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Should Conservatives Cuddle Up to the Common Core? My Take on the Finn-Petrilli v. Greene Debate

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During the past week, my pals Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, and Jay Greene have been sparring over the question of whether conservatives ought to embrace the Common Core standards. Petrilli and Finn have argued in a thoughtful National Review Online column that No Child Left Behind fueled an explosion of mediocre state standards, undermining accountability and reform. Greene has responded that there's good reason to believe that the Common Core won't deliver on its promises and that it will impose real costs. As usual, Joanne Jacobs and Alexander Russo have been all over this.

For what it's worth, here's my two cents: I think Finn-Petrilli and Greene are both right. Checker and Mike are absolutely correct that the standards were developed by a state-led partnership, are superior to those in place in most states, and that transparency and market efficiency can benefit dramatically from a clear, rigorous, national standard. They could also argue that uniform standards and performance measures can better allow new problem-solvers to prove their mettle, compete on a level playing field, and more readily deliver useful tools and techniques to more schools and students. These are all things that conservatives can embrace.

But Jay is right, too, in pointing out that this "state-led" effort has been aggressively driven by the Obama administration, that there's a huge chance this will dramatically boost federal control of K-12 schooling, that teacher unions and other status quo interests will make their influence felt, and that state and local control will be undermined. And then there are the enormous implementation hurdles ahead--with excellent reasons to fear that states will fail to negotiate them.

Even if persuaded by the Finn-Petrilli case as to the substantive merits of the Common Core, one must survey the complex politics of implementation and see a happy path through its uneven landscape. The good: a stunning political triumph, a surprisingly good set of standards, a strong start, and astonishing success in terms of state adoption.

The bad: the recognition that all of the action thus far amounts to the first few miles of a marathon. Past experience teaches that the odds aren't great that states, funders, vendors, and the feds will maintain their stride when it comes to making the tedious, small-bore, and potentially costly--but critical--revisions to assessments, accountability, curricula, professional development, teacher education, and instructional materials.

And the ugly: the reality that a slew of governors, state chiefs, and legislators will be turning over this fall, that the officials charged with enacting the common core may have only slight investment in the effort, and that even sympathetic leaders may have little inclination to spend what it'll take to do it right as they struggle with gaping fiscal holes in 2011 and beyond.

There are telling parallels to NCLB. Back in 2001, conservative thought was similarly split on NCLB. The Bushies argued that standards, transparency, accountability, and choice for students in failing schools were pillars of conservative reform--while critics saw overreach, the perils of wrong-headed implementation, and a Trojan horse that could open the way for all kinds of federal mischief. Both sides made good points. But the aftermath reminded us that grand political projects (conservative or liberal) tend to look best in the early days, while the conservative temperament has historically attended to unanticipated consequences and warily emphasized what might go wrong. (Indeed, it was Petrilli who penned a chapter titled "The Problem with 'Implementation is the Problem'" for a book that Checker and I edited back in 2007. In that piece, Mike pointed out that the problem with NCLB's school choice provisions, which he liked in theory, was not a case of bungled implementation but of advocates wishing away design flaws and political obstacles).

Thus the distance between Finn and Petrilli's hopeful conservatism and Greene's more skeptical discipline is well-trod turf. It's the old Jack Kemp versus Bob Dole divide, and it's woven into the fabric of contemporary conservatism. It's an important, if familiar, theme. And it's useful to see Mike, Checker, and Jay giving a healthy workout to an educational question that will likely loom large in 2012.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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