LAST week some lawmakers and citizens insisted that a state-developed, state-implemented set of academic standards is a federal conspiracy or even a United Nations takeover of education. Voters should recognize these views for the “black helicopter” musings that they are.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is meant to establish a single set of clear, rigorous educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics. The initiative has been led by state governors and state education commissioners through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. States must individually adopt the standards to participate. Adoption is a voluntary, state-by-state process.
Yet critics, including opponents who recently rallied at the Oklahoma Capitol, insist the standards represent a federal takeover or even “dangerous Trojan horse” tied to the U.N. Nonsense! Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government can't enact national curriculum standards, create a national testing system or establish a national student database.
While the federal government gave funds to some states adopting Common Core standards (but not Oklahoma), no one was holding a gun to legislators' heads — unless we missed the machine gun nests trained on Oklahoma lawmakers as they overwhelmingly OK'd legislation in 2010 adopting the standards.
Instead, Common Core standards have been embraced because the idea makes sense. The standards will allow an apples-to-apples comparison of Oklahoma students' performance with that of other states. That's a goal policymakers should embrace, particularly if high standards are maintained.
Past state standards — in Oklahoma and other states — were often watered down to game the system. Rather than honestly grapple with education challenges, policymakers lowered the bar and declared “success” in the presence of abject failure. This is why most Oklahoma students could meet state standards while National Assessment of Educational Progress results simultaneously showed more than 70 percent of Oklahoma eighth-graders were below proficient in reading and math.
Those abuses, which Common Core critics tacitly endorse, fuel calls for a federal takeover. By contrast, the Common Core initiative could ensure that states maintain control over their education systems while providing clear reporting of results in a nationally uniform fashion that incentivizes improvement.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, calls Common Core “the best path toward getting Uncle Sam and heavy-handed state governments to back off from micro-managing how schools are run” and return authority to the local level. Finn argues that rigorous standards and transparent national reporting will empower local citizens to make needed changes. That, in turn, negates any federal argument for usurping state authority.
Ongoing development of Common Core assessments in the states will be crucial for the initiative's success. They should be closely monitored, which doesn't justify junking the whole thing. Serious standards won't cost Oklahoma control of its schools — even if those standards are also separately adopted by other states.
When Common Core legislation passed in 2010, state Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, supported it. Now he calls the standards a “program for which we know little about.” So Blackwell apparently supports major bills without understanding them, but doesn't think that this disqualifies him from helping set academic standards for Oklahoma students. And he's clearly not overly concerned about the standards' validity or national transparency.
This isn't an argument for repealing Common Core standards. It's an argument for replacing certain legislators.