08/03/2010 02:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hold the Center

When the State Board of Education brought Colorado into the Common Core Standards fold by the narrowest of margins on Monday, it represented the triumph of reason over ideological pressure. And I'm not speaking from an ideological perspective here. Commentators on the left and right have been hurling invective at the common core movement since its inception. Others on the left and right have voiced support.

Yes, this is one of those weird education issues that makes for strange bedfellows. Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute, a widely respected conservative voice on education reform, is a big supporter, though not without reservations. So is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

So who opposes having states voluntarily craft a set of academic standards in math and language arts, designed, as Education Week put it, to "attempt to address the uneven patchwork of standards that results in differing expectations among schools, districts, and states and leaves many students unprepared for work or college?"

To begin with, many doctrinaire conservatives oppose the common core. Why? Because some, at least, see the big bad bear of federal intervention lurking behind every tree. The federal government mucks up everything it touches. Local control is a hallowed American concept when it comes to education. This is first skidding step on the slippery slope toward socialism -- and ineptly managed socialism at that. Or so their thinking goes.

Professor Jay P. Greene, a professor at the University of Arkansas, has this to say about the standards from a conservative dissenter's perspective:

"Just because the education bureaucracies in a bunch of red states have signed up for national standards doesn't mean that the idea has conservative support. It just means that their budgets are really tight and they want to be in the running for federal Race to the Top dollars as well as gobs of Gates "planning" grant dollars. The fact that there has not been more active conservative opposition can mostly be explained by the speed with which this is being crammed through in the midst of a severe state budgetary crisis.

But conservatives who favor decentralization, choice and competition should take heart. Many of those states will change their minds if they don't get federal dollars to stay on board. And the grand national coalition for these standards will probably fall apart as the airy-fairy standards are converted into actual practice in the form of national assessments.

We'll see how well the Linda Darling-Hammond led national assessment, which I can only imagine involves the testing of drum-circle collaboration, suits conservatives... who so far have supported this enterprise."

On the left, people say the common core represent just a new iteration of the test-crazy culture they believe has brought public education to its knees. On his popular blog, Chicago-area teacher Fred Klonsky quotes bombastic iconoclast Alfie Kohn on the common core:

"The top-down, test-driven, corporate-styled "accountability" movement -- featuring prescriptive state standards -- has already done incalculable damage to our children's classrooms, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Just ask a teacher. It's no coincidence that the most enthusiastic proponents of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, etc., tend to be those who know the least about how kids learn. And now they're telling us that a single group of people should shape the goals and curriculum of every public school in the country."

So here are some more measured voices from both sides. First Weingarten, not always a paragon of moderation:

"These standards should affect teaching and learning in classrooms across the country. They are essential building blocks for a better education system -- not a new educational fad -- and they can help prepare all children, regardless of where they live, for success in college, careers and life.

Those who wrote the standards understood this, and met repeatedly with front-line educators, including AFT members from across the country, who helped turn these concepts into a reality that can make a difference in children's lives.

Establishing these standards is a critical first step, and now the real work begins. We need to use these standards as the foundation for better schools, but we must do more -- as the countries we compete with do."

And finally, a lengthy excerpt from Finn. One might expect him to be skeptical-bordering-on-cynical about this enterprise. But he puts the issue of common standards in common-sense language:

"But good grief, folks, do you really want to preserve the meager academic expectations, crummy tests, and weak-kneed accountability arrangements that currently drive -- or fail to drive -- K-12 education across most of this broad land? Are you so risk averse and change resistant as to see no merit in trying to do this differently in the future?

It's true, as multiple bloggers have noted, that I spent part of 1997 itemizing the flaws in Bill Clinton's plan for the federal government to create and administer a national testing system. And like practically everybody else (save for the progressive educators who drafted them), I didn't like much about the federally-induced "national standards" that had emerged during the Bush I administration earlier that decade.

But many things have changed in thirteen years. Four deserve to be noted.

First, and most important, U.S. education has made only the slimmest achievement gains -- none of these at the high-school level -- and graduation rates have stayed limp, as more and more countries surpass us on more and more measures on this fast-flattening and ever-more-competitive planet.

Second, despite multiple rounds of asking (and Uncle Sam bribing) states to come up with rigorous academic standards on their own, few have done so. Those few are swell, but most are simply dismal -- a "C" average on the latest Fordham ratings. And they're ridiculously uneven from place to place. Modern countries don't do this to their kids.

Third, much as I wish otherwise, conservatives' preferred alternative education-reform strategies haven't gained the traction or scale that advocates (myself included) hoped for, nor have they delivered reliably better academic results. Yes, the principle has largely been accepted that kids need not necessarily attend the district school in their neighborhood. Yet you can count the voucher programs on your fingers. And charter-school enrollments, while respectably up, don't amount to more than 3 percent of all kids. The parent marketplace isn't causing bad schools to close... One can keep beating this drum -- and you'll find more and more people snapping their fingers in time with the beat --but, mostly for political reasons that aren't going away, it hasn't produced a lot of marching.

Fourth, the main sources of resistance to change in American education aren't conservatives (hard as some of the latter are trying!). They're education interest groups, starting but not ending with the teacher unions. They still wield much clout -- see previous point -- but they're weaker today than at any time in my memory, no doubt because they're beset on more issues on more fronts by more forces. To give credit where it's due, a contributor has been the unexpected emergence of the Obama administration as a source of reform pressure and the schism that's emerged within the Democratic Party over education issues. (This is also the main reason that today there's no serious GOP education platform. Except for vouchers, just about all the traditional "conservative" education enthusiasms have gone mainstream.)"

Reasonable people from the left and right are moving toward the center on education reform issues. And when it comes to education, as things fall apart, perhaps the center can and will hold. We can only hope.