The complicated politics of national standards: Why Common Core proponents have struggled but are likely to come out on top (Part 3)

In two previous posts, I documented a handful of divergent concerns that various groups of Americans have cited as reasons to oppose the Common Core. Advocates say that much of that opposition is based on misinformation or misunderstanding. However, those proponents have struggled to articulate a clear, consistent, and convincing rationale for how the Core will improve American education.

Why proponents have struggled to address the opposition

Common Core advocates failed to anticipate the political backlash against the standards that emerged in recent years, or to respond to it in a rapid or coordinated manner. They also have struggled to combat the volume and speed of opponents’ messaging on social media, where information (and misinformation) is being disseminated rapidly and widely, often unbeknownst to proponents.

Groundbreaking research on Common Core social media has revealed that just a handful of individuals are creating many of the accounts  and most of the content related to Common Core on Twitter. Furthermore, the research finds that neither real debate over the standards nor communication between supporters and opponents is occurring online. Instead, social media is serving as an echo chamber in which opponents are talking to opponents and supporters to supporters.

Common Core advocates also have been challenged by the tremendous turnover among governors, legislators, and state superintendents. Officials who initially made the decision to adopt the Core are no longer in office, replaced by politicians less supportive or less invested in its success. This problem was exacerbated by the Republican electoral landslide in the November 2014 elections occurring during the Core’s first full year of implementation and testing.

Will the Common Core survive?

The Common Core has become a proxy for a wide variety of issues swirling around in education debates and in American politics more broadly. As the research shows, Twitter activity around the Core is frequently connected to anger at President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, testing, and the federal government. The multitude of reasons fueling opposition to the Core—as well as the ideological diversity of opponents—will likely preclude a sustained political alliance or agreement on an alternate vision for American education that can compete with the Core.

State governments, school administrators, and teachers have already invested a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money in implementing the Core and re-aligning their education systems around the new standards and assessments. These represent “sunk costs” that cannot be recouped if a state changes direction, and the replacement of the Core with something truly new would require significant new investment to develop. As a result, states are likely to become increasingly “path dependent” with regard to the Core as time goes on. These dynamics mean that large numbers of states are unlikely to repeal the Core and that even in those states that do, many (like Indiana and Pennsylvania) are likely to simply rename the standards or re-adopt a slightly modified version. As we have already seen, however, it is more likely that states will pull out of the two major assessment consortium (PARCC and Smarter Balanced), which may ultimately constrain the impact that the new standards can have on American education.

Despite all of the different sources of opposition to the Common Core, two important facts should be kept in mind. First, most Americans have never heard of the Core, and those who have heard of it tend to know little about it and hold many misperceptions about what it does and does not do. Second, while the Common Core “brand” has been damaged, surveys show that support for the idea of national standards remains strong among teachers and the general public. As a result, if the misconceptions about the Core can be cleared up—and the argument for why it is a good thing for American education communicated more effectively—much of the opposition is likely to dissipate.

In addition, in the past year, several steps have been taken to address the other sources of controversy that have been connected to the Common Core. The testing consortia and state leaders have announced plans to reduce the amount of testing students will have to undertake, many states have announced a pause or postponement in the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, and the House and Senate have passed ESEA reauthorization bills that explicitly ban the federal government from mandating/ incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core.  Over time, states should resolve the implementation problems (such as with computerized testing) that surrounded the initial roll out of Common Core, and students, teachers, and parents will become more accustomed/acclimated to the new standards. As a result, predictions of the demise of Common Core are likely overblown.


Note: 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).