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The surprising conservative roots of the Common Core: How conservatives gave rise to ‘Obamacore’

In an article about Jeb Bush’s prospects for winning the Republican presidential nomination, the Washington Post warned that “The conservative base hates—hates, hates, hates—the Common Core education standards.”

That’s the conventional wisdom today about conservatives and the Common Core. But David Whitman clearly illustrates in this new paper that such rhetoric vastly oversimplifies not just the debate among conservatives over the Common Core, but the rich, conservative roots of the standards themselves. As this paper documents, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) embody conservative principles in setting goals for student learning that date back to Ronald Reagan.

The conservative roots of the Common Core are little known today, but efforts at education reform during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations laid the ground work for today’s national standards. In fact, those efforts make Barack Obama and Arne Duncan’s efforts to encourage voluntary state adoption of the Common Core standards look timid by comparison. 

Despite widespread misinformation on the Common Core, the  standards tilt heavily toward conservative pedagogical traditions in their rigor, their call for content-rich curriculum, their emphasis on the development of literacy in history, civics, and foundational documents of American democracy, and their expectation that students will use evidence from readings in persuasive writing and class discussions.

David Whitman argues that the adoption of such higher standards through the Common Core is a major advance for America’s students. But he notes it is still too early to tell if raising standards will necessarily lead to better outcomes for students and more enriching teaching opportunities for educators. He contends in this paper that conservatives could play a leading role in ensuring that the CCSS is implemented with fidelity to conservative principles if they abandon the false narrative that the CCSS constitutes a federal takeover of what is taught in schools.

It’s time, argues Whitman, for many GOP presidential candidates and conservative critics of the Common Core to stop rewriting history, halt the maelstrom of misinformation on the Common Core, and pivot away from pandering to political prejudices. And it’s time for conservatives to start reasserting a leadership role in improving the implementation of the Common Core for the betterment of the nation’s students.


David Whitman

Speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2009-2015)

Author - "Sweating the Small Stuff" (2008)

Senior Writer - U.S. News & World Report (1985-2002)

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