriculum — it’s not even a particularly new sort of reform of American public education. It’s just a bunch of standards that replace the old standards that states were using. Standards are not new. These are just higher than most states’ old ones. Same goes for the assessments being developed in connection with them. Anyone who — like me — went through public education in the United States over the last few decades knows that we’ve had (terrible, exceedingly boring, pretty rote) standardized assessments for years.

These are just newer, tougher, and — yes — generally better exams that replace states' old tests. Same goes for the standards’ and assessments’ role in states’ new teacher evaluation systems. Those aren’t the fault of Common Core; they’re largely a function of the Obama Administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers and its Race to the Top grants competition. If the Common Core disappeared tomorrow, the new teacher evaluation systems would still exist.

Supporters: by the same token, the Common Core really isn’t really an especially powerful lever for addressing the dramatic inequities and underperformance endemic to American public education. After all, if our schools were largely falling short of the (generally lower) standards we’ve been setting, is there any reason to expect that raising standards alone will somehow significantly improve their abilities? If an athlete can’t clear a four foot high jump, is there any reason to believe that raising the bar to six feet will improve her performance? Hardly. It’s going to take more resources and plenty of training for her — or our schools — to clear the new standards we’re setting.

Common Core standards are neither a curse nor a cure-all. Neither pox nor panacea. But we should still stick with them. Why? Here’s something that most Americans don’t realize about our education system: we rarely have a good idea about what’s going on. We spend billions each year on a system without any serious commitment to collecting good data. And the Common Core would considerably help fix that situation.

Consider the fact that we have almost no national data on what American students know or can do until they reach 4th grade. Until then, our national education picture is pretty much a black box. Our state data is little better. While No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002, required states to collect and release more data on their schools’ performance, it allowed them to define most of the relevant variables. That is, math proficiency in Massachusetts had no connection to math proficiency in South Carolina, Hawaii, or Maine.

Does it matter that we can’t compare states’ educational performance? If we care about learning from those vaunted “laboratories of democracy,” then yes, it does. For instance, recent enthusiasm for expanding access to and improving the quality of early education programs has inspired a number of states red, blue, and purple to invest resources there. Given that there are ongoing efforts to expand federal early education investments, surely we have an interest in knowing whether these new state programs work. But if Michigan expands its pre-K program and Indiana doesn’t, the differences in what they teach and assess in their K–12 systems will make it harder to get serious comparative data on whether Michigan’s investment was comparatively worth it.

We often wistfully suggest that the American government should run more like American businesses. Would any CEO agree to have her managers evaluate their divisions against a wide variety of mission statements and inconsistent accounting standards? Of course not. But this is essentially what we do with American public education today.

All of this confusion, by the way, adds to the polarization of American education debates. The absence of reliable data makes it easier for all parties involved to pick and choose between partial, incommensurable data sets.

So take it easy: the Common Core isn’t likely to meaningfully change kids’ public school experiences in the coming years. And sorry, but it can’t solve many of our myriad educational problems. However, it can help us build a baseline of data reliability that will help organize what has traditionally been a stubbornly opaque system. That may not be rhetoric to stir the soul, but it’s probably closer to the truth than anything else you’ll hear about the Common Core in the coming months.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.