Ruth: Common Core meets the hysterical fringe

School testing based on the Common Core curriculum

School testing based on the Common Core curriculum is causing controversy. (Credit: Newsday)

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At first things seemed to going pretty well for a country that can't seem to agree on the color orange.

Republicans and Democrats were on the same page: America's schoolchildren risked becoming international dunces if school standards didn't improve beyond a requirement to count to 20 without taking off one's shoes.

So several years ago, in a bipartisan effort especially on the part of the nation's governors, the Common Core State Standards began to be forged, offering the opportunity to create a national system where children would be taught essentially the same stuff and measured in the same way. So far, 45 states (New York among them) and the District of Columbia have signed on to Common Core. And pigs flew. Cows jumped over the moon.


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The need for Common Core would seem to be self-evident. Despite the fact the United States leads the world in "Hangover" sequels, meaningless Twitter postings and Lindsay Lohan court appearances, the nation is well down the international list for academic achievement at 17th. That's way behind places such as Finland, South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany, but ahead of Hungary, Slovakia and Russia.

Still, support for Common Core began to erode when the worst possible thing happened. President Barack Obama thought it was a pretty good idea, too. Before you could say Agenda 21, Common Core turned into a Marxist/socialist international conspiracy to turn our children into Kenyan foot soldiers in the service of world domination.

We pause briefly here for a forehead slap.

The "Airplane"-like hysteria threatens to upend the mission of Common Core in states such as Florida. State House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have gotten all wobbly in the knees over a key Common Core provision calling for a universal assessment of student achievement that can easily be compared between states.

The whole point of Common Core is that if the United States is going to compete for jobs, lead in technology and remain an innovative economic engine, our children must meet a higher standard of educational accountability and be able to compare their performances.

An "aha moment" meets "duh." Think about this, which already puts you well ahead of the intellectual firepower in Tallahassee: Florida is poised to become part of a program that will have a long-term positive impact on the education of our children and the future of the nation.

Yet legislative leaders are opposed to one of its most important elements because tea party movement types don't like Common Core.

To the tea party crowd, Common Core is an example of the federal government's overreach into the lives and privacy of our tots since universal testing data would be collected, stored and (cue The Minority Report theme) "protected," which could be used later by the black helicopter crowd to enslave us all.

Radio's Glenn Beck has opposed Common Core because he views it as part of what he calls Political System X. Beck sees it as a plot involving the U.S. Education Department, Rupert Murdoch, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jeb Bush and the United Nations to data-mine public schools for information about the kiddies.

Like every government reform project, Common Core will have its glitches, its shortcomings, its setbacks. But The DaVinci Code of the ABCs it is not.

So Weatherford and Gaetz have an interesting choice to make. Do they want to cater to a paranoid tea party movement in opposition to Common Core led by a conservative radio personality? Or would they prefer to follow the lead of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who supports the goals and objectives of Common Core, including testing? Weatherford and Gaetz say they still support Common Core but believe Florida should come up with its own testing system. Designing separate tests for particular states seems to defeat the purpose of national education standards.

What's more important? Pandering for votes? Or a future better-educated citizenry? Do we really want to know the answer?

Reach Tampa Bay Times columnist Daniel Ruth at druth@tampabay.com.

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