Writing here at Philanthropy Daily and at the Freeman Online, Lenore Ealy has published some of the most eloquent arguments against the Common Core education standards to date. I say that both as a strong supporter of the Common Core and as someone who otherwise shares some of Ms. Ealy’s pedagogical predilections and concerns.
Where she errs is in her juxtaposition of today’s school system—in which “responsibility for education” belongs to “the people whose lives are most intimately tied to what goes on in schools: teachers, students, and parents”—and her outline of the menacing, nationalized system of tomorrow. Neither picture is accurate.
What Ealy leaves out is, quite simply but fatally, the past twenty years. About the Common Core debate, Ealy writes,
It opens the door to asking fundamental questions, such as whom is education really for? Is education primarily a tool of social control? Is education merely a benchmark for assessing state-to-state and international competitiveness? Or is education more properly the cultivation, student by student, of the knowledge and personal capacity for self-governance?
Good questions all. But what Ealy doesn’t say is that states have been debating the right answers ever since the early 1990s, when the standards-based-reform movement began in earnest. The Common Core standards are hardly the first attempt to impose standards “on students and teachers by administrative fiat.” That’s been public policy in every state for well over a decade!
And for good reason: As every economist knows and even libertarians must concede, education is both a “public good” and a “private good.” The private part is obvious—we parents want the best possible schooling for our own children—but the public part is critical, too. We are, as Ealy writes, educating future citizens who must have “the knowledge and personal capacity for self-governance.” We are also, yes, training future workers who will power our economy and (one hopes) pay our Social Security bills. That’s why the public foots the bill for public education: It expects something in return for its investment.
To be sure, the policy of states setting standards and holding schools accountable for reaching them (as measured by standardized tests) is hardly without its failings. For one, what if the states set weak or unclear standards? Or what if parents disagree with what’s in them? What’s the right balance between the public interest (i.e., what the country needs and taxpayers want) and private interests (i.e., what parents want for their own kids)? (See my piece from last year, “When Public Education’s Two P’s [Parents and the Public] Disagree.”)
The Common Core doesn’t resolve all of these by any means but it does address the problem of low or unclear state standards. For whatever reason, in the case of setting educational standards, America’s distinct brand of federalism did not work well. Most states set standards that were too vague to be useful, rendering the tests the true standards. Other set standards that were clear but clearly bad—politicized, not ambitious enough, or simply wrongheaded on matters big and small. Common Core, in the view of many experts, is much better, including in a way that Ealy should appreciate: It demands that students read and understand the nation’s founding documents, our sacred texts of liberty.
But this doesn’t satisfy Ealy, because her real beef is with standards writ large, whatever their origin, because, she says, they imply that we have given “our habits of liberty away.” What she wants, one surmises, is an unfettered marketplace of school choice in which parents alone—or groups of parents—set the standards by which schools will be judged.
Greater parental choice is essential. But it’s not sufficient—not if we want to make good on the “public-good” aspect of public schooling.
Here’s a proposal: Continue to implement the Common Core standards in states where they’ve been adopted. (Well, let those states that aren’t serious drop out rather than pretend that they’re implementing.) Continue to create tests that are aligned with the Common Core and are better (in terms of design, content, and technology) than the tests we use today. Hold schools accountable for showing progress on these tests and make the results available to parents and taxpayers alike.
But then allow individual schools to opt out of the whole Common Core caboodle—the standards, the tests, the data, everything—if they propose an alternative set of rigorous measures to which they are willing to be held accountable. Ideally, these measures would focus on long-term student outcomes—success in higher education and the world of work or indicators of active citizenship. If schools can answer the “public good” question in a better way than Common Core does, great.
I suspect that, given such a challenge, most schools will stick with the Common Core standards—because they are reasonable and because they represent a reasonable hypothesis of what students need to know and be able to do in order to develop “the capacity of a people for liberty.”
But let’s not be dogmatic. Experimentation is, indeed, a hallmark of American federalism. Let’s give it a try.
Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.