There is nothing sacred about Common Core, the educational standards that are attracting renewed criticism as the school year begins. The standards, which are intended to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared to do college-level work, were not handed down from the heavens on stone tablets. They are a major improvement over previous standards in most states, but they remain a work in progress.
Teachers, students and parents will all experience growing pains as they adjust to changing standards, and proponents of Common Core should take those complaints seriously and make necessary adjustments. At the same time, the standards represent a new baseline for student achievement. Any state that withdraws from Common Core, or that rejects it outright, has a responsibility to put forward measures that are equally high or higher.
One state has already failed that test: Oklahoma, which repealed Common Core in June and reverted to its previous academic standards. South Carolina has also pulled out, but it wisely delayed the move until the 2015-2016 school year, giving itself time to develop and adopt its own college-readiness benchmarks, a step Indiana took this year.
The nation’s governors developed Common Core in response to concerns that the dumbing down of standards in some places had left U.S. students at the middle and back of the pack on international tests. The governors did not, as is often thought, devise a national curriculum, which remains the province of states and local school districts. Whatever textbooks or pedagogical methods districts choose to use is their business, so long as students master the skills required.
More than 40 states remain committed to Common Core. A handful have adopted cosmetic tweaks or cut their ties with the consortium that develops tests geared to the standards. That is their right, which helps put the lie to the argument that Common Core is a federal takeover of public education, which Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a possible Republican presidential contender in 2016, is now making in federal court.
After unsuccessfully trying to withdraw Louisiana from Common Core over the objections of his hand-selected superintendent of education, Jindal is now suing the Barack Obama administration, claiming it forced the new benchmarks upon the states. That’s a creative legal argument, since Jindal himself enthusiastically and voluntarily signed up for Common Core in 2010.
Jindal complains that the Obama administration has tied federal funding to the adoption of Common Core. As he surely knows, however, states (such as Texas) that choose not to embrace Common Core can adopt their own college-readiness standards without losing federal funding, provided the Department of Education or their state college system signs off on them.
Indiana earned federal approval for its new measures because they resemble Common Core’s. Oklahoma did not because the old standards it kept are not tied to the new college-readiness levels. That may explain why it did not even bother asking the Oklahoma university system to approve them. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education properly withdrew a federal waiver that allowed Oklahoma to qualify for federal funding under the 2002 federal law No Child Left Behind.
Jindal, meanwhile, is unlikely to succeed in court, and that’s good news for schoolchildren in Louisiana, which ranks 48th out of 50 states in educational achievement, ahead of only West Virginia and Mississippi.
Education remains the domain of the states. But if they want federal education money, they have to raise their standards and start sending more kids to college who are actually ready to do the work.