The effort to devise national academic standards has boiled over like a pot of unwatched chili on the stove: The smoke’s downright toxic.
The federal Common Core standards developed by educators and endorsed by many governors has spurred something of a political frenzy, judging by some of the rhetoric at this weekend’s gathering of Republican statewide candidates.
Some of the arguments marshaled against Common Core border on the hysterical, with talk about the United Nations, Agenda 21 and the threat that our children will become pliant drones for the socialist world order.
Well, that’s just silly.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t face a serious problem as a result of this rush toward the imposition of national academic standards, a national curriculum, an obsessive reliance on high-stakes standardized testing and federal threats of funding cutoff for any state that doesn’t fall into line.
It’s hard to see the big picture for all the billows of chili pepper smoke rolling off the political stove, but Common Core increasingly looks like another bungled good idea.
The roots of Common Core really go back to the disastrous effort to implement the equally well-intended No Child Left Behind. That bi-partisan initiative offered billions in additional federal aid for schools showing steady improvement on standardized tests. Incredibly, the standards included an escalation clause that eventually would require every single child to pass the tests at every single grade level — an obvious impossibility.
Predictably, No Child Left Behind was on track to penalize every school in the country as “failing.” So the federal government started handing out waivers like lollipops in the doctor’s waiting room — while still requiring districts to link teacher evaluations to the patently impossible standards.
Trying to save some sort of national benchmark from the wreckage of No Child Left Behind, a state effort led by the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the private consulting firm Achieve and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation developed the Common Core standards and assessments. They worked mostly behind closed doors with representatives of the companies who stood to make millions by developing the tests and curriculum. Almost no K-12 teachers or parents participated in the initial development of the standards, although they were later invited to tweak the standards and curriculum.
The core idea behind the standards made sense: Focus on critical thinking and career readiness, compare students from state to state and ensure our students can compete on a global stage.
But just like No Child Left Behind, the implementation may prove a fiasco — even if it isn’t a plot by the United Nations to brainwash kids.
On the political front, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate David Garcia has offered the most cogent analysis of the effort we’ve heard so far. He praised the standards themselves, but criticized the federal controls and obsession with high-stakes, standardized testing. The standards can offer a baseline — and a valuable comparison to students nationally and internationally. But a heavy-handed, inflexible imposition of a single-mindedly, test-based approach will do more harm than good. The standards can help, but only school boards retain flexibility and control.
But that insightful approach may soon get lost in the partisan bickering. The state Legislature produced several bills that would have effectively pulled Arizona out of the Common Core standards. Gov. Brewer vetoed those bills to avoid losing vast sums of federal money in a state already dead last in per-student funding. An abrupt pullout would also leave in shambles efforts by every district in the state to adapt.
We need look no further than the state of Washington for a measure of the threat. The federal government has threatened to pull all its funding for Washington schools because the state hasn’t moved quickly enough to link teacher evaluations to student test scores.
So rather than trying to turn Common Core into the latest warped issue in the bitter and circular culture wars, we hope state leaders will adopt a more rational approach by embracing standards without squandering flexibility and local control. It doesn’t help to crank the burner on the political rhetoric to high.
No doubt about it — the chili has boiled over and we’ve got a hell of a mess.
But before we start the cleanup, we’d best turn off the stove.