Critics of ‘Common Core’ school standards are worried about politics, not learning

Michigan was one of 45 states which adopted “Common Core” standards back in 2010. The standards are aimed at setting out the kinds of skills that will qualify kids to successfully meet 21st century challenges, both in post-secondary education and fulfilling careers.

There are a lot of fast-growing myths about these standards. But the fact is, Common Core does not define what specific courses should be taught. Rather, their goal is that, after graduating from high school, everyone should be able to:

--Use technology strategically in learning and communicating.

--Use argument and reasoning to do research, construct arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

--Communicate effectively with a variety of audiences.

--Solve problems, construct explanations and design solutions.

All this sounds great to me … and to state leaders ranging from Gov. Rick Snyder to Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Doug Rothwell. Whether you are a believer in education for education’s sake or an advocate for job market-aware learning, the Common Core standards focus on what capabilities young people need to master for success in the real world.

Everyone needs standards, and the ability to measure progress, and In that sense, Common Core represents a valuable accountability test for Michigan schools. We spend around $10 billion each year on our school system. That’s a whale of a lot of money!

(Editor's Note & Correction: The originally posted version of Phil Power's column incorrectly stated that "We spend around $10 billion each year on our school system." In fact, the Senate Fiscal Agency reports the FY2012-13 adjusted gross appropriation for the Michigan School Aid Fund at $12.944 billion with another $328.9 million adjusted gross appropriation for the Michigan Department of Education. Further, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that Michigan had $19.79 billion in total elementary and secondary education expenditures from all federal, state, local and other funding sources in 2009-10, the most recent year for which NCES reports the data. Phil Power regrets the error.)

So having common standards that most other states also use gives us a benchmark and some way to determine whether we’re getting our money’s worth.

Critics go political

Not surprisingly perhaps, this idea has plenty of critics on both the right and the left. For example, Freedom Works, a right-leaning national outfit, charges the standards are “Largely a product of the 2009 stimulus plan Democrats passed in Congress … a bureaucratic, top-down program heavily influenced by special interests.”

State Rep, Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, a right-leaner in the Legislature, has introduced a bill that would bar the state from implementing the standards in 2014, as is now called for.

Though he didn’t return a call last week asking for an explanation for his opposition, McMillin’s beef seems to center around the idea that it would “nationalize education” by undermining state sovereignty, locally elected school boards and parental control over what kids learn.

Nice theory, but it’s hard to see just why states still need to be sovereign over what skills kids need to have when they enter a job market that is now national in scope -- and increasingly international.  Local school boards in Texas might believe all kids ought to know in detail about the Alamo, while Michigan schools might stress Babe the Blue Ox. But I seriously doubt the folks at Google will find any of that competitive advantage when picking whom to hire.

Most of the parents I meet who are the loudest in complaining about erosion of parental authority are concerned either about politics (They don’t like that the curriculum doesn’t stress “conservative” principles) or personal morality, despite the fact that abstinence is included as an option in virtually all sex education courses.

Critics from the left seem mostly worried about getting caught out when accountability measures are on the table. Some school boards and teacher unions don’t like the idea of being held accountable -- not for some standardized test score, but for kids actually having a portfolio of usable skills when they leave school.

Indeed, Rothwell’s Business Leaders for Michigan has sent letters to the chairs of both the Senate and House Appropriations committees expressing support for the Common Core. “The standards are not a curriculum,” the letter points out, “they only specify what students should know and be able to do in each grade and by the end of high school to be career and college ready.”

BLM sets out a compelling case for quality education: Between now and 2018, 80 percent of the highest-paying, most in-demand jobs in Michigan will require at least an associate, or two-year, degree.

By 2025, Michigan will need 900,000 more workers with an associate degree or higher to fill available jobs. And those with higher levels of education earn more and are less likely to be unemployed.

The opposition to Common Core standards is yet another example of a growing national trend of adults (particularly those serving in state legislatures) imposing their ideological preferences on schools and the skills that kids need to succeed in later life.

