Despite initial acceptance of the Common Core Standards by 46 states, there has been an explosion of protests against them at meetings across the nation, pitting parents, community members, and lawmakers against each other in often bitter and heavily partisan conflict. The Standards were initiated in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and were developed by educators, administrators, and subject-matter experts “to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.” They were also available for comment by the general public. The result was the creation of a set of voluntary national standards in math and reading, which specify the specific skills that students should master at different levels of their education, set to be implemented by 2014.
The Current Controversy
Several states are having second thoughts, due to the decision of the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) to grant No Child Left Behind waivers to those states that adopt the Common Core, which some argue makes the Standards a requirement rather than a voluntary measure. In South Carolina, for example, Governor Nikki Haley announced that she would try to block acceptance and implementation of the Common Core, even though her state has already committed to them. She said, “Just as we should not relinquish control of education to the Federal government, neither should we cede it to the consensus of other states.”
Governor Haley’s response is representative of the current resistance to the Common Core, which largely comes from conservative leaders. Both the Brookings Institute and the Cato Institute, conservative and libertarian think tanks, respectively, have issued statements recently that argue that the implementation of the Common Core is an example of the overreach of federal powers and will result in a “national curriculum” that will deny individual states the right to determine their own educational policies.
The Educators’ Position
Educators seem, for the most part, to support the Standards. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten asserted that the fears of the conservative critics are “ridiculous” because the Standards are not a curriculum that specifies content, but are instead a guide for educators on what skills should be achieved by students. This is borne out by the Common Core Standards website, which states that
“The Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.”
Further, even though some specified content is included, such as the founding documents of the United States, classical mythology, and Shakespeare, states and even school districts themselves decide on the bulk of the curriculum content, and use their self-selected content to meet the skills established by the Standards. In fact, the Common Core Standards are not even unilateral in every state. In Montana, for example, the Common Core Standards were adjusted to include the state-mandated program Indian Education for All.
The conservative objections to the Common Core Standards are ironic because the earliest calls for national education standards came from Republican politicians and educators. In 1994, President George H.W. Bush established the GOALS 2000: Educate America plan, which included the following provision:
The Act establishes a National Education Standards and Improvement Council to examine and certify national and state content, student performance, opportunity-to-learn standards, and assessment systems voluntarily submitted by states. The movement to develop voluntary national standards has already begun. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has developed standards. The U.S. Department of Education is funding development of standards for the arts, civics and government, English language arts, foreign languages, geography, history, and science. These standards will identify what all students should know and be able to do to live and work in the 21st century.
Compare that initiative by a conservative Republican president to the stated goal of the Common Core Standards:
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.
There are striking similarities between the goals of these two initiatives, but there is also one big difference: GOALS 2000 was much more comprehensive and specified much more extensive levels of national or federal control over many more areas of curriculum. The Common Core Standards only involve Language Arts and Math. It should also be noted that the signature piece of legislation that ties federal funding to standardized tests is No Child Left Behind. Though individual states determine the content of their standardized tests, the core issue is the same: the unilateral creation of specific academic standards that all educators must meet.
Tempest in a Tea(Party) Pot?
So why is there so much rancor over the Common Core Standards today, mostly coming from the political right? Many argue that this is inspired by Tea Party anti-government activism, which is focused on limiting the reach of the federal government into the states and includes opposition to more federal involvement in education. However, it may be that this is a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. Governor Nikki Haley might have opposed South Carolina’s adoption of the Standards, but that didn’t prevent South Carolina tabling the bill that would reject them in April, effectively killing the measure. In addition, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana supports national standards.
Finally, an August 2011 poll by the nonprofit organization Achieve revealed that 66% of voters believe that states should have the same educational standards in Math and Language Arts instead of individual state standards. It seems, then, that even though there are some outspoken and high-profile voices resisting the implementation of the Common Core Standards, most Americans seem to agree with former President Bill Clinton, who said,
“Anybody who says that a country as big and diverse as ours can’t possibly have national standards in the basics – I say from Maryland to Michigan to Montana, reading is reading, and math is math. No school board is in charge of algebra and no state legislature can’t enact the laws of physics.”
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