Common Core: The Rest of the Story

Where did Common Core standards come from? Where did they go? Recent reporting in the New York Times asks these questions, but the real answer is a little murkier. The story of the Common Core standards can tell us a lot of things, but at heart the story provides more proof—if any more were needed—that schools thrum to the beat of people, not policy. It can tell us, too, why Cory Booker will not have a lot of luck with his current ed proposals.

So…what happened to the Common Core? As Dana Goldstein puts it,

The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.

And that’s all true enough. But the origins and career of the common-core idea can tell us about more than just high-stakes tests and math instruction. The history of the Common Core can tell us, for example, why Betsy DeVos matters more than almost anything else when it comes to current ed thinking.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, the Common Core did not have its roots in a reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Rather, the Common Core had a much longer history as a conservative dream, a fantasy of restoring American schools to a mythic golden age of rigorous learning and non-nonsense testing. If anything, the most immediate precursor of Common Core was a conservative reaction to 1983’s Nation at Risk report. Leading educational conservatives such as Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett began pushing rigorous, uniform standards as the proper way to save America from squishy progressive thinking.

common core hate it

Lots of haters, but what happened to the lovers?

It’s not a hidden history. As I’ve argued every chance I’ve gotten, conservatives have a long history of embracing federal power in ed policy when it suits their interests. Back in the 1980s, Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander thought that common standards and high-stakes tests were the best way to make their conservative dreams come true.

I’m certainly not the only one to try to bring this history to light. From the Right, free-marketeers such as Michael Petrilli tried hard to convince conservatives to love Common Core. Petrilli and Chester Finn Jr. told the story over and over—Common Core represented a conservative win, a big one. Christian conservatives such as Karen Swallow Prior endorsed the standards, too.

From the Left(ish), too, analysts pointed out the true roots of Common Core. Writing for the Brookings Institution, for example, David Whitman hit the nail on the head:

The conservative roots of the Common Core are little known today. Even among reporters who cover the education beat, few are familiar with, and even fewer have written about, the efforts of Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett, to develop and promote a model core curriculum while in office. Nor have they recounted, except in passing, the sweeping, self-described “crusade” that Senator Lamar Alexander launched to promote national standards and voluntary national assessments when he was secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration.

So what happened? How did Common Core become just as despised on the Right as it was on the Left? All kinds of conservatives stood up against this conservative reform, from culture-war street-fighter Phyllis Schlafly—who blasted the standards as “pornographic” and “encrusted with lies”—to high-brow Professor Patrick Deneen—who said the standards were based on a “desiccated and debased conception of what a human being is.”

Why? Because when it comes to ed politics, people matter more than policy. And when the Common Core standards were rolled out, it was during the Obama years. In the minds of many conservatives–both intellectuals and real people alike—the Common Core effort came to represent the crass overreach of the Obama White House. So instead of rallying behind the standards, conservatives joined progressives in trashing them. In the end, the high-profile support of standards by President Obama mattered more than the well-articulated support offered by prominent conservatives.

Why should Cory Booker care? Because a similar story is unfolding right now. For many years, charter schools and voucher funding enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Senator Booker was a big proponent, but so was Senator Warren and other leading Democratic lights. Queen Betsy has changed all that. By promoting charter schools so energetically, Secretary DeVos has made it difficult for people like Senator Booker to support them, even if they are basically a good idea in many cases.

What’s the takeaway? When it comes to schools, people matter more than policy. Voters and politicians care about who supports an idea more than what the idea actually is. And just like conservatives found it impossible to rally conservative support for “Obama-Core,” Senator Booker will not be able to rescue the charter-school baby out of the Queen Betsy bathwater.

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