William Bennett explains Common Core

Common CoreBy Lynn R. Mitchell

In the midst of the contentious debate over the Common Core State Standards, many critics have lost perspective on its purpose.

Why did so many governors, educators and policymakers across both parties join together to create the standards in the first place? A brief look at Common Core’s history would help explain its significance and counter some of the criticisms.

In 1983, then Secretary of Education Terrel Bell commissioned the seminal report, “A Nation at Risk,” which highlighted American students’ falling SAT scores and awakened the nation to its educational malaise. Among many of the report’s recommendations, which eventually became a platform for modern education reforms, were calls for “more rigorous and measurable standards.” American students were victims of low expectations and inconsistent learning goals.

William Bennett explains Common Core in an op-ed that lays out the what and why of this misunderstood educational tool (see Common Core has no better alternative). He further explains that not much has changed since 1983 despite billions of dollars spent on education and adds, “Thanks to benchmarked national and international exams, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), we know that American students continue to fall short.”

Bennett continued:

Educational performance in many districts and states resembled Lake Wobegon — the fictional place in Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” But reality is different.

Local control has always been an essential right of education in America, but there was a growing problem: When different states with different standards and different tests proliferated, we ended up with unreliable measures of how our children are really doing.

A wide and disparate variety of education standards promotes chaos and deception. Realizing this, in 2009, a collaborative involving the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers began to discuss the need for common standards and accountability. The end goal is that an “A” in math in New Jersey should be equivalent to an “A” in math in Louisiana, or in California, and so on.

That was when a collaborated effort was made to standardize testing and, voila, Common Core was born. The purpose “was to lift education performance through state, not federal, collaboration.” Bennett noted:

Unfortunately, outside forces have interfered with or distorted the idea, obscuring its real merits. Federal intrusions such as the Race to the Top grants have not been helpful. Common Core isn’t without its problems, but some of have been exaggerated and some have been made up out of thin air. We can’t lose sight of the original intent. Should Common Core fail, the movement — decades in the making — toward rigorous, common standards would be dealt a serious blow.

Is there an alternative to Common Core? Bennett concluded:

Some of the criticisms leveled against Common Core stem from mistakes made in local implementations — not from a uniform federal mandate. It is ironic that the very thing which many of Common Core’s critics value the most — local control — has often resulted in curricula, subject matter, readings, and exercises in local classrooms that are objectionable, substandard, or politically tendentious.

If Common Core fails, education reform will regress and American students’ flat or falling test results in learning will continue. It must be noted that many of Common Core’s critics still lack a persuasive alternative or any alternative at all.

Forty-four states have adopted Common Core. Virginia has not done so because it put Standards of Learning (SOLs) in place in the 1990s. They measure K-12 achievement in English, mathematics, science, history-social science, technology, fine arts, foreign language, health and physical education, and driver education.

If not Common Core, then what? Should we as a country go back to no standards for our students? Is there an alternative to Common Core?

Bill Bennett was U.S. Secretary of Education for President Ronald Reagan’s administration and, in 2000, founded K12, an online education program.


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