If it's September it must be back-to-school time. What parents grateful for a return to domestic normalcy may not realize is that their children are returning to schools in the midst of a major revolution in American education.
This revolution – called the Common Core State Standards Initiative – has the distinction of enraging not only the fringe right, but also portions of the left. Does that mean that Common Core is a step in the right direction? Quite possibly.
In brief, the idea behind the standards is that children in different parts of the country ought to have the same basic levels of knowledge in core areas like reading and math at the same age, K-12. States have traditionally set their own curricula with widely varying results. A few years ago, a bipartisan group of governors decided that collective action might pay off better than their individual efforts to improve their schools, so they launched Common Core. Supported by groups like the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not to mention the National Education Association, they were a quick success: The standards were unveiled in June 2010, and 45 states as well as the District of Columbia have adopted them.
But opposition has been building. As one educator quipped to The New York Times' Bill Keller, "The problem with national testing is that the conservatives hate national and the liberals hate testing."
Start on the right. Conservatives see, yet again, the bogeyman of a federal takeover, this time of education. Rolling back Common Core has become a rallying point for the tea party right, though they haven't managed to get any of the states that have adopted the standards to renounce them (Indiana has paused implementation for further public hearings). But prominent right-wing commentators have been building momentum, beating the Common Core drum relentlessly, painting the standards as an attempt by Obama's federal government to seize control of the education system for its own nefarious ends. The standards are "about top-down control engineered through government-administered tests and left-wing textbook monopolies," conservative columnist Michelle Malkin wrote in April. Conspiracy theory monger-cum-radio host Glenn Beck was, no surprise, even more starkly out there in his assessment. The standards, Beck warns, will entail "biowristbands they want to use on our kids" and "1984"-style monitoring systems. "This is the progressive movement coming in for the kill," he warned.
This is another front in the civil war that has riven the GOP over issues like immigration reform and the relative merits of shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt, with a host of reality-based conservatives, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on the side of sensible policy. But the fanatics are on the march: Last spring the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution denouncing the standards as "an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children."
Two thoughts come to mind. First, even if the basic thrust of the tea party's fevered fantasy were true – even if the standards were the product of Washington, D.C. – so what? Is math different in Florida than it is in Oregon? Do necessary reading skills vary sharply from Maine to Arizona? And if you live in, say, Arkansas, wouldn't you want to know how your students are doing compared with the rest of the country? Suppose you were moving from New Mexico to New York – would you feel better knowing that, in broad outline, your child's new school system was covering the same critical material as her old one?
In any case the right wing is wrong. Common Core was a state-driven initiative, conceived and supported by governors and chief state school officers. Has the Obama administration supported it? Absolutely. But that's not the same thing as conceiving and developing the standards. And more importantly the standards are just that – goals, a statement of the level of knowledge for which students should strive. What it doesn't do is set the curriculum: The states determine how exactly the students will reach the goals.