Throughout the presidential debates, Barack Obama repeated a statement that may sound strange to the average American. Speaking on education, the president twice noted that his administration has been working with 46 states to implement school reform. While he did not explicitly cite the initiative by name in either of the first two debates, Obama was referring to the Common Core State Standards – a national curriculum that 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted over the past two years.
Though only given passing mentions, it’s a small miracle that the president has made any reference to this underreported effort at all. Both candidates and their parties have largely remained silent on Common Core until now. In fact, one recent poll by the D.C.-based nonprofit Achieve shows that 79 percent of Americans know “nothing” or “not much” about Common Core. As a result, millions of parents across the country send their children to school every day without any idea that American education as we know it is drastically changing.
So, what is the Common Core? Supposedly they are a “state-led effort” by the National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State School Officers aimed at achieving greater uniformity in what American students are taught across state lines. But, make no mistake about it, Common Core amounts to a federal mandate. The Obama administration has practically required its adoption for states to be eligible for federal benefits such as the multimillion-dollar Race to the Top grants and waivers from No Child Left Behind’s burdensome benchmarks.
Like almost all of Washington’s centralized solutions, Common Core fails to make the grade. While created with the good intention of reducing the student achievement gap between states, it ignores the larger disparities within the states themselves. As the Brookings Institution aptly noted in its 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, “The variation within states is four to five times larger than the variation between them” for scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – widely accepted as the yardstick to measure student performance. Common Core completely ignores these internal inequalities, focusing on states rather than the individual needs of our schools and children. They are looking at the wrong problem for our schooling woes.
Indeed, Brookings’ report casts doubt on the notion that curriculum should be the center of educational reform at all. It cites a 2009 study by Grover “Russ” Whitehurst that investigated whether the rigor of states’ educational standards was correlated with their students’ NAEP scores. He found none. Unsurprisingly, tailoring a single curriculum to children from diverse backgrounds and with different levels of skill is an impossible task.
American school children have already suffered through enough standards-based educational reforms like Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000 and George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind. Despite the reforms, no major gains in student achievement have been seen on NAEP whatsoever even with dramatic increases in education funding. Yet, both presidential candidates continue saying the same clichés about further increasing education funding and hiring more teachers without mentioning real reform and barely recognizing Common Core – a policy that will cement standards-based educational reform’s failure in the states.
Enough is enough. Parents should start demanding that their elected officials stand up against Common Core’s one-size-fits-all uniform that is not fitted to their children’s individual needs. Rather, the only solution suited for every single student is school choice, where parents are given greater freedom in deciding which school is best able to meet their child’s needs. Until such demands are made, Common Core will only continue to receive passing mentions in discussions and decision-making.
Casey Given is the state policy analyst with Americans for Prosperity.