Washington Post: School reform can move beyond Common Core

Posted on December 2, 2014

Republicans, thanks to President Obama, are more unified than ever on immigration reform: No on the order, pass a series of bills on border security, and then and only then address the 11 million illegal immigrants. Among the GOP contenders, virtually all (except perhaps Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who opposes “amnesty” — which he defines so broadly as to encompass everything but deportation) would agree with that. Now, thanks to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and the shift in majority control in the Senate, another hotbed issue may cease to divide the party.

Alexander is bent on fixing No Child Left Behind, and doing so in a way that allows both sides to declare victory in the Common Core debate. His Web site explains that he has been a proponent of the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act to fix NCLB, which:
  • Restores state and local control: Gets Washington out of the business of deciding whether local schools are succeeding or failing and empowers states to develop their own systems to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for college or the workforce.
  • Removes National School Board mandates: Gets rid of Washington rules, definitions, and models for how states and local districts identify and fix public schools; . . . Makes clear that the U.S. education secretary’s waiver authority is led by state requests for flexibility and is not an excuse to impose more federal mandates, including “common core” standards.
  • Encourages high state standards and quality tests: Ensures that states, not Washington, will define high standards and quality tests for students in reading, math and science. The education secretary is prohibited from specifying, defining or prescribing the standards or measures that states or school districts use to establish, implement or improve standards and tests. The secretary may not require states or local districts to adopt common standards, tests or accountability systems.
  • Expands school choice for low-income parents: Allows states to let $14.5 billion in federal funding, or about $1,300 per low-income child, follow those children to the public school they attend and encourages school districts to provide parents whose children attend low-performing schools with the option of transferring to another public school.
  • Provides more freedom for teachers and principals: Encourages the expansion and replication of successful public charter schools, which give teachers and school leaders more freedom from government and union regulations to use their own good judgment about how to teach.
  • Gives local control over teacher evaluations: Gets Washington out of the business of deciding whether teachers are succeeding or failing by ending the federal definitions of “highly qualified teachers” and encouraging states to use their share of $2.5 billion in federal teacher quality funds to create teacher evaluation systems related to student performance and other factors.
  • Increases flexibility in spending federal funds: Rather than let Washington determine funding priorities, the bill consolidates 62 No Child Left Behind programs into two streamlined block grants that allow states and local school districts to better meet the unique and specific needs of their students; eliminates the current “maintenance of effort” requirement so states have more flexibility to determine how to spend money and where and when to make education investments.
  • Improves reporting: Creates an annual secretary’s report card on the nation’s progress in improving and closing gaps in student achievement; eliminates unnecessary and irrelevant federal reporting requirements, maintaining only those that provide parents and communities with good information on student achievement and school performance and can help states and local school districts make their own decisions on how to hold schools accountable.

Common Core, you may recall, began as a state-led effort to set standards — that is benchmarks — for when children should master certain skills. The trouble began as the Obama administration started to use Common Core as a prerequisite for NCLB aid to the states. What ensued was a stormy and at times distorted debate about what Common Core was (an effort to catch American kids up with foreign counterparts) and was not (curriculum) and whether it was a plot by the feds to take over education. Whatever the merits of each side, Alexander’s approach would clarify once and for all that states have the responsibility for developing and implementing their own standards and developing appropriate testing to measure their students’ proficiency. This should embolden proponents of standards.

Bill Bennett recently took on the Common Core bugaboo:

Conservatives have reason to be upset by this federal overreach. The Obama administration has run roughshod over individual rights and state sovereignty, on issues ranging from health care to climate change. But the federal intrusion into Common Core, however unwelcome and unhelpful, does not change a basic truth: Common, voluntary standards are a good, conservative policy. . . . Some of the criticism is legitimate, but much of it is based on myths. For example, a myth persists that Common Core involves a required reading list. Not so. Other than four seminal historical documents — the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address — there is no required reading list. Textbook companies have marketed their books disingenuously, leading many parents to believe that under Common Core the government mandates particular textbooks. Also not true.

The standards are designed to invite states to take control and to build upon them further. The standards do not prescribe what is taught in our classrooms or how it’s taught. That decision should always rest with local school districts and school boards.

The principles behind the Common Core affirm a great intellectual tradition and inheritance. We should not allow them to be hijacked by the federal government or misguided bureaucrats and politicos.

For Common Core critics, Alexander’s approach should offer peace of mind that local control will remain. With the school choice provisions, it would represent a major step forward in creating competition in K-12 education.

Resolving Common Core, as former Florida governor Jeb Bush has argued, also allows reformers to refocus attention on the real issue: having somestandards, wherever they originate. He recently explained:

This morning over 213 million Chinese students went to school, and nobody debated whether academic expectations should be lowered in order to protect the students’ self-esteem. Yet in Orange County, Florida, that exact debate did occur. And so the school board voted to make it impossible for a student to receive a grade below a 50. You get 50 out of 100 just for showing up and signing your name. This was done, and I quote here from a local official, so the students “do not lose all hope.”

But in an international report card on education performance, students from Shanghai ranked number one. Students from the US ranked 21st in reading and 31st in math. The point is this: an over-riding concern for self-esteem instead of high expectations doesn’t help you get to number 1. It gets you to 21. So let’s get real. Only a quarter of our high school graduates who took the ACT are fully prepared for college. More than half who attend community college need to take some kind of remedial course. 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs remain unfilled because we haven’t trained enough people with those skills. And almost a third of high school graduates fail the military entrance exam. Given this reality, there is no question we need higher academic standards and — at the local level — diverse high-quality content and curricula.

Alexander’s bill seems to move the ball in the right direction. For conservatives, school reform should be an issue around which they can rally — and demonstrate they can govern smartly. It is an issue in which they can demonstrate that they have the interests of  poor and minority kids, most affected by cruddy schools, in mind. Those looking to keep picking fights on the right may be disappointed, but for students, school reformers, the party and the country Alexander’s bill shows promise.