The Common Core Dilemma

On Monday, Indiana became the first state to withdraw from the Common Core national standards for reading and math.  These standards have been adopted by 45 states over the past several years, spurred by federal grant money that was dangled as part of the Race to the Top competition.  Designed by the National Governors’ Association, they were meant to provide uniformly high standards for students across all states.

Recently, however, Common Core has stoked the ire of conservatives who (inaccurately) view the standards as a Washington-imposed national curriculum.  Conservatives have long resisted federal education initiatives that are thought to impede upon local school control, and see Common Core as the latest egregious attempt at a federal takeover of our schools.

While conservatives in Indiana and other states may contemplate a noisy exit from Common Core, this may be more sound than actual fury – they might be leaving the Common Core in name only.  As the Huffington Post reports:

[A]ny program [Indiana] adopts as an alternative is unlikely to be much different [from Common Core]. Retired University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky, a Common Core opponent whom Pence asked to review a draft of new Indiana standards up for a final State Board of Education vote April 28, called the proposed changes a “warmed-over version of Common Core’s standards” for English, the Indianapolis Star reported Monday.

The original author of the measure removing Indiana from the national standards, state Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Carmel, pulled his name from the bill at the last minute this month after learning that other lawmakers had altered the measure to require the state to still meet national education standards so it won’t lose federal funding.

It will be extremely difficult for individual states to actually leave the substance of the Common Core standards behind, if not the formality of the name.  States face not just federal funding losses, but also a competitive disadvantage for their students: if all other states have higher education standards, then a state like Indiana would hurt its students’ chances in the national workforce by doing anything that is seen as weakening their standards.

In essence, Common Core has created a collective action prisoner’s dilemma among conservative state governors.  And this was wholly by design in the Race to the Top competition.  Race to the Top was a brilliant initiative embedded in President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package.  The federal government hosted a competitive grant among the states, offering money to the states that enacted the most education reforms.  The administration awarded points to each state based on factors like its willingness to expand charter schools and whether it had adopted Common Core.  The states with the most points then won federal grant money.

Race to the Top allowed the administration to leverage substantial state reform with no actual federal intervention for a relatively small amount of grant money (only about $4 billion out of the $787 billion stimulus act).  The hope of winning this money to shore up their education budgets in the midst of a crushing recession led states to move quickly in adopting education reforms like Common Core.  Race to the Top essentially inverted the traditional collective action problem faced by states – it made states hesitant to be inactive on education reform.

Common Core proliferated rapidly across the country, which makes it highly sticky – states will find it difficult to truly abandon these standards.  And with Common Core now being woven into the revamped SAT and ACT, states will find it even harder to truly depart from its standards without leaving their students unprepared for college admissions tests.

So for now, talk about states abandoning Common Core amounts to little more than conservative huffing and puffing.  According to the Washington Post, Indiana’s approach is “similar to the approach several other states are taking: Pass standards nearly identical to Common Core, but under a different name.”  That is, do just enough to capitalize on political uproar, without making any actual substantive policy change.

The move by some states to withdraw from the Common Core standards is just political posturing as of now.  The proliferation and entrenchment of Common Core in our educational institutions makes using its standards in one way or another just about inevitable.

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One thought on “The Common Core Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Liberal education reform after Obama | J.DODGE blog

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