Though many Common Core opponents are conservative, its standards have both supporters on the right and opponents on the left.
Bill Bennett, the former U.S. secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, published an op-ed in Thursday's Wall Street Journal making the "conservative case for Common Core," highlighting–and igniting–the ongoing debate among conservatives over the standards.
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Bennett argued that a core curriculum is a fundamentally conservative proposal: "preserving and emphasizing what's essential, in fields like literature and math, to a worthwhile education."
Bennett grants that the federal government's use of Race to the Top funds to push standards on the states was inappropriate, and calls it "federal overreach."
But, he proposes, "The original Common Core standards were separate from the federal government, and they can be separated once again."
Call it Common Core or call it something else, as Arizona has done by renaming its standards "Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards," but public schools should have high standards based on a core curriculum that is aligned with tests that are comparable across state lines. The U.S. has several types of national exams that assume at least some common basis of knowledge and understanding. These exams—NAEP, AP, SAT and ACT—work, and most of the country agrees that they are useful.
He also critiques the urban legends that have emerged around the Common Core, like the misperception that certain textbooks advertising themselves as "Common Core-aligned" are actually mandated by the standards.
Cato's Neal McCluskey panned the piece, saying it illustrates "the contradictions of the Core while furnishing several examples of all-too-frequent Core spin."
McCluskey rejects Bennett's proposal that all states needs common standards, instead supporting competing standards across the country.
While Bennett maintains the standards "do not prescribe what is taught in our classrooms or how it's taught," McCluskey counters that standards would be meaningless if they do not prescribe what students learn. He writes:
Here we see a basic problem for Core supporters: They want the public to believe either that the Core is rich and rigorous, or that it is empty and just a floor, depending, is seems, on whom they are trying to convince to support it. So in one breath they’ll talk about the obvious need for core content, and in the next they’ll protest if anyone says the standards have, well, core content. This may be because there actually is no unanimous agreement on what students should read.
National Review's Frederick M. Hess called Bennett's column "a reasonable celebration of high standards and a useful response to silly claims about Common Core reading lists," but goes on to describe Bennett's defense of the standards as "tepid":
But Bennett never even attempts to make the case that the Common Core standards are "good," or to alleviate concerns about potentially problematic consequences. In this, his column is pretty typical of what passes for conservative advocacy. Conservative champions tend to argue that high standards and common tests are good and that, ipso facto, the Common Core must be good.
In fact, the virtues of the Common Core should be regarded as an open question. (For discussion, see my National Review column from last week.) The quality of the new assessments is not yet clear, and a host of state withdrawals from the two major testing consortia has made these common assessments something less than common.
Hess, like McCluskey, is not as ready as Bennett to dismiss all concern over the content of the standards. He notes that, in many ways, the standards so far are an "open canvas," and worries they will ultimately foster "new-age goofiness."
At Minding the Campus, Peter Wood called Bennett's hope that the standards can be reclaimed as a state-led effort "a fantasy."
"The Common Core was meant from the get-go to replace state and local autonomy with national control," Wood said. "It was designed that way and federal control is intrinsic to it."
Support for the standards has plummeted recently, with more and more states debating whether to withdraw.
The standards were adopted by 45 states before most people knew how or why they were created. As these battling conservative opinion pieces demonstrate, much of the debate over the standards continues to revolve around what, exactly, they are.