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The Common Core Kool-Aid

In a number of conversations this week over at Jeb Bush's annual edu-fest, at AEI, and around DC, I was struck by the degree to which the Common Core seems to have become Dr. Pendergast's miracle cure for everything that ails you (seemingly including heat blisters). The exchanges were eerily reminiscent of the run-up to Waiting for Superman, when smart, enthusiastic people kept telling me how everything was about to change--how suburban voters would wake up and leap on the reform bandwagon. And it reminds me more than a little of conversations I've had earlier this decade or back in the '90s about how NCLB, school choice, or site-based management were going to change everything as well.

As best I can tell, none of those previous predictions came true. Now, I don't mean to come across as a tedious, "nothing works" naysayer. The Common Core is a different exercise from those earlier cure-alls, and it might play out differently. I honestly don't know where the truth lies. For one thing, as I've noted previously: I personally don't feel qualified to judge the quality of the Common Core standards; I don't think standards themselves matter all that much--all the action is in the stuff that follows; and I've seen a remarkable dearth of attention to how the Common Core will complement or clash with other key elements of the "reform" agenda (like charter schooling, new teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability).

Every time I ask about these things, I get watery, vague reassurances. Meanwhile, when I ask how exactly the Common Core is going to change teaching and learning, I'm mostly told that it's going to finally shine a harsh light on the quality of suburban schools, shocking those families and voters into action. This will apparently entail three steps:

First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results rather than their own lying eyes. (In the case of NCLB, these same folks believed their eyes rather than the state tests, and questioned the validity of the latter--but the presumption is that things will be different this time.) Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace "reform." However, most of today's proffered remedies--including test-based teacher evaluation, efforts to move "effective" teachers to low-income schools, charter schooling, and school turnarounds--don't have a lot of fans in the suburbs or speak to the things that suburban parents are most concerned about.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter. After failing miserably to convince suburban and middle-class voters that reforms designed for dysfunctional urban systems and at-risk kids are good for their children and their schools, Common Core advocates now evince an eerie confidence that they can scare these voters into embracing the "reform" agenda. And this conviction has become the happy Kool-Aid that allows would-be reformers to ignore the fact that they're not actually offering to tackle the things (like access to exam-style schools, world language mastery, music and arts instruction, and so on) that suburban parents are passionate about.

More to the point, the confidence that the Common Core will wake folks up in 2015, "changing everything," is an easy way to avoid unpleasant conversations about what it would actually take for the Common Core to connect with suburban voters or deliver on its promise (like, for instance, it might require them to rethink policy recommendations that have flowed from our "achievement gap mania" in the course of the past decade). The Kool-Aid allows would-be reformers to postpone facing up to hard truths. And it encourages proponents to regard their primary challenge as "messaging" the Common Core to parents and teachers, rather than grappling with these more substantive issues.

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