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Myth of the Month: Anything Would Be Better Than Common Core

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If you're not worried by the direction of recent political opposition to the Common Core State Standards, you should be. Politicians who have worked themselves into a lather about the Common Core are fostering the myth that good standards are by definition nothing like Common Core. This myth is breeding a host of rash and ill-informed actions whose consequences could reach well beyond the standards themselves. When politicians use schools to advance their ideological or political ends, children suffer.

Few of these crusading politicians have much specific to say about the content or quality of the Common Core State Standards, which have received high praise from education experts across the country. Instead, the Common Core has become the whipping boy for everything they revile: federal control! Communism! Corporate tyranny! The "gay agenda"! The list goes on. As a result, "anything but Common Core" has become the guiding vision for education in some states and a rallying cry for anti-Core-ites, which is turning state policymaking into a theater of the absurd.

Take South Carolina, for example. After the legislature and Governor Nikki Haley joined forces to repeal the Common Core standards, State Superintendent Mick Zais proudly proclaimed that those writing the new standards are "not even going to have a copy of Common Core State Standards in the room." Instead, those writers will have to base their work on the state's 2007 standards, which the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute roundly criticized for weak content and lack of rigor. When ideology is at stake, quality is apparently beside the point.

Politicians in other states are taking similar measures. Oklahoma's new law repealing the Common Core Standards actually specifies that the new standards must not resemble Common Core. It is not entirely clear what part of Common Core the state's hapless standards-writers will have to avoid. Algebra? Using addition or subtraction to solve problems? Critical thinking? Applying mathematics to real-world situations?

North Carolina legislators were working on similar language in their repeal bill, until cooler heads prevailed. The bill Governor McCrory signed in late-July expressly allows the standards writers to adopt the best parts of Common Core. In saner times, that would go without saying.

Some states have gone even farther in their anti-Common Core hysteria, actually passing laws that tie the hands of state and local decision-makers. For example, the state legislature in Texas, which never adopted the standards in the first place, made it illegal for school districts to use the Common Core Standards. Anxious educators in the state wondered whether they could legally teach, say, fractions or other topics that appear in the Common Core. In response, the Texas Attorney General recently had to specify that content such as 2+2=4 is still fair game. You can't make this stuff up.

Such political contortions are already hurting schools and children. They are throwing schools into chaos as teachers prepare for a new academic year, and they are squandering millions of dollars and years of effort devoted to preparing for the higher expectations of the Common Core. Even worse, the state standards that replace Common Core could become as twisted as the political motivations that spawned them.

It is hard to fathom the politicians' confidence that new state standards would be better than Common Core. Before Common Core, most states' standards were vague or not very challenging, and students performed poorly. Those who now rage against common standards barely raised an eyebrow. It seems that where we once took two steps forward, we're now taking two steps back.

There may be even bigger problems on the horizon. Legislators and governors are setting a very dangerous precedent when they meddle with education standards for ideological reasons. If an unfounded grudge against Common Core can spawn so much bad policy, then who knows what else is possible? The last thing we need is career politicians seizing control over what our children learn.

Politicians will always be politicians, but education should be off limits to their ideological posturing. Let them find another stage for their political morality plays.