Debate: Do we need the Common Core standards in public schools?

An undated file photo of an empty classroom.

An undated file photo of an empty classroom. (Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

Back to school for millions of American children this year means a new set of academic standards. Called the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the new national benchmarks will help U.S. students compete with their peers internationally and leave them better prepared for college and work, proponents say.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core in 2010, enticed by Obama administration waivers to federal accountability rules as well as billions in Race to the Top funds. But a number of states, including Indiana, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania, are having second thoughts about the standards. Critics contend they're too expensive and too intrusive on state prerogatives.

Are the Common Core standards really necessary? Or just another case of federal overreach? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.


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BOYCHUK: Most parents have no idea what the Common Core has in store for their kids. A recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll found that two-thirds of Americans didn't know the standards even existed. They're in for a shock.

The Common Core was sold as a voluntary, state-based solution to the problem of inconsistent academic standards. Unfortunately, the standards didn't remain voluntary for long. The Obama administration in 2010 told cash-strapped state officials they would need to adopt the standards if they wanted a cut of the billions in one-time federal education stimulus funds. Incredibly, only a handful of states refused.

But the real problem with the Common Core isn't that the standards are one more way for the feds to take over K-12 education -- though that's bad. No, the problem is the standards just aren't very good.

Common Core math is a rehash of the "new math" of yore, stressing "real world problems," "higher-order thinking" and "collaborative learning," at the expense of rudiments, practical skills and memorization.

Worse, the Common Core language frameworks diminish the role of literature in favor of reading more nonfiction, such as "informational texts," technical manuals, even newspaper editorials. What could be drearier? The United States has spent billions over the decades to raise academic standards and demand greater accountability, but even our advanced students seem to know little worth knowing. If you doubt it, peruse the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as "the nation's report card." U.S. fourth-, eighth- and 12th graders have shown little improvement in math, reading, civics, science or history in the past 20 years. It's fair to say they've stagnated.

Lost in the drive for "college and career readiness," as the edu-wonks say, is the original purpose of American public education: to make good citizens, as opposed to productive employees.

Viewed in that light, the Common Core is simply a new gloss on the same old faddish nonsense. In a few years, we may have a nation full of magnificent test-takers adept at "processing information" -- but they won't be educated in the least.

MATHIS: Defending the Common Core standards shouldn't be that difficult. Despite the conservative love of local decision-making about education, English -- the formal, written kind -- isn't any different in Louisiana than it is in Oregon.

Math? The same in Massachusetts as it is in New Mexico. There's no reason, really, to expect kids in one part of the country to learn less than kids in another, is there? But Common Core also seems kind of irrelevant to the problems facing education where I live.

Forgive me for being provincial in my concerns: I live in Philadelphia, where my son begins kindergarten this fall at a public school. The school district is a mess -- as of this writing, the teachers still don't have a contract for the school year, the district is tens of millions of dollars short of the funds needed to operate, and so many schools have closed that many students will be venturing outside their neighborhoods to go to class.

There's plenty of blame to go around. The city originally ran the schools into the ground, years ago. The state took over the schools more than a decade ago, but lately Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has slashed funding to local districts. The teachers' pensions are becoming a bigger drain on the budget, yes, but the local teachers are also underpaid compared to their counterparts in the rest of southeastern Pennsylvania. There's violence and poverty and all the rest. Everybody's to blame and nobody's fixing anything.

My kid's school? Still has a good reputation. But the principal is asking parents to donate $613 per child this year. The only way to preserve a good public school, it seems is to operate it like it's a quasi-private school. That obviously won't work in the poorer parts of town.

These are not just Philadelphia problems. But Common Core standards don't really address them. The standards deserve a defense, probably: I'm just too worried about my own kid's education to offer one.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is a contributing editor to Philadelphia Magazine online.

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