The complicated politics of national standards: The many sources of opposition (part 1 of 3)

Advocates of the Common Core State Standards say that high, uniform academic standards are essential to improving American students’ academic performance—to prepare them better for college or career and to enhance our nation’s ability to compete in the global marketplace. However, surveys of teachers and the general public reveal growing opposition to the Common Core as it entered its first year of full implementation nationwide in 2014-15. These same surveys also show that most people do not know much about the Common Core, and that much of what they think they know is incorrect.

Opposition to the Core does not stem from a single source and is not confined to members of one political party. People dislike the Common Core for different reasons. In this post, I will identify various sources of opposition to the Common Core as well as assess (and in some instances dispel) the stated reasons for opposition. It is also important to understand the unusual political alliances that have emerged in opposition to the Common Core implementation, and how they may play out longer term. In a future post, I will analyze their likely effects on the future of the Common Core.

Federal (and presidential) overreach

Some, particularly Tea Party adherents and others on the right, view the Common Core as a dangerous—even unconstitutional—expansion of federal control into education and a violation of states’ rights. The word “education” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, and our country has a strong tradition of local control of schools. Beginning with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, the federal role in education has grown tremendously and, like the law itself, has become more controversial. Yet the Common Core originated as a state venture. It was and continues to be led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — not the federal government. But the Obama administration’s use of the Race to the Top grant competition and NCLB waiver application process to encourage states to adopt the standards, and its funding of the two consortia that developed the Common Core-aligned assessments, have fed concerns that Uncle Sam is becoming the national schoolmarm. This involvement, along with the Obama administration’s vocal support for the Core, has made it easy for opponents to cast it as a federal initiative. It is an erroneous claim taken as fact by many who oppose the Common Core. The 2014 PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools revealed that 40 percent of those who opposed the Common Core said it was “very important” to their opinion that “the federal government initiated the Common Core State Standards.” An additional 22 percent who opposed the Core said the federal genesis was “somewhat important.”

As a result, the Common Core has become a powerful and threatening symbol of big government to conservatives. Dislike of a Democratic president and the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has been transferred to the Common Core and tagged by some with the moniker “Obamacore.” Once championed by conservatives, national standards have come to be identified as “liberal” and linked to President Obama. Some Republicans contemplating a 2016 presidential bid—including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both former Core supporters—are highlighting their opposition to the Common Core to appeal to conservative voters who dominate GOP primaries.

Data privacy

The Common Core had the misfortune of emerging around the time of revelations about the National Security Agency’s invasive data collection. The centralized collection of student information and test scores at the heart of the Common Core thus collided with heightened fears of data mining. For example, a 2014 survey by Education Next found that 85 percent of Americans who have heard of the Common Core erroneously believe the federal government will receive detailed data on individual students’ test performance. While the federal government has funded the development of longitudinal state databases of student performance, it will not have access to any individual student information.

Backlash to corporate concerns

The business community has been one of the most vocal supporters of the Common Core, arguing that higher academic standards are imperative to ensuring that the American economy has the high-quality workforce necessary to compete in the global marketplace. The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and major corporations such as ExxonMobil, Intel, and Time Warner Cable, have funded Common Core advocacy campaigns. This association of big business with the Core comes at a time of unprecedented corporate political contributions and enormous economic inequality. It has activated some Americans’ long-standing fear of a power elite that dictates government policy over the masses. Critics on the left have pushed back against the standards and associated testing and accountability measures, dubbing them “corporate school reform.”

Some also argue the Core is a scheme intended to increase profits for big textbook providers (such as Pearson), education tech companies (such as Microsoft), or test makers (such as the College Board). Still others see the Core as part of an even larger conspiracy to dismantle public schools and privatize education entirely. In this view, public schools will struggle to meet higher standards, and will not be given sufficient resources with which to do so, thus opening the door to the expansion of charter schools, private school voucher programs, and online virtual learning.

And more…

This list is hardly an exhaustive one. In my next post, I will discuss several additional sources of opposition to the Common Core.

This article is excerpted and adapted with permission from Challenging Standards: Navigating Conflict and Building Capacity in the Era of the Common Core, edited by Jonathan A. Supovitz and James P. Spillane (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).