SADOW: Federal Overreach Is What Causes The Common Core Mess

The tempest in a teapot colloquially known as the Common Core State Standards surged again with the statement of a Louisiana legislator that he would file legislation hoping to block their implementation next year, and Gov. Bobby Jindal asking state education leaders to take questions surrounding that seriously. That this debate features more light than heat nonetheless does not mean it should be settled either definitively for or against CCSS.

State Rep. Cameron Henry claimed in the letter to Jindal that implementation of these standards shifted oversight from parents to bureaucrats, were not scrutinized prior to adoption, overrides state choices in curriculum, educational standards, and the “proper role of parents and teachers,” through its testing mechanism violates privacy rights, and imposes additional costs. He wrote not only that he would file legislation to halt implementation at the last minute, but also asked Jindal to complement that effort by getting the Department of Education, run by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education through its appointed superintendant John White, to stop the process.

For his part, Jindal asked White to review with Henry these concerns but said little beyond previous comments about then issue, where he cautioned that the CCSS effort not become the imposition of a federal curriculum. However, Jindal does not have any formal authority over this kind of policy, except for his ability to appoint but not remove three of the 11 members of BESE to an unlimited number of terms. And, to date, White and BESE have shown little enthusiasm for any substantive changes to the course; in fact, Louisiana was one of the initial adopters and leaders of the effort in 2010, shaping the concept more than most because the allied testing program that goes along with it largely replicates what Louisiana already does.

Now less than a year away from implementation, 45 states have chosen to participate fully in the state-organized effort, with one partially involved and the other four having created similar standards, which is the path Henry recommended. Most, but not all, of the 45 also have signed on to a common testing framework, which Henry (ironically, since it is modeled closely on Louisiana’s) also wants to shelve and to head in another direction. Here, he has common cause with Democrats and unions, who wish to interject more subjectivity into the testing process because that would make less obvious the underperformance of some teachers and administrators in public schools. However, all states, whether adopting CCSS and its testing framework, have adopted a set of standards and testing of them in accordance with certain federal guidelines because without demonstrating proof of that they would be ineligible for much federal money to finance education; nor is CCSS required to be eligible for such funding.

The mix of complaints registered by Henry range from the unsustainable to the intellectually intramural predicated on worldviews without definitive proof for the validity of any of them. While the notion that the enterprise received no vetting – dozens of organizations representing stakeholders of all kinds, plus the oversight of state educational leaders makes this assertion appear counterfactual – arguments about who controls curricula and standards are complex (for example, read this about what is a “national curriculum” or a “nationalization of curriculum”). Supporters will point out that content is left entirely up to the states, while detractors claim that the federal government can, maybe, might be able to slip in rules in funding decisions to affect content. Supporters will note that withdrawal by states can occur at any time, while detractors say that in its grant paperwork from the past the federal government can, maybe, might be able to foist penalties on states that do so, and so on. Remarkably, skeptics about federal control over education end up arguing on both sides.

Henry’s most valid point concerns the privacy of information derived from testing. While much of CCSS has come from bottom-up processes, the data sharing elements have been driven more from the top downenabled by federal power unconnected to CCSS, and unless Louisiana can ensure that proper parental informed consent procedures and measures to prevent sharing beyond data use for diagnostic purposes, perhaps it’s best that it should withdraw from the testing consortium as several other states have.

Ironically, even as Henry cites cost concerns as a reason to bail out, that very withdrawal itself would be an expensive proposition, in that the state would have to use resources to modify its current educational delivery superstructure to create a compliant equivalence for the purposes of eligibility for federal grants. That would be worth it to avoid long term problems of CCSS if they manifest, yet the case that these ineluctably would happen is far from having been made.

For Henry’s approach smacks of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There may be risk of unwise and inappropriate federal intrusiveness but that neither is proven nor obvious at this point. And while Louisiana’s made progress in education, it’s hard to argue more could not be made by adoption of standards designed to enhance learning basic abilities. Thus, the appropriate solution to minimize that potential threat resides in federalism – create state-based barriers to prevent that, or to allow the state to exit CCSS if these cannot be satisfactorily formulated. Legislation should concentrate on that, rather than ask the state to exit the plane of beneficial education reform in concept without a parachute.

And maybe any bill should attempt to find a parachute, which for Louisiana might not be all that difficult. For the largest outlier to CCSS, like Louisiana with an improving educational system although better, is neighboring Texas, which this summer ended its debate by rejecting CCSS participation. It’s of such size that publishers print textbooks to its standards, and would provide plenty of data for comparison purposes and might alleviate concerns of federal government-led data sharing. Aligning to its standards might prove an escape hatch that doesn’t sacrifice quality, holds down costs, and conveys the benefits of cross-longitudinal comparisons.

Henry’s pledge falls short of good public policy because an attitude of trust but verify can do the job on the Common Core issue. Jindal, BESE, and legislators need to understand that is the framework under which its implementation should proceed, rather than chuck it or swallow it uncritically.

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