Last week, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, picked just the right words to make an increasingly hot controversy even hotter.
Like many education officials in both parties, Duncan is a defender of the Common Core initiative to create uniform academic standards for K-12 education in all states. Resistance to it, he asserted, comes mainly from "white suburban moms" who don't take kindly to hearing that their children aren't meeting newly raised standards.
Duncan had to backtrack from the comment, of course, which also happens to be clearly false. Students aren't yet being tested to determine whether they meet the standards, so poor test results couldn't be generating a backlash. The contempt that the remark revealed is real enough, though. Proponents of the Common Core tend to view its critics as an ignorant mob. Support for it is, in certain circles, a sign of one's seriousness about education reform.
Yet the reform strategy it represents hasn't been thought through well, and it seems unlikely to work. The debate that surrounds it is an extended exercise in missing the point.
The initiative's critics advance an angry populism that if frequently misinformed. One can certainly imagine Duncan's frustration at having to rebut Glenn Beck's claim that the standards are leading to mandatory iris scans for schoolkids. Even less fantastic attacks on the standards are often overwrought. Take the complaint that they downgrade the study of literature in favor of "informational texts." Actually, they call for a split between fiction and nonfiction across the curriculum. The split starts at 50-50 in elementary school and rises to 70 percent informational, 30 percent fictional by the end of high school. English class, in other words, can be entirely devoted to literature.
But supporters of the Common Core have their own misleading claims. They say that its adoption by states has been totally voluntary, even though state governments had a better shot at getting a share of federal money and relief from some regulations if they signed up for it. Supporters also say that the initiative isn't a common curriculum, as though there were a hard and fast distinction between requiring all students to know specific things at a set time and requiring they be taught them in a certain order.
What these arguments obscure is that the case for having a "common core" in the first place is weak. High standards may be valuable, but why do they have to be common? It isn't as though different state standards are a major problem in U.S. education. There's more variation in achievement within states than between them. Common standards may make life a bit easier for students who move across state lines, but they also mean that we lose a chance for states to experiment.
Common Core supporters sometimes suggest that with a single set of standards, states could determine if they're doing worse than their neighbors, and that this knowledge will make them eager to reform their schools. They said something similar about the No Child Left Behind Act that Congress passed a decade ago: Parents would learn that schools were failing to make their kids "proficient" in English and math and would demand reform.
It didn't work out that way. Many people got mad when the law labeled their schools failures. State and local officials responded by setting a lower bar for proficiency. In making his remark about white suburban moms, Duncan indicated that he thinks parents will have the same reaction this time. In which case, what good will the Common Core do?
For that matter, how common will that core really be? Classroom practice doesn't always reflect the standards written in a state's official documents. That's one reason the rigor of state standards doesn't correlate with student achievement. But ensuring uniformity in practice would require the kind of heavy- handed central governing body that supporters of the Common Core strenuously deny they want.
The real problem with the Common Core is not that it represents Big Brother in the classroom, but that it seems unlikely to do much to increase the amount of learning that students do. Perhaps that's because there's not much that can be done on the national level to make K-12 schooling better.
A lot of education reformers find it hard to admit that. And so the debate over the Common Core is a dismal cycle of elite disdain and populist outrage, each side feeding the other's worst impulses.