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The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has said flatly he would end Common Core, though he hasn’t yet said how.
The close-to-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has said she continues to be a fan of Common Core. And why wouldn’t she be, given that she is the grandmother of the national education standards movement that was born in the early 1990s?
Sponsors of this fall’s presidential debates ought to devote one debate entirely to education, with Common Core being the primary topic.
Trump should be pinned down on how he believes a president could quickly end a program that is not a freestanding federal enactment. Clinton should be made to walk Americans through her game plan for ensuring Common Core’s permanence using a similar strategy as the one utilized by the Bill Clinton administration through the School-to-Work Act of 1994. And by all means, the Libertarian Party candidate, who will be selected Memorial Day weekend, should be included as well and asked to explain how he or she plans to extract the federal government from education entirely, root and branch.
Millions of parents, students, and teachers have a stake in this issue. Many have been working hard in their states to alter or abolish the Common Core standards for math and English. On May 3, North Dakota became the latest to launch a statehouse-directed review and rewrite in response to public pressure.
The next president could make a difference with his or her appointment of a new secretary of education. President Barack Obama’s education chief for the first seven years, Arne Duncan, used Race to the Top bribes, selective regulatory enforcement, threats, and bluster to draw 45 states into the Common Core web—and mostly keep them there. His successor, John King, is no less fanatical about hawking nationalized standards.
How would a new education secretary under Trump or Clinton interpret the fine print of the mammoth Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which Obama signed December 10 as the successor to No Child Left Behind? As he was leaving office, Duncan basically gloated about his lawyers having snookered the Republican-led Congress into enshrining the Common Core agenda into federal law. One of the main congressional sponsors, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), argues instead ESSA is a triumph for local flexibility and has said he expects King to interpret it that way.
In an education debate, would Clinton argue for the feds using ESSA to make states toe the line on assessing all students, even on their dispositions, attitudes, and grit, and denying parents the right to refuse Common Core-linked testing? Would Trump say he would use his executive powers to impose a moratorium on all mandatory federal testing? Would the Libertarian candidate, which likely will be the former two-term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, assert the real answer is to shut down the worthless U.S. Department of Education, which the Republicans once vowed to do?
As for Common Core, numerous states are gradually backing away from its strict requirements and dropping out of the federally financed testing consortia in search of more reasonable options. Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina were among the first, and battles now rage in such states as Massachusetts and Michigan.
Piecemeal dismantling of Common Core state by state is a long, slow slough. Writing in the January issue of School Reform News, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, invoked the image of a house with an underwater mortgage. “The United States has invested so much in Common Core that it can’t easily get out,” said Wood. “The investments include very large amounts spent on textbooks, computers to support the Common Core tests, and teacher training.”
Sadly, Wood added, there is the harder-to-quantify harm being done to students subjected to a “discredited educational experiment.”
“Undoing some forms of bad policy can take years,” said Wood. “Build a road or a bridge in the wrong place and chances are it is a permanent mistake, but if the government builds the wrong curriculum, chances are it has robbed a generation.”
A presidential election is exciting because it inspires hope that big changes can be made for the better. Were a presidential debate to focus Americans’ attention on moving beyond Common Core in education, perhaps that could happen more quickly.