Common Sense on Common Core

I have totally ignored the controversy about “Common Core” standards for K-12 public schools emanating from the bureaucratic penumbras of the Obama Administration.  For one thing, I’m still mastering the core requirements of higher education, which tend to be either non-serious or so diffuse that they are neither “common” nor a “core.”  Why should the watery “guidelines” for Common Core be much different than the higher ed slop?

In general I’ve been happy on general principle to defer to the fierce critics of Common Core.  Why shouldn’t we be skeptical of reassurances from the U.S. Department of Education that “If you like your local curriculum, you can keep your local curriculum.”  (Okay, they haven’t used those exact words, but you get the idea.)  And with some liberals advocating to make the Dept. of Education a formal regulatory agency for Kindergarten through graduate school (they’ve already become this in bits and pieces), why wouldn’t any sensible person default to opposition to common core?  How long will it be before the voluntary guidelines of common core become a mandatory requirement that all high school students read Oprah Winfrey’s forthcoming memoir, I’d Have Made Another Billion If America Wasn’t Racist.

But the opposition to Common Core has come with a lot of crazy talk.  As usual, Ramesh Ponnuru offers sensible thoughts about the overreach of some conservative and populist critics of Common Core, along with what ought to be said about it.  (You may recall my basic rule: If Ramesh has a different opinion than I do, I’d better rethink my position.)  Above all, the uniformity required by centralized bureaucratic diktat is always a bad idea:

High standards may be valuable, but why do they have to be common? It isn’t as though different state standards are a major problem in U.S. education. There’s more variation in achievement within states than between them. Common standards may make life a bit easier for students who move across state lines, but they also mean that we lose a chance for states to experiment.

Common Core supporters sometimes suggest that with a single set of standards, states could determine if they’re doing worse than their neighbors, and that this knowledge will make them eager to reform their schools. They said something similar about the No Child Left Behind Act that Congress passed a decade ago: Parents would learn that schools were failing to make their kids “proficient” in English and math and would demand reform. . .

For that matter, how common will that core really be? Classroom practice doesn’t always reflect the standards written in a state’s official documents. That’s one reason the rigor of state standards doesn’t correlate with student achievement. But ensuring uniformity in practice would require the kind of heavy-handed central governing body that supporters of the Common Core strenuously deny they want.

The real problem with the Common Core is not that it represents Big Brother in the classroom, but that it seems unlikely to do much to increase the amount of learning that students do. Perhaps that’s because there’s not much that can be done on the national level to make K-12 schooling better.

A lot of education reformers find it hard to admit that. And so the debate over the Common Core is a dismal cycle of elite disdain and populist outrage, each side feeding the other’s worst impulses.