Society and Culture, Education, Economics, Health Care

Obamacare’s lessons for the Common Core

Image Credit: US Department of Education (Flickr) CC

Image Credit: US Department of Education (Flickr) CC

Critics of the Common Core reading and math standards adopted by forty-odd states since 2010 have taken to calling them “Obamacore,” in a play on health care reform. The “Obamacore” moniker reflects concerns that Washington pressed states to adopt the Common Core and the fear that the process will permanently extend the federal government’s say over what schools teach and how they teach. Common Core defenders respond that the effort is “state-led,” that the role played by federal “Race to the Top” funds was modest, and that the exercise won’t invite any further federal role.

Those advocates would do well to peruse yesterday’s Washington Post story by Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin, dissecting the troubled launch of They explain how political concerns, distractions, and bureaucratic machinations undermined the effort. Efforts to insulate the process from hostile House Republicans meant that implementation was “fragmented,” with technical staff separated from “those assigned to write the necessary policies and regulations.” A monthly meeting of key cabinet-level officials “petered out” when some key participants stopped attending. Insiders explain that “” was in the future, and short-term concerns seemed more pressing. The White House also compromised implementation in an attempt to forestall critics; officials were not allowed to publish diagrams intended to show states how a federal exchange would work, for fear they would attract ridicule. The White House refused to allow specifications for IT contracts to clarify how many states would be involved, fearing that Republicans would use the number as “evidence of a feared federal takeover” of health care. The Obama team also slowed down key regulations until after the 2012 election, and proved unwilling to “share information” with key Hill allies out of fears it would leak.

All of this is in addition to the enormous trouble health care reform is suffering right now from the president’s politically motivated promise, since proved to be a lie, that: “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan.”

What’s the relevance for the Common Core?  As advocate Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas Fordham Institute, noted when the Common Core was launched in 2010, “For these standards to get traction… a whole bunch of other things need to happen. Curriculum needs to happen, textbooks need to be aligned with the curriculum, teacher preparation and professional development needs to be aligned, tests need to be aligned, [and] the accountability system that is built on those tests needs to make sense.”

When push comes to shove, many (if not most) Common Core advocates really believe the federal government will have to help with some of this. In 2011, the American Federation of Teachers’ Al Shanker Institute called for the creation of a national curriculum to support the Common Core. The National Governors Association has previously called on Uncle Sam to help fund and encourage Common Core implementation. The Obama Department of Education has embraced a much more prescriptive role in telling states how to measure teacher effectiveness and where teachers should teach.

Instead of talking frankly about what they think it’ll take for the Common Core to deliver, though, enthusiasts are trying to score political points while ensuring they’ll be unable to deliver on their grand ambitions. Indeed, there are some policy victories that are doomed to disappoint—the concessions and compromises made along the way undermine the chance of success. Mike McShane and I talk more about this in our forthcoming book, Common Core Meets The Reform Agenda (which will be available at the end of this month).

Common Core advocates, if they are wise, will study the stumbles of healthcare reform and better appreciate the perils of pursuing profound policy shifts through subterfuge and misdirection.

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