Common Core, battered by midterm politics, gets higher-ed support. Too late?

The midterms 'can't come soon enough' for Common Core, which has been taking fire from both the left and right. Higher Ed for Higher Standards says it hopes to debunk Common Core myths.

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Stacey Jacobson-Francis helps her 6-year-old daughter Luci with her math homework at their home in Berkeley, Calif., May 14. Stacey said her daughter’s homework requires her to know four different ways to add. 'That is way too much to ask of a first grader,' she says.

A new coalition of Common Core supporters, this time from the higher-education community, announced itself Tuesday. Its mission: to raise awareness about the importance of the standards and try to counter the spread of misinformation and the growing backlash against the standards.

It's a battle that has become central in the education world lately, and is spilling out into more general debate, as Common Core becomes a key issue in many midterm campaigns.

In the past two weeks, South Carolina and Oklahoma have joined Indiana in dropping the standards, bringing the number of states with Common Core down to 43. Tea Party candidates and many Republicans have started using opposition to Common Core as a sort of litmus test, with many referring to it as "ObamaCore." On the left, a growing number of educators have raised concerns over the standards for early-elementary grades, and have pushed for a slow-down on Common Core implementation and high-stakes accountability. And a number of states have announced they no longer plan to use one of the two big assessments being developed to align with Common Core.

"For supporters of Common Core, the November elections can’t come soon enough," says Patrick McGuinn, a political science and education professor at Drew University. "Common Core has become a real symbol, and is being talked about in this ideological way. The debate is not about the standards."

Common Core was the result of a state-led effort to develop a uniform set of high-quality standards that built on each other, emphasized critical thinking skills, and prepared high school graduates to be ready for college and careers, and was initially adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia – a remarkable achievement, especially given how quickly the adoption occurred.

But over the past year, backlash to the standards, both from the right, who tend to see Common Core as the sign of federal intrusion into education, and the left, who view it as a sign of privatization of education and another piece in a growing body of accountability reforms, has ballooned. Common Core advocates have been slow to respond – in part, notes Professor McGuinn, because they are so decentralized – and are now working to put out flames and spread a different message, explaining to the public both what the standards are, and what they aren't.

"There are a lot of myths out there, and bad information," said John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, in a phone call with reporters to announce a new higher-ed coalition in support of Common Core, Higher Ed for Higher Standards. "When you really explain to people this is about college-ready standards, not about how to teach or about curriculum ... that’s a message that resonates."

Mr. Morgan and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, emphasized the stake higher education has in Common Core remaining intact, particularly given the large number of college students who currently enter school unprepared. Some 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and 20 percent of students entering four-year institutions require some form of remediation – a factor that's a huge contributor to students not graduating on time or at all from college.

"If we let these standards go it will be decades before we will be able to rally 45 or 50 states in the kind of work that was done to get these standards," said Ms. Zimpher in the call. More than 200 college and university leaders from 33 states have signed onto the new coalition.

But in some ways, the original idea behind Common Core – the idea that it would be a quiet, seamless, nonpartisan move that would make it easy to compare students across states – has already been lost, says Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. And a bigger concern to supporters than states dropping out may well be the number of states who are no longer planning to use the new assessments, or who are keeping the standards but not really implementing them, says Mr. Hess.

In a few years, Hess says, "Common Core advocates are going to want to say we should only be judged on these 15 states that are really serious, but research and evaluation will compare all these 40, for most of which it’s just words on paper."

Also on Tuesday, Vicki Phillips, director of education for the Gates Foundation – a major catalyst behind Common Core, and subject of an much-discussed Washington Post piece this weekend – published a letter calling for a two-year moratorium on using Common Core assessments for high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion.

The letter was well-received by many educators, and such a delay on high-stakes accountability could help quell some of the criticism on the left, says McGuinn.

"If you suspend accountability for two to three years, a lot of the political problems around Common Core, the mounting opposition, certainly from the left, goes away," he says.

But even as advocates rush to change the message, educate the public, and counter the backlash, they're not always reading the situation right, says Hess, and their refusal to take seriously some of the concerns that have been voiced are making their job harder.

"They keep trying to get more megaphones, try to get more people talking, but I’m not sure the things they’re saying are the kinds of stuff that will quiet the nerves of the people on either the right or the left," says Hess.

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