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Common Core Critics Are Loud But Losing

The nationwide pushback against the education standards hasn't been very successful.

Common Core has become a toxic brand, the most contentious issue on the education landscape, reviled by partisans at both ends of the political spectrum.

That doesn’t mean it’s going away.

For all the pushback against the Common Core -- a set of standards that outline the content and skills students are expected to master at each grade level -- more than 40 states are still on board. Efforts to repeal the Common Core this year in Arkansas and Mississippi, for instance, led instead to commissions that will study the issue.

“The impression in the media is that there’s all this controversy and therefore this thing must be dead,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank that backs the standards. “But the full-court press by Tea Party groups to get Republican legislators to repeal the Common Core has only been successful in Oklahoma.

The effort to improve educational standards and make American students more competitive with their international peers was led several years ago by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with backing from the Gates Foundation. Common Core really took off, though, with the Race to the Top grant program that was part of the 2009 federal stimulus package. States that embraced the standards had a better chance of getting extra money under the program.

In hindsight, Petrilli says, having the feds promote the standards was a “huge mistake.” The push from the Obama administration did make it seem that Common Core was an example of federal overreach, says Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That opened the door to criticism from partisans skeptical about anything coming out of the Obama White House. Problems with implementation and confusion stemming from some of the standards served to increase complaints.

But most states are now four or five years into the process. Ending Common Core would mean a lot of wasted effort and money. And business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce -- as well as many teachers -- have been able to convince enough legislators that elevated standards should remain a priority. That means any obituary of the Common Core is decidedly premature. “The words ‘Common Core’ represent something that a lot of people don’t like,” Oldham says, “but the concept of higher standards for all is still a really solid one.”

Common Core is proceeding in most states. In places like Indiana, the brand name may have gotten dropped, but the essential elements remain intact. This spring, standardized tests based on the standards are being rolled out in schools all over the country. “Over a period of time, the best way to defend it is to see the results,” says Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, one of the original leaders in pushing for the standards.

Markell says that simply having parents witness teachers offer lessons based on the Common Core has helped to demystify it in his state. “The typical response when they leave those classrooms is, ‘Wow, that seemed a whole lot like math or English language arts, as opposed to some kind of communist plot for the federal government to take over education.’”

Common Core supporters aren’t resting easy. Opposition to the standards has become something like a litmus test for GOP presidential candidates in 2016. But proponents are starting to feel as though the program will remain intact, at least in most places. “I’m not worried about it,” says Chris Cabaldon, the mayor of West Sacramento, Calif. “A majority of states are still on track. They have weathered the worst of it.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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