The battle for common ground

The Common Core, the US's bid to standardise what is taught in its 50 states, is creating strange bedfellows. Richard Vaughan finds Tea Party activists joining liberals fighting the change

You, as a parent, are going to be completely pushed out of the loop. The state (government) is completely pushed out of the loop. They (the federal government) now have control of your children."

Or so says Glenn Beck, the incendiary but hugely popular conservative television and radio presenter, who has, like a right-wing attack dog, charged into the debate on US education's latest hot potato, the Common Core.

In essence, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are America's first, tentative, steps towards a national curriculum. But to listen to Beck, it is not a dry development in policy, it is a way for the government to get its hands on the country's students to do who knows what. He seems to view it as tantamount to brainwashing.

And Beck is not alone. Suspicion of federal government involvement in schools has fuelled a backlash among parents, teachers and political groups to such a degree that this bold attempt to standardise schooling across 50 disparate states is in danger of unravelling.

Another reason to derail the Common Core is, some allege, local officials' fear that new standards will expose dramatic differences in quality between state borders, which could spark a national crisis in education.

Despite all the talk of government meddling, the CCSS were first drawn up in 2010 by the National Governors Association (for governors of the separate states) and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Both organisations were keen to rationalise what students were expected to know at any given stage in their school lives, in any given state.

Although the scheme is voluntary and each state can decide whether to adopt the standards, the project has the backing of President Obama's administration. But the White House has been at pains to avoid giving too much support for fear of being seen to be meddling. Judging by Beck's comments, it hasn't done a very good job.

National standards

The CCSS mission statement says it will give parents, students and teachers a clearer idea of what knowledge is required for a young person to go into the world of work or on to college. At least as important a factor motivating its backers, however, is America's performance in international comparison tables such as Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) and Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which show one of the world's richest countries languishing in mid-table obscurity.

Before the new standards, all states (with the exception of Nebraska) had unique benchmarks, making it impossible to say whether what a 13-year-old child knew in, say, Louisiana, was the same as what a 13-year-old knew in Massachusetts.

So far, 45 states have adopted the standards, which focus primarily on mathematics and reading, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Nearly as many have decided to introduce tests alongside the standards, which will come into effect in 2014-15.

And what is becoming increasingly clear is the uncomfortable realisation that what a 9-year-old knows in one state is often well beyond what a 13-year-old knows in another.

Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, sat on the validation panel of the CCSS, and says the US is realising the consequences of introducing national standards. "If you look at the states in the US, the best outperform Shanghai but the worst underperform Nigeria," he says.

The need for America to adopt national standards is inescapable, he adds, but by doing so it will expose failings in some states that could prove hugely embarrassing.

"It will become a very inconvenient truth for some when students perform badly," Wiliam says. "And what then? If they were to withdraw from the standards that is hugely embarrassing because it would show even the basic level was too much for their students. But if they keep with the standards they will have to try to improve, which will lead to a very hard look at teaching quality. It is very difficult to say how this will play out. Particularly when you consider no Democrat president can get elected without the support of the teacher unions."

Common enemies

Wiliam is not alone with his concerns. While the introduction of the Common Core has become one of the most contentious issues in US politics, it is telling that the usual political lines have not been drawn. Unusual deals are being done by people who would not normally even share oxygen.

On the Right there are those, such as Beck and his followers, who believe the federal government is overstepping its remit by reaching into local schools, telling them what to teach. On the Left there are progressive parent groups, which have concerns that the new standards will lead to more high-stakes testing and a greater role for corporations in public schools (the US equivalent of state schools in the UK). This opposition coalition even has the tacit support of the major teacher unions, which are worried how national assessments accompanying the standards will be used to evaluate teachers when it comes to hiring and firing. Some fears have been alleviated by education secretary Arne Duncan's recent decision to give some states more time when it comes to using student test data in decisions about teaching personnel.

One of the most vocal opponents to the Common Core is the Tea Party, a fractious right-wing movement that is deeply suspicious of government involvement in any part of life. After failing to prevent Obama's re-election and losing its battle against healthcare reform, the Tea Party has cast around for a new enemy and found it in the Common Core. It has even come up with a nickname, albeit an unoriginal one, "Obamacore".

Heidi Bashen, a parent who helped to form Pennsylvania's 9-12 Education Commission, a Tea Party-affiliated group, is very much opposed to the CCSS. Her group believes the introduction of standards is unconstitutional. There is nothing in the US constitution allowing the federal government to direct educational policy. Indeed, many on the Right of the Republican Party call for the wholesale abolition of the Department of Education. "We are not disagreeing that some states are sub-par and other states better, but a lot of people are concerned by the way it bypassed our (state) legislature," Bashen says.

"Many of us believe when federal government becomes involved it evolves into a massive conglomerate and money is not spent wisely or effectively. The same happened with Obamacare (President Obama's healthcare reform) and as a result, taxes will go up," she adds.

Joining the opposition is the influential group Parents Across America, which is concerned about high-stakes testing. It is a fear most notably shared by classroom union the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which in April called for a delay in deciding the consequences of Common Core assessments.

AFT president Randi Weingarten said her union still supported the Common Core in principle but called for time.

"The fact the changes are being made nationwide without anything close to adequate preparation is a failure of leadership, a sign of a broken accountability system and, worse, an abdication of our responsibility to kids, particularly poor kids," Weingarten said in a speech in New York.

"These standards, which hold such potential to create deeper learning, are instead creating a serious backlash as officials seek to make them count before they make them work. They will either lead to a revolution in teaching and learning, or end up in the overflowing dustbin of abandoned reforms."

Such clamour from opposition ranks is obviously being heard. Indiana has voted to pause implementation of the standards to look more closely at the policy. Bills have been tabled to repeal the Common Core in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

But while unlikely alliances are being forged among those opposing the standards, so also are they amid those in favour. One of the most high-profile proponents of the CCSS is Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, who is widely tipped to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

As the son and brother of two former Republican presidents, there is no mistaking Bush's politics. He is incredibly supportive of choice for parents and critical of some public schools that he describes as "government-run monopolies run by unions", but in standardising education in the US, he stands on the side of Obama. In a conference speech in Michigan, where a bill opposing the new standards is on the table, Bush implored lawmakers not to drop the CCSS.

"The Common Core standards are clear and straightforward. They will allow for more innovation in the classroom, less regulation. They'll equip students to compete with their peers from across the globe," Bush said. "Do not pull back. Please do not pull back on Common Core standards."

And while the battle against the Common Core rages, another clash waits around the corner in the shape of the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been drawn up by a coalition of 26 states and other national organisations. Just one state, America's smallest, Rhode Island, has adopted the standards so far, but it is only a matter of time until wider implementation of the new science standards takes place.

If successful, it would suggest that no subject is off-limits. America could, albeit reluctantly, be in line to receive a fully fledged national curriculum. Beck will no doubt have a few choice words if that happens.


Forty-five states, the District of Columbia and four US territories have so far adopted the Common Core State Standards.

According to those behind the initiative, the new standards will provide teachers with goals and benchmarks to set for students, while enabling states to develop better assessments.

How schools teach the standards is entirely up to them, but in English the CCSS require certain critical content for all students, including:

- Classic myths and stories from around the world;

- America's Founding Documents;

- Foundational American literature; and - Shakespeare.

In mathematics, the CCSS will lay a "solid foundation" in:

- whole numbers;

- addition;

- subtraction;

- multiplication;

- division:

- fractions; and

- decimals.

From this basis, students will be expected to go on to learn and apply more challenging concepts.

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