THE BLOG
05/27/2014 08:34 am ET | Updated Jul 27, 2014

Is Common Core Failure President Obama's Fault?

Mark Wilson via Getty Images

It's Obama's fault.

The state-led initiative was chugging right along, moving forward without any interference from the feds, when somehow, they decided to leap in. Or as Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday recently put it, things were fine "until the President and secretary of education took credit for the Common Core." This is part of the current conservative CCSS support narrative (you can find put forth by, among others, the boys over at the Fordham). The story goes something like this:

Once upon a time, some noble governors and dedicated corporate guys got together and created the Common Core, and people pretty much thought it was swell. Then the Obama administration tried to get involved with cheerleading and with Racing to the Top and NCLB waivers. This was a Bad Thing because it woke up the Tea Party folks, who began shrieking about federal over-reach. People who wouldn't have cared one way or another suddenly were against it because Obama was for it and whatever he's doing, it must be evil. If the feds had just stayed home and tended to their knitting, we would not be having all this CCSS fracasization.

Isn't it pretty to think so. Here's why there is no alternate timeline based on those halcyon days before the feds got involved, before CCSS was gone with the DC wind.

There Was Never A "Before the Feds Got Involved."

Even if we pretend that the feds weren't involved from day one, even if we pretend that the feds haven't been angling for this for several administrations, even if we pretend that the Obama administration wasn't sponsoring sleepovers and buying the refreshments for CCSS-writing parties, the feds must still take responsibility for the prime motivator for the whole mess.

States were not open to CCSS because of some burning desire to revamp their education systems. They were all sitting on the ticking time bomb that was (actually, is) No Child Left Behind, otherwise known as ESEA, otherwise known as federal law. The feds were always involved. Always.

Corporations Are Not Lazy

For Pearson et al, CCSS represents a marketing opportunity sent from heaven. CCSS opened up the U.S. education market faster and more completely than a velociraptor fileting a sleepy cow. To open a national market, they needed national standards, not the state-by-state patchwork of the past. They were always going to use every tool at their disposal to make this happen across the entire country, and that toolbox includes the federal government.

Pearson et al were no more going to sit and wait while each state made up its mind about the CCSS than General Dynamics would ever say, "Just send that tank model over to the Pentagon, step back, and just let them make up their minds on their own." Money was at stake. There was no way that Pearson et al was not going to "encourage" its "friends" on the federal level to push CCSS hard.

It's Not Like The CCSS Sell Themselves

Who can seriously argue that all the states were going to say, "Yeah, we should totally implement this untested set of standards, sight unseen. Especially since they come with a huge price tag. Yes, let's do it." Particularly states that had perfectly good standards already. "Now that we've paid off this beautiful Lexus, let's junk it and get a Yugo for twice the cost," said no car owner ever,

No, a wave of bribery (Race to the Top) was needed to get the ball rolling. Or do you seriously want to suggest that states would have raced toward the Core for free. And when states wouldn't fall in line for the bribe, we moved on to the extortion -- "I'd hate to see anything happen to your state just because of some crazy No Child Left Behind law; you should really consider getting our special protection waiver plan."

Selling CCSS required a federal-sized stick and a DC calibre stick. States do not generally volunteer for massive unfunded mandates. Only a federal-sized sales job would do, even if it had to be carefully calibrated to avoid looking illegal.

Because, Politics

You can't get politicians to leave education alone. Education is the cute fluffy bunny of politics, the one that plays in happy fields far away from third rails. Any politician who has an excuse to pick up the bunny for a photo op will do so because, up until recently, there was no down side. Being in favor of good schools and teaching children was a guaranteed win. It's a measure of how big a botch the CCSS complex is that it has actually turned education into a thorny issue.

So say what you like. It's impossible for the administration to have avoided involvement in CCSS. And if by some miracle it had kept its hands off, CCSS would now be an interesting experimental set of standards being tried out in four or five states, maybe. It's true that Obama didn't do CCSS any favors, but it would have died on the vine without him