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Common Standards: Blaming and Bragging in Presidential Campaign

The common core is not a federal initiative. Say it again: The common core is not a federal initiative. This is what the core's biggest advocates have been repeating—and urging everyone else to repeat, and believe—in their bid to build support for one of the biggest educational initiatives to come along in years.

But as the presidential campaign ramps up, the common core is getting tossed about in the federal arena like so much pigskin in football season. Last week, we heard President Obama take credit, albeit in a veiled sort of way, for the fact that federal incentives like Race to the Top helped the movement toward near-universal adoption of the standards. Last night, at the GOP convention in Tampa, we heard former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum heap blame on Obama for that role, saying he helped "nationalize curriculum."

If you look at that speech Obama gave last week at a Nevada high school, and you lift out the one sentence about the common standards, you see that he doesn't actually say that federal officials led the common-standards fight. What he said was simple: "Almost every state has now agreed to raise standards for teaching and learning." But if you read that sentence in the larger context of that section of the speech, it comes off a bit differently. The common-standards reference was one in a series of things for which Obama clearly was claiming credit in his bid to sell himself to voters on education:

"And I haven't just talked the talk, I've walked the walk on this. Over the past four years, we've broken through the traditional stalemate that used to exist between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. We launched a national competition to improve all our schools. We put more money into it, but we also demanded reform. We want teachers to be paid better and treated like the professionals that they are. But we're also demanding more accountability, including the ability of school districts to replace teachers that aren't cutting it. For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, almost every state has now agreed to raise standards for teaching and learning—and that's the first time it's happened in a generation. And then, we've worked with Democrats and Republicans to fix No Child Left Behind."

A carefully constructed paragraph technically sidestepped the delicate issue of how much federal incentives—as opposed to states' own academic convictions—drove the common-standards movement. The only sentence in that paragraph that doesn't use the word "we" is the one about the standards.

If you think you heard common-standards advocates pounding their heads on walls across America when Obama and Santorum made those comments, you might not have been wrong.

Any whiff of credit-taking by the Obama administration only complicates common-core proponents' work to persuade doubters that states (States! Hear that? States!!) were the ones driving the common-standards initiative. That states adopted the standards not because they were drooling over Race to the Top money, or waivers from NCLB, but because they're better than what they've already got. Not long ago, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Checker Finn told me that federal officials risk loving the standards to death.

The trick, of course, is to keep a bright line between the perception of an initiative that originated with, and is controlled by, the federal government and an initiative that originated with states but has the support of the federal government. How you view the origin and locus of control in the common-standards initiative, and what vested interest you have in helping others see it the way you do, are key drivers in the debate about an education issue in an election year.

Suggestions such as Santorum's—that common standards will "nationalize" curriculum—hit that local-control nerve that's so raw at the moment, raising the specter of little children everywhere turning the same page in their history books at the same moment on the same day in November, all because of "the feds," or, at the very least, "outsiders."

What effect the common core will actually have on curriculum is an open question, since all the players are in high scramble mode: publishers, district curriculum developers, professional-development groups, the assessment consortia, and untold others who are all producing stuff that will pass as curriculum, or at least curriculum materials. How good that stuff is, and how well aligned it is to the core, will be answered in time. With so many folks feverishly at work on an array of materials, it's hard to imagine the kind of lock-step uniformity of curriculum that the word "nationalize" brings to mind.

But in a political environment, the actual degree of uniformity, or the actual locus of origin and control, might end up mattering less than the perception of those things.

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