Who Is Fighting for Common Core?

Common Core advocates believe the U.S. education system is long overdue for an overhaul.

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Common Core has given President Obama some unlikely allies, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

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As he stakes his education legacy on the Common Core State Standards, President Barack Obama has acquired some powerful if unlikely allies: the right-leaning Business Roundtable, Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates.

[READ: Who Is Fighting Against Common Core?]

Other Common Core champions include education-reform activists like Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor, as well as the rank and file of both major teachers’ unions, several GOP governors in states that rejected Obama in 2012, and the National Parent Teacher Association.

[DEBATE CLUB: Is Common Core a Good Idea?]

There’s broad agreement on the objective: prepare kids to compete not only in college but in the rapidly-changing American job market and the high-tech, information-based global economy. Since U.S. schoolchildren have lost so much ground to other countries, Common Core advocates believe, the education system is long overdue for the overhaul.

Tyrone Howard, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, says supporters believe the Core will help students “develop what are called ‘21st Century skills’ - how to problem-solve, how to think critically.” The curriculum, he adds, is designed as a tool to help students catch up with their counterparts in countries like China and Singapore, whose standardized test scores have surged past the United States’ in recent decades.

“On the surface, people can get behind those ideas,” Howard says. “But, as they say, the devil’s in the details.” While the objectives of the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are clear -- upgrade the American education system to make students, and the country, more competitive globally -- many Common Core supporters have vested interests in its success.

For example, Bill Gates, whose global foundation provided millions of dollars to help develop Common Core, wrote in USA Today in February that the standards are “inspired by a simple and powerful idea: Every American student should leave high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and in the job market.”

In recent years, tech firms in Silicon Valley, where Gates made his fortune, have argued that a shortage of American science talent forces them to recruit software engineers and developers from overseas. At the same time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 20 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges and a quarter of first-year students at two-year schools need remedial courses in English or math.

Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - arguably the nation’s most powerful business lobbying organization - sides with Gates: schools, he says, have cut corners and the incoming labor pool is shallow on quality. In a Washington Post letter to the editor, Donohue fired back at critics like Post columnist George Will, arguing that Common Core “prepares students to succeed in the 21st-century economy.”

The standards are not “a federal program or a federal mandate. It was created at the state level. Curriculum remains within the control of districts, school boards, school leaders and teachers,” Donohue wrote. “Mr. Will and others should direct their outrage at school systems that tolerate low standards and churn out kids ill-prepared for college or a career.”

Despite backlashes in deep-red states like Georgia and Mississippi, which Obama lost by double digits in 2012, the National Governors Association (NGA) and most of its members continue to back the Common Core standards, albeit warily. Having developed the curriculum with contributions from Gates and input by influential public-school reformer David Coleman, the NGA is heavily invested in Common Core's success.

Bush, Florida’s former governor and a vocal Common Core advocate, reflected the governors’ positions in a brief interview during a school visit in Hialeah, Fla., last month. Talking with the NPR-affiliated website StateImpact Florida, Bush rejected the argument that the curriculum locks in a “teach to the test” culture; on the contrary, he said, it actually enhances students’ independent thinking.

“What we need to have are tests that measure whether students are meeting the standards. [Testing] shouldn’t be the end-all and be-all,” said Bush, who tangled with his state’s teachers’ unions during his tenure as governor. If teachers teach to the standards, he said, “then you don’t have to teach to the test. [If] you teach to the standards, the test then is an accurate measurement of where we are.”

Paul Reville, a professor and policy analyst at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, says the governors, parents and educators who like Common Core realize the American public education system desperately needs change. Among teachers, he says, early adopters have embraced the curriculum and understand its value as a teaching tool.

Recent polls back him up: Despite loud criticism from union leaders at the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), most working teachers are in favor of the new curriculum. According to a recent post on Edutopia, an education advocacy site, a range of polls - conducted by the NEA and the AFT, among others - show support for Common Core among teachers at 70 percent or higher.

“We’re now at the phase where the rubber hits the road,” Reville says, acknowledging that major changes like Common Core often prompts resistance. “It’s understandable that a lot of teachers are encountering difficulties when those changes are made. But the tests are when standards become real.”

Indeed, Coleman - a former Rhodes scholar and liberal arts champion often described as the architect of Common Core - has connections to the education consulting and testing industry.

Early in his career, after working as an outside consultant for urban school districts, he co-founded Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit consulting firm, stayed on when the company was acquired by education materials giant McGraw-Hill, and is now the CEO of The College Board, a major educational testing firm.

At the same time, Coleman’s pro-Common Core alliance with Rhee, who was portrayed as a crusader for students in the documentary film "Waiting for Superman,” makes some ed reform activists cringe. Coleman has never taught in a classroom or supervised a school; Rhee left Washington amid anger over the mass firing of educators in the city's chronically underperforming schools - and a widespread standardized-test cheating scandal.

Before joining The College Board, Coleman was treasurer for Rhee’s public-education advocacy group StudentsFirst - whose mission statement includes language supporting school choice, strong parent advocacy and tying teacher evaluations to “student outcomes.”

Still, Reville, who supports Common Core, says critics are missing the big picture.

The curriculum, he says, is simply “common-sense logic” anchored on “the kinds of skills and knowledge necessary for young people to have in order to participate meaningfully in the 21st century economy.” Maintaining the status quo, he adds, means  some students “truly will be left behind and we’ll have to carry them [in prison or in social services] because they can not participate in the economy.”

Ultimately, Reville says, resistance to Common Core is futile: 45 states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories have already adopted it, and opponents haven’t presented a viable alternative.

The curriculum “is a gain for our students because they will be prepared,” he says. “It’s a gain for states in that they’re preparing a workforce, and it’s a gain for our overall [national] prosperity.”

Clarified on March 3, 2014: An earlier version of this article did not clearly state the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s point that Common Core standards determine what students need to learn but does not define school curricula.