On the desk of Indiana Governor Mike Pence is a modest two-page bill that will probably have very little practical impact within his state but could have profound political consequences outside of it. By vetoing the bill, which would make Indiana the first state to fully withdraw from the Common Core, Pence can reaffirm the value of the rigorous public education standards that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
The standards Indiana has drafted to replace Common Core look very similar to it, so it's not as if the state would be abandoning the idea of raising expectations for students. Signing the bill would be merely a political act, allowing Pence to align himself with opponents of the Common Core, one of the few causes that unites teachers' unions and Tea Party activists.
Pence, who served in the U.S. House for a decade before becoming governor in 2013, is a favorite of Tea Party activists, who seem to think that the Common Core represents a federal takeover of education policy. In fact the standards, which are voluntary, were developed by the country’s governors. The Barack Obama administration wisely gave the standards a boost by tying their adoption to Race to the Top funding, but it had nothing to do with their conception. Nor did Congress.
The nation’s governors acted because the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 imposed financial penalties on districts that failed to meet proficiency standards, but allowed states to define what constitutes proficiency. Inevitably, states watered down standards to avoid penalties. America became a giant Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average -- except that, according to international tests, they are not.
If Tea Party activists oppose the Common Core standards in principle, then teachers' unions object to their execution. They argue that the new standards are being adopted too quickly, without sufficient teacher or student preparation. In New York, tests were aligned to the standards before the curriculum was, with predictably poor results.
Adoption of Common Core standards will undoubtedly cause some growing pains, for teachers as well as students. But lower test scores should not be a reason to abandon or delay the new standards.
A third group that resists the Common Core is parents, such those in the opt-out movement, who oppose all high-stakes testing. Common Core does not necessitate more testing, just more rigorous ones. If there are going to be tests -- and however unpopular testing is, it is essential to holding schools accountable for educating their students -- then the questions should focus on standards that require critical thinking and mastery of skills. That's precisely what the Common Core standards do.
The repeal effort in Indiana reflects an escalating battle over the Common Core standards, but so far repeal proponents are losing in Republican-leaning states. South Dakota’s House of Representatives rejected a bill to repeal Common Core, and efforts to repeal it Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Kansas have -- for now -- failed. Florida modestly tweaked its Common Core standards, with Republican Governor Rick Scott rebranding them “Florida’s Standards.”
Such tinkering, or even rebranding, is inevitable. What can't happen is ditching the idea of higher uniform standards altogether. The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have begun a national advertising campaign in support of Common Core, aimed primarily at state Republican lawmakers, and local business organizations are also getting involved.
Because even though education is a local responsibility, it is a national priority. The value of the Common Core standards is that they recognize both of these realities: They're universal standards that came from the bottom up, not the top down. They can be unraveled the same way.
That would be more than a pity. Without higher standards, U.S. students will continue to fall behind their peers overseas -- and the U.S. economy will suffer the fallout.
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