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Why more states are backing off Common Core

July 3, 2014 at 8:11 PM EDT
A growing number of states are dropping the Common Core education standards. And several states committed to keeping the guidelines have postponed implementation. Jeffrey Brown talks to Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Carmel Martin of the Center for American Progress about the backlash behind the standards, and the debate that lies ahead.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now that we’re into July, most students and teachers in the U.S. are enjoying their summer vacation from the classroom. But that hasn’t stopped the red-hot debate over the so called Common Core public education standards for K-12 and new tests that go along with them.

The battle is picking up momentum on several fronts, as Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: One major battleground, a growing list of states that are dropping the Common Core standards. Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have done so. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has issued an order for his state to join them.

But now even places committed to keeping the guidelines are deciding to slow things down. At least seven states and Washington, D.C., have postponed tying teacher and school evaluations to student scores on Common Core-based tests.

For a breakdown of what’s going on, we check in with Carmel Martin, executive vice president of the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of education, and Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute.

And welcome to both of you.

CARMEL MARTIN, Center for American Progress: Thanks for having us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carmel Martin, you backed the Common Core idea. Remind us what the essence of it is and why it would be a useful move.

CARMEL MARTIN: Well, the essence is, a group of state actors got together, a bunch of governors and chief state school officers, on a bipartisan basis, got around — got together and said our current system of patchwork of standards isn’t working. We have one in four students going to college and they are showing up there not ready for college-level work.

Only a third of our eighth graders are proficient in math or reading. So these state leaders said, we should fix this problem. And one of the things we need to do to fix the problem is to have a new set of standards that are aligned to what the core set of content and skills that students need to be successful in college and in career.

And they got together and developed the Common Core. And we believe very strongly that that’s a very important foundation upon which to build our education system.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Rick Hess, states were backing it, but now some are not. What’s downsides? What are the concerns?

RICK HESS, American Enterprise Institute: There’s really three things.

One, we talk a lot about the Common Core standards. Standards are a lot like that mission statement you see in McDonald’s when you walk in. You would like the service to be quick and prompt and good. Doesn’t actually mean very much.

The reality is, the significance of the Common Core has been dramatically overblown by both sides. Second is, Common Core is two things. It’s standards and it’s tests. The standards don’t actually matter very much. What matters is the tests, and that’s the part that’s fallen — that’s the thing that’s falling apart.

And, third, you — if it had truly been a bipartisan group of governors doing this, without a lot of federal intervention, I don’t think you would be seeing this blowback. The reality as it has played out, there has been dramatic intervention by the Obama administration, and that has politicized an issue that didn’t need to be politicized.

JEFFREY BROWN: Address the blowback from the states that I referred to that are pushing back and dropping it, because of what — they’re basically saying it’s a local issue and the federal government should be out of this.

CARMEL MARTIN: Well, it is a local issue, and it was developed — these standards were developed by local and state leaders. They brought in experts from around the country. They brought in teachers to come in and ask their opinion. They brought people from the business sector, the military, the post-secondary sector.

And it was a locally driven thing. What the Obama administration did was, they backed the play of a lot of state and local leaders. And I don’t think that was inappropriate for them to do so. I mean, we have seen efforts in the past where the federal government tried to develop a national set of standards.

That’s not what this is. And I think it’s appropriate — an appropriate act of federalism for the president and the secretary of education to say, you have got a great idea here, we think it offers a tremendous amount of prospects for our children, we’re going to support you in what you’re doing.

And I think that’s the opposite of federal overreach. I think what’s happening in a lot of the states that are backing off is there are some folks on the right who are using this as a political football. We see within the Republican Party, there’s an extreme wing that’s pushing their leaders to take what I think are nonsensical stances.

You see — Governor Jindal is a good example. He supported the Common Core, but he got attacked politically and he backed away. And I think what we need to do is to say to these state leaders, they need to — if they want to turn away from the Common Core, they should do it because, substantively, they don’t think the standards are good. They should not do it for political reasons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, a political football. It clearly has gone into the political realm, but is that what is driving the opposition?

RICK HESS: Well, we often reminds ourselves that public schools spend $600 billion a year in public funds. They serve 50 million of the public’s children.

The way that we make decisions in America is through the political process, so this should be a political conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Should be. So, there’s nothing wrong with it?

RICK HESS: Nothing wrong with it.

In fact, the fact that 40-odd states signed on to the Common Core essentially in the dark of night in ’09 and 2010 with little discussion and little media coverage actually should give us pause. We’re supposed to debate these kinds of things in America.

Look, the reality is President Obama and Secretary Duncan rewarded states for adopting Common Core through the Race to the Top program. They have encouraged states to adopt them through their Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers. They put 350 million federal dollars into the tests.

The 2012 Democratic national platform credited President Obama with getting states to adopt the Common Core. Unfortunately, the Obama administration, for whatever reason, has decided that it wants to be driving this train. And I think it’s unsurprising that Republican governors worried about state prerogatives are pushing back.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about some of the moves to slow things down even from proponents?

CARMEL MARTIN: Well, first, I just want to point out…

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

CARMEL MARTIN: … these standards, instead of — these standards were under development before President Obama was President Obama. It didn’t happen overnight.

They took years. The group of state leaders that developed these standards, Democrats and Republicans, took years. They built stakeholder support, and they also built a process that brought in a tremendous amount of stakeholder input, including hundreds of teachers.

I think the cause for the pause is because — on the implementation side. I mean, I think one thing that Rick and I can agree about is that standards don’t have a lot of meaning if you don’t do the hard work translating those standards into good teaching.

And that takes work, it takes resources. And I think there’s been some concerns about the implementation effort — efforts being uneven. So, I think, in terms of the pause, we can’t pause. Kids can’t wait. They only have one chance at an education, so we can’t pause in terms of implementing the standards and modifying teaching to meet those standards, because all our kids deserve high expectations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you afraid a pause might lose even more momentum to the Common Core goal?

CARMEL MARTIN: Well, I think we need to be careful to distinguish between a pause with respect to implementing the standards and moving forward with developing and implementing high-quality assessments aligned to those standards, as well as textbooks and curriculum, and having a pause on how test results are used.

I think it is fair to teachers and to schools and to students to say, it’s a whole new set of standards, it’s a brand-new test. We’re going to give you an opportunity to adjust to those things before we hold you to high stakes attached to just a test score.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a last word, Rick Hess. Where do you see this — do you see the opposition continuing to grow?

RICK HESS: I think so.

What’s important to keep in mind is, we had a pretty healthy bipartisan agreement on school reform in this country for about a four- or five-year stretch. One of the unfortunate things is, by pushing Common Core in this way, you have seen a fragmentation of what that was, that strong bipartisan push around teacher evaluation, around efforts to reward great teachers.

And because — Common Core is a lot like the plumbing in your house. It’s designed to touch everything. It’s the standards teachers are teaching to, the tests that schools and teachers are being judged on.

Unfortunately, once you start tinkering with that plumbing, if you don’t get it just right, you are going to get a lot of leaks and it’s going to get touch a lot of rooms, and that’s where we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we will continue to follow this.

Rick Hess and Carmel Martin, thank you both very much.

RICK HESS: Thank you.

CARMEL MARTIN: Thanks for having us.