Brookings Institute can always be counted on to come up with some confused coverage of education matters. But this time they have given David Whitman a platform from which to combat the conservative anti-Common Core hordes. Whitman was a reporter for US News who spent five years as Arne Duncan's speechwriter before jumping on Peter Cunningham's $12 million Core-boosting PR website.
Whitman is here to try to address what has to be one of the Obama administration's great frustration-- here they are implementing a set of education policies that are an extension of conservative GOP policies from years before, and suddenly conservative Republicans are lambasting it. It's like Nixon going to China and being called a Commie sympathizer by people on the left.
"The Surprising Roots of the Common Core:How Conservatives Gave Rise to ‘Obamacore’" is a challenging read, containing a pretty thorough look at the conservative pedigree of the Core that is wrapped in lots of heavily balonified conclusions.
Everybody keeps saying that conservatives hate the Core, and Whitman has the media quotes to prove it. But that's just not fair. In fact, Whitman says with the kind of shameless straight face that will exemplify his work, that the Obama-Duncan Department of Education "has substantially shrunk the federal role in advocating for anything resembling a model national curriculum, national standards, and national assessments." Which kind of ignores the whole "creating waivers that allow the Obama-Duncan department to effectively write law from the USED office" thing.
Whitman says that CCSS is out there still thriving in classrooms precisely because this administration didn't repeat the federal overreach mistakes of its predecessors, which is just... well, Not True seems like a gentle label. Let's say that this administration found more effective leverage and techniques for selling this policy, and a fortuitous time to make their move.
But Whitman is just setting the stage to say, in effect, it wasn't always this way. Once upon atime conservatives loved the whole national standards thing.
Lordy, are these folks still trying to sell this piece of rhetorical fluffernuttery? Whitman wants to remind us that fifty different goalposts will not make our students ready to compete internationally, and that many states set their standards "pathetically" low, and that while high standards are no guarantee of awesome education, low standards insure that Kids These Days will continue to suck.
Poor Misunderstood Common Core
Before we can look at Core's history, we must understand what they are and aren't, says Whitman. He lists a whole bunch of Things They Aren't which I would make fun of as silly straw men except that I've seen all of these paranoid ravings decried in print, so I know he's not making them up. Not even "Common Core will turn your kids into gay commies."
Whitman counters with the usual inaccuracies. State standards. Written with input from teachers. "It bears repeating that the federal government had zero involvement in drafting the Common Core State Standards—it neither wrote, paid for, or participated in the development of the standards." It may bear repeating, but it doesn't bear scrutiny for factual accuracy.
Whitman correctly notes that the Common Core ball was already rolling when Obama took office, but he uses the adoption was strictly voluntary line, which is disingenuous at best-- states could refuse, but they couldn't easily afford to. And he slides past the waiver business entirely. He argues that standards and curriculum were confused by opponents, but I think Core supporters can carry plenty of the blame there. But he's correct to skewer guys like Ted Cruz with his "repeal every word of Common Core" pledge (after that, he will ban all Yeti from Florida). And I love Whitman just a little bit for this line:
And owing to the maelstrom of misinformation on the CCSS, the Common Core is fast approaching a Lord Voldemort-like status for conservatives as the insidious education reform with the name that must not be spoken-- even for conservative politicians who support, and who in fact (to paraphrase Ted Cruz), are implementing every word of the Common Core.
Time for a History Lesson
Now Whitman enters into the useful and educational portion of his article. No, I'm not being sarcastic. Whitman is here to say, "Conservatives, you do not have to freak out about this stuff! It is totally your kind of thing!!"
To prove it, he goes back to Saint Ronald of Reagan and A Nation at Risk, with its call for "more rigorous and measurable standards." The desire for high standards, the interest in standards that were consistent and high from state to state-- that was a conservative thing. And Reagan's Secretary of Education William Bennett used language that Whitman finds coming out of Arne Duncan's mouth today.
Secretary Bennett in 1987 put together a book outlining " a sound secondary school core curriculum." The second year produced an elementary school counterpart. Bennett noted that the law barred him from implementing his grand blueprint, but he talked it up to conservatives and conservative governors in particular, and folks just loved it and did not freak out and scream "federal overreach."
Whitman sees the modern Core as a later draft of Bennett's work, and he is dumbfounded that conservatives have turned on it-- it has a strong element of the nation's founding documents, for crying out loud! And yet conservative critics still accuse it of being all manner of Commie loving brainscrubbery.
And now, G W Bush, who may lack Reagan's iconic conservative status, but still-- this is not some Commie simp, and Lamar Alexander was not some sort of bleeding heart liberal when he launched the America 2000 plan. Whitman dubs Alexander the Core's political godfather and Diane Ravitch their intellectual godmother; as he notes, her journey from conservative reformer to her current thorn-in-reform's side status has been well-documented in her own writing.
Whitman wants you to know that Bush's standards plan would have been wayyyyy more testy and inclusive of more fields than just English and math. Bush wanted voluntary standards, but couldn't get funding from Congress and finally did an end run around them to use grant money to get people to do the work.
The Bush-Alexander administration pushed hard for standards and for incentives for charter schools, sinking tons of money into promotion for a program intended to transform what happened in schools across the country. Alexander now says that Duncan overstepped his bounds in pushing the Core with the waivers, but Whitman wants to be clear that Alexander pushed pretty hard in his own day.
Whitman's research is relentless. Present-day GOP has renounced the Core, but 1992 GOP platform sounded a lot like Arne Duncan. Meanwhile, America 2000 finally collapsed, victim of a lack of center-based consensus and chipped away by Democrats, who didn't want to give Bush a "education President" win. By the early 90's, the standards were dead dead dead, Congress having driven a stake through their heart..
Whitman's observation is that CCSS succeeded where America 2000 failed because the leaders of the movement had learned some lessons the first time around.
Whitman finishes up with a more-developed version of the usual call for conservatives to get behind the Core and how generally wonderful it is. That's same old, same old.
What's special about this piece is that it so thoroughly makes the case for a conservative pedigree for the Core. Ravitch, who knows the conservative roots of these policies better than anybody, has often marveled that the Obama administration has so thoroughly embraced conservative education policy. But I've never seen anyone address the point to conservatives themselves quite so thoroughly (it only adds to the layers of oddity that the person doing the addressing is a veteran of the Obama-Duncan administration).
The case for the Core is as weak as always, but this history lesson underlines how our current education policies really are just an extension of the work of previous administrations as well as highlighting how frustrated Core fans are to be fighting a tough battle against people they never thought they'd have to fight at all.