There’s a terrific and evenhanded piece by Tim Murphy in the newest Mother Jones that explains just about everything you need to know about the history of Common Core and the complex political melee surrounding the new education standards.

It’s a near-tragic story of a rare bipartisan consensus falling to pieces due to a confluence of forces: paranoia from the Right, mixed signals from the Left, opportunism from elected officials, arrogance from reform proponents and profit-seeking from big business.


Common Core was the brainchild of state education officials and K-12 reformers who set out to overhaul the sclerotic patchwork of state standards that dictate what skills students are supposed to learn in each grade level. The new set of common standards would be higher than most state’s preexisting standards, as well as “narrower” and “deeper” — that is, they’d clearly emphasize a smaller number of interrelated skills that students should know in each grade rather than serving up a broad hodgepodge of dissonant material. It’s a commonsense idea for many reasons. Among other things, as Murphy says, “In the previous decade, studying student data had been a bit like comparing stats in a basketball league in which all the hoops were a different height. Common Core would ensure the rims were at the same level across the board.”

By 2010, almost every state in the country had signed on to the project of Common Core. Teachers unions were on board. Education reformers, such as the Walton Family Foundation, were on board. Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee praised the effort equally. But then, as the standards began to actually be implemented, the trouble began:


What made Common Core such a potent wedge is that it mobilized not just the usual suspects, but also the suburban communities that sat out the last round of ed reform battles. In the era of No Child Left Behind, reformers like Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, would take charge of a poor, struggling, urban school district, earn plaudits for shaking things up, and leave behind shuttered schools, angry teachers, and a riled-up electorate. According to its supporters, what Common Core did, by applying a more rigorous testing standard across the board, was pull back the curtain on the problems that had existed everywhere else. It turned out that a lot of suburban schools weren’t doing so well either, although the system didn’t show it. They had been administering the wrong kind of tests and teaching the wrong kind of math, and now it was their students and teachers who would feel the heat of the “accountability” ethic implemented by a group of technocrats. Now it was white suburban parents who felt betrayed by their elected officials. And now, finally, politicians were listening.

Add that (nonpartisan) sense of parental disfranchisement to the anti-federal outrage bubbling in conservative circles and you have something potent, and strange. At the risk of being too grandiose, the story serves as a cross section of the entire contemporary American political landscape, where inchoate fears of government-corporate collusion for sinister ends are granted credence by the reality of an unresponsive, top-down system too often contemptuous of everyday people’s concerns, legitimate and illegitimate alike:

Common Core became a symbol for change itself, a magnet for every national anxiety (or conspiracy theory) involving the education system. Stories about the depravities of public education had been popping up in conservative media for years, but now critics had something tangible at which to direct their outrage.

But the fight is no longer merely a wedge issue within the GOP. After gathering steam on the right, dissatisfaction has also grown among progressives, long frustrated by the testing-and-school-closing fervor of the Waiting for “Superman” reformers. In an ironic twist on [education reformer] David Coleman’s earlier boast, Common Core became a cause where left and right were working together — to tear it apart.

Now, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina have halted implementation of the standards or withdrawn. Louisiana, which was in many ways ground zero for the wave of education reform that targeted “poor, struggling, urban school districts”, is engaged in a bureaucratic civil war over whether or not to do the same. It remains to be seen whether other states (such as Arkansas) might also follow suit.


The story is chilling in its broader implications: in America today, can a sustained policy consensus be forged around anything other than blanket opposition? Maybe that partly depends on what exactly falls out of the halting progress towards Common Core in the coming years..and also what happens with that other messy, convoluted, conspiracy-stoking reform, Obamacare.

The most ardent opponents of both policies see their implementation as hastening the fall of the Union. More sober critics worry (even if sometimes quietly) that by tending towards a sort of half-assed, compromise-laden implementation of desperately-needed reforms, we might not be solving systemic deficiencies after all. Wallpapering over problems may only make them worse. Then again, maybe even a half-assed reform is progress enough. Murphy writes:

The trajectory of Common Core just might wind up resembling that of the Affordable Care Act. Once the hysteria passes, it’s likely to be viewed as a genuine improvement to the education system—even if the vision of a national standard isn’t fully realized. “The [original] promise was, ‘Wow, this is nearly every state in the country!'” the New America Foundation’s Hyslop says. “We may not have that moving forward, but we’re at least going to have a good 25 or 30 states.” From the perspective of the policymakers who pushed for Common Core seven years ago, that would still be a success story.

Funding for special education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.