I used to run newspapers to make a living, and have looked at plenty of balance sheets, but I’ve never seen a column headed “Ideological Conformity.” Common Core standards are nothing more than an attempt to make sure our kids have the dollars-and-cents skills necessary to compete in a world that’s more competitive every day.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Mike R
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 12:48pm
It's sad, pathetic, and infuriating when ideologues use contrived political polemics to attempt to thwart implementation of educational standards that cannot be seriously questioned by anyone acting in good faith. Another manufactured controversy for politicians and their lackeys to use as cudgels in beating on each other for their own advantage.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 2:09pm
Common Core for English and Math - an analogy might be those ubiquitous Green background, White letter, common typeface signs used on the Interstate Highway System. They provide information in a standard way that does not tell you where to go, when to go, how fast or slow to go. They do not dictate origins or destinations. They simply provide the information necessary for your personal journey that all can share and understand. They make it very easy to know where you are at any point in time or place. In schools there are many travelers that, in the beginning, volunteer their innate ability to learn, their diversity, curiosity and creativity and only wish to find those that will help them on their journey. Michigan's children have suffered long enough under the oppressive dictates of those who would dictate their journey. Robert Frost understood, why can't we: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim Because it was grassy and wanted wear, Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I marked the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." Robert Frost
Charles Richards
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 2:57pm
Mr. Power says, "So having common standards that most other states also use gives us a benchmark and some way to determine whether we’re getting our money’s worth." If he wants a benchmark that allows us to know whether we are getting our money's worth, why not simply administer a national test such as the NAEP to determine how well a district's students compare across the nation and internationally? In fact, such a test has been administered to some students, and when the MEAP test was calibrated against it, our standards were found wanting. Wouldn't it have been sufficient to provide every parent with a comparison of their district's scores with national and international scores? The standards that Mr. Power lists are all very well, but they tend to be amorphous and ill-defined. How would you gauge the degree to which students had met them?
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 11:26pm
If there is real concern for the learning of children in Michigan it seems that concern would include more than the content of learning, it would include being current in identifying needs and being creative developing of new means and methods for improving learning. Mr. Power seems to believe in an omniscient elite on learning in Washington DC over the people of Michigan. My concerns with that view are that the federal government has proven to be at best slow to change, lacks an interest in or maybe a capacity for change, a focus on organizational efficiency over effectiveness, and a proven (recent) history of being more focused on themselves and their wants than that of the nation they serve. I believe that the State offer a diversity of cultures that lends itself to a diversity of ideas, a proven capacity to quicker change, more responsiveness to constituents, and they feel the pressure for change much quicker than Mr. Power’s elites in Washington. I believe that there is within Michigan a knowledge base (global companies too small local employers) that can tell about the academic preparedness they need in employees, that there is sufficient local knowledge of communities cultures (I wonder if Mr. Power has ever looked at what percentage of graduates leave the State for employment/life) to offer how that fits into the educational needs, there is knowledge across academia, employee trainers, and in local communities to offer new and creative ways to better educate, and kids, parents, and communities (give proper expectations and metrics) can be the best at holding the learning system accountable. It is disappointing that Mr. Power would rather turnover the responsibility of education in our communities to an elite group in Washington DC taking it out of the hands of the people who it needs to serve. It would seem that rather than giving control of the kids education to people in ‘Washington’ a discussion about how to draw on the knowledge and expertise and energy of people within our State and local communities would be better for our communities and the kids.
Chris J
Wed, 05/15/2013 - 8:56am
The Common Core is a political document with an identifiable ideology and history that has contributed greatly to the current document. It is important to question who decides what research is used and how that research is presented and used. The common core materialized as a tool of the private sector. The common core was not sought by educators or those who care about students or the future of the common good. The Common Core was meant for political gain and economic profit. The creators of Common Core insist that students need to be “rigorously” ready for college. Not all graduating high schoolers are college material; something left out of the equation is called vocational education classes. Not all students are going to be engineers or doctors, let them take business math courses and other courses that prepare them for a skilled trade as opposed to engineering or rocket science. There was minimal public input in the development of the Common Core. These standards were adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field testing. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states. It is interesting to note that the creators of the Common Core standards, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve (who started this in 1996) have now taken jobs with testing companies which stand to make millions of dollars developing tests based on the standards they created. David Coleman has taken a job with the ACT testing company. How long will it be before the ACT is aligned to common core? This is how corporate education reform works.
Fri, 05/17/2013 - 10:07am
Let's debate some more about what we teach our public school students while the legislature works on ways of destroying the institution. At this point in Michigan history, I do not think the content really makes any difference as many of our elected leaders work on ways to trash our public schools. Yes, a common core curriculum is of great importance but, not so much so, when in fact your real goal is to dismantle public education in Michigan and divert those funds to 'for-profit' private enterprise.
Fri, 05/17/2013 - 9:33pm
Before we try to decide what should be taught should we first decide what the purpose of K-12 schooling is. Is it to prepare kids to be able to effectively function in everyday society, is it to prepare for further education, is it to develop certain skills? How can we decide on what should be taught if we don't know what the students need to be prepared for. Would it be beneficial for adults to understand how to handle money, debt, expenses? Should students know about the common core of decorum/civil skills that are necessary to function with others in a work environment, in public settings, etc.? Is it necessary for kids to be able to read at some minimum level, etc.? Don't we need to decide on what the schools should be preparing the kids for before we determine what the core curriculum should be?
Fri, 05/17/2013 - 11:14am
"Critics from the left seem mostly worried about getting caught out when accountability measures are on the table. Some school boards and teacher unions don’t like the idea of being held accountable — not for some standardized test score, but for kids actually having a portfolio of usable skills when they leave school." The idea that critics on the left are afraid of accountability is absurd. If the goal is leaving school with a portfolio of usable skills, then people like me are all for accountability. However the idea that "standards are not curriculum" is misleading at best. Standards/tests drive curriculum. The problems we are having in higher education is that since NCLB the frenzy of testing has led to more students being unable to read and write and think critically. Core curriculum standards in theory sounds fine, but so did "No Child Left Behind." How the curriculum is delivered in individual school districts is scary.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/19/2013 - 11:09am
Test. Title is not true. Critics of Common Core do care about learning. Critics on the left whatever that might mean, do care about learning, not politics, not accountability.