How a GOP Congress Quietly Imposed Common Core on the Entire Country

Photo credit: Michael Bentley via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Photo credit: Michael Bentley via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

After a long absence, education policy has reclaimed a prominent role in the national and state campaign discourse.   What’s more, parents — not a particular party or candidate — are driving the debate. For their part, the GOP presidential candidates are struggling to grasp what’s going on. Apparently, understanding that numerous governors and ex-governors (e.g., Mike Pence, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush) doomed their presidential aspirations by failing to push back against Common Core and the federal government, these candidates now routinely denounce Common Core in their stump speeches. But do they really understand how federal law continues to promote Common Core? Do they understand the fight?

As we’ve reported, just-resigned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went public after the passage of the mammoth Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to crow about how he and the Obama administration got everything they wanted by conspiring with Republican leadership. (See here and here to find out how your House member and senators voted on ESSA.) Duncan especially lauded the federal mandate for “high standards,” which is federal/progressive code for Common Core.

But doesn’t ESSA, as all the bamboozled congressmen insist, bar the Secretary from mandating Common Core? True, some provisions purport to do that. But as Duncan chuckled in a separate interview, those provisions are merely “surface-y soundbites” rather than substantive restrictions on federal power.

Within the other 1,060 pages of ESSA lurk the provisions that will put downward pressure on states to keep Common Core, or something that looks very much like Common Core. This will come under the guise of requirements, deceitful though they be, for (as Duncan puts it) “high standards.”

In the first place, ESSA requires every state to submit for approval by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) a state plan, which includes standards (p. 38). That plan must be “coordinated” with 11 federal statutes, including the Soviet-style Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed a year ago; the Education Sciences Reform Act, which is all about collecting student data for research; the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, which adds to the Head Start requirements on preschool standards; and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Authorization Act, which governs the NAEP test that will almost certainly be aligned to Common Core to hide the fact that Common Core-trained students perform poorly on NAEP (pp. 38-39). Requiring state plans and therefore state standards to coordinate with all these federal statutes means, as a practical matter, most states will keep the low-quality Common Core.

Now, let’s look at the specific standards language of ESSA. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) didn’t dictate any particular alignment for state standards. ESSA, which replaces NCLB, does mandate alignment: “Each State shall demonstrate that the challenging academic standards are aligned with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the system of public higher education in the State and relevant State career and technical education standards” (p. 48). This is simply another way of saying states must have “college- and career-ready” standards. And as made clear by the U.S. Department of Education’s own materials, “college- and career-ready” means Common Core.

This is why Duncan and other USED bureaucrats are so happy with the standards language of ESSA.

Breaking down the language a bit further, we see even more ways in which states (and especially the state departments of education, which are predisposed to federal obeisance) will be pressured to stick with Common Core under ESSA. ESSA requires that a state’s standards “include the same knowledge, skills, and levels of achievement expected of all public school students . . .” (pp. 47-48). In the first place, the reference to “skills” is key. In edu-speak, “skills” denotes the psychological attributes and mindsets the government has deemed important for students to develop (such as “adaptability” and “motivation/self-discipline”). This simply resurrects “outcome-based education” (OBE) of the 1990s – diminished focus on academic content knowledge in favor of developing government-approved mindsets.

This is exactly what Common Core does. Common Core proponents have emphasized for years that the national standards are all about these so-called “21st-century skills.” As, for example, English standards expert Dr. Sandra Stotsky demonstrates, Common Core jettisons academic content knowledge in favor of “empty skill sets” that don’t prepare students for authentic college coursework.

In addition, it stands to reason that if a state has to align its standards to expectations of undefined “public higher education” — What higher education? Community colleges? University of Michigan? Something in between? Vocational schools? — it will choose the lowest common denominator. The drafters of the Common Core math standards admit that this is exactly what Common Core does. So the supplicant, obedient states will keep Common Core.

Remember also that under the Obama administration’s illegal NCLB funding of Common Core assessments, institutions of higher education certified that they would place in credit-bearing college courses those students who score at a certain level on the Common Core assessments, regardless of how uneducated those students are. So colleges have already declared that Common Core will make students (on paper, at least) “college-ready.” Why would states replace standards that are already guaranteed to be accepted by USED as compliant with ESSA’s alignment requirement?  To do so they would have to be responsive to the will of their people and their legislatures, but on the education front that’s a mindset that has been lacking for decades.

Duncan is right to celebrate the continuation of his legacy: by engineering ESSA’s passage, Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell genuflected and gave him everything he wanted. But the next President and officeholders in general will meet their political death if they fail to fight federal intrusion.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.