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The Reaction to My National Affairs Essay on the Common Core

Last week, National Affairs published my extended essay on the state of the Common Core. The piece, "How the Common Core Went Wrong," explains why I think the enterprise has gone off the rails and how advocates can get it back on track. If interested, you can check the essay out here.

The thrust of the piece: I think the Common Core is a perfectly reasonable notion, but that the "what" and "how" of an enterprise like this matter much more than the hypothetical appeal of "high" standards (or "common" ones). I stipulate the good intentions of those who've promoted the Common Core but note that the real-world implications of the enterprise are suffused in ambiguity and potentially offer some cause for disquiet. Meanwhile, the hurried, unremarked, quasi-national adoption of 2009 and 2010 meant there was little opportunity to kick the tires on the Common Core, become familiar with the enterprise, or understand what it would mean in practice. Predictably, this has fueled suspicion, accelerated backlash, and undermined the prospects for successful implementation. I don't think the essay is "anti-Common Core," but it is certainly a critical take on the Common Core enterprise.

Among Common Core advocates who've read the piece and felt moved to share their reactions with me, there appear to be two general schools of thought. I want to take a moment today to respond to these.

One school seems to regard the piece as useful. Agree or disagree with various points, these folks have said that the essay is the kind of thoughtful critique that they've invited. They appreciate that I stipulate the decency of the advocates and that I'm open to the case for the Common Core. They accept that some of the issues I raise are fair ones and are glad to see me offering thoughts on the "what now."

The second school is more acerbic. These are the folks who tell me that the essay is awful, mean-spirited, and the work of someone who is clearly "opposed" to the Common Core. I find this response revealing, if unsurprising. After all, this is at least the fourth time I've been through this drill, where a phalanx of "reform-minded" friends has despaired of my judgment. I've lived through this same "you're a puddin' head" dismissal when I raised questions about the systemic impacts of school choice, about No Child Left Behind, and about Race to the Top. In each case, I've had lots and lots of friends dismiss me as a craven squish, a small-minded stick-in-the-mud, an ideologue, or a guy who lacks the guts to embrace big change. In each case, after all the fuss has settled, I've felt pretty good about where I stood. 

Of course, by the time my friends were cheerfully acknowledging the validity of some of what I'd had to say, the next bandwagon would be cranking up, and the old stuff would be ancient history. By that point, all anybody cares about is whether everyone is on board with the new idea. And, if you're not, what would prompt you to be such a squish, a stick-in-the-mud...

The thing that I find most disconcerting is that I made a point to give the Common Core'ites years to make the case that this enterprise was going to work out for the best. I've long said that I thought the standards were fine (not necessarily good, but perfectly satisfactory for a bunch of words on paper about what kids should know in reading and math). However, I've also asked questions about the merits of the stealthy, quasi-national adoption process, of how "common" and reliable the assessments would be, of the impact on other reform efforts, of the unintended consequences, of the implications for the federal role, and of the "instructional shifts" that are quietly implied.

In each case, I've been granted the occasional response or audience, but I've mostly been dismissed, told "we're working on that," or attacked as a naysayer. Now, while I don't know what happens behind closed doors or on conference calls among Common Core advocates, I've seen little evidence that the concerns have been addressed in a substantive or serious way. (The fact that, by all accounts, it's mostly members of the Common Core "team" who are in those meetings and on those calls also doesn't do much to reassure.)

In a field as filled with passion and urgency as education, it's easy for advocates to feel that "this is our window and we'd better seize it." The result is a series of grand efforts to make dramatic change. I sympathize with the impulse and the rationale. But for reasons I've articulated time and again, it's all too easy for even well-intended efforts to do more harm than good. What matters in justifying a big bet is not that our schools can and should be doing much better (I agree!) or that these are sensible ideas in the abstract, but whether this particular enterprise is going to deliver on its promise. And, on that score, I fear that passion and urgency have an unfortunate track record of sabotaging promising ideas. It's not much fun to be a wet blanket, and I would much rather be part of the "pro-Common Core" team (or even the hard-core "anti-Common Core" team). But such is life.

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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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