Jeb Bush’s Common Core Hedging Undermines Reform Efforts

Published January 31, 2015

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and prospective GOP presidential contender, was wrong to support Common Core. Now, on the campaign trail, he appears to be backtracking a bit. He should go all the way and admit he was wrong in the first place. 

In a speech this past November, Bush said, “In my view, the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms. For those states choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: Aim even higher, be bolder, raise standards, and ask more of our students and the system.”

Clearly, he was suggesting states can and should do better than Common Core; though he still laughably and inconsistently referred to the “rigor” of these low-quality standards. Bush is obviously trying to have it both ways: supporting Common Core while endorsing states’ choice to implement better standards.

Bush then went on to defend state autonomy over schools, noting state governments “are ultimately accountable” for their schools. “So if the federal government wants to play a role in reform, it should stop tying every education dollar to a rule written in Washington, DC.”

Unfortunately, billions of federal dollars were tied to Common Core through the Race to the Top program. All but a handful of states were essentially bribed into adopting subpar standards. Many states had not even seen the final version before agreeing to adopt the K–12 math and English standards.

There is a definite inconsistency between Bush’s push for vouchers and school choice in Florida and his support for Common Core. Federally backed standards blatantly attack flexibility, autonomy, and state and local control of education.

Common Core is widely criticized for focusing on students using a particular (and not necessarily sensible) method of achieving an answer rather than focusing on whether the answer is right. Teachers such as Marsha Griffin of Jonesboro Elementary in Illinois are expressing frustration over this narrow-mindedness.

“I think students will be bogged down in process and possibly not know how to do anything. We are teaching to a test,” Griffin said.

Common Core proponents throw around buzzwords such as “internationally benchmarked,” “rigorous,” and “college and career ready,” but curriculum experts, child psychologists, and educators across the country denigrate the quality and appropriateness of the standards. “These standards have not been internationally benchmarked. They have not been researched. They are not evidence-based,” Griffin said. “We have no idea what we are doing to an entire generation of children.”

Common Core proponents try to dismiss these concerns by saying establishing standards is not the same as mandating a curriculum. However, standards ultimately define curriculum because achievement tests are based on them.

Susan Bowles, a kindergarten teacher at the Lawton Chiles Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida made headlines after refusing to administer standardized tests she felt did students more harm than good. After Bowles took her stand, officials reconsidered and changed the testing policy for the year. Since then there has been mounting criticism of Common Core and its related tests, both in Florida and nationally, but teachers like Bowles know they are fighting an uphill battle.

“I think there is a huge amount of resistance to the stance that there is too much testing and that the Common Core — or some slightly tweaked variation — has lots of problems,” Bowles said. “Companies like Pearson are making huge amounts of money by changing both the format and the difficulty of tests frequently, and then providing new curricula to support the testing that goes on. I have no doubt there are lobbyists and funds that have tainted the moral integrity of many politicians.”

Bowles continued, “I find it interesting that so few politicians have children in public schools. If they think their mandates for reform are so great, why don’t they trust our schools to educate their children?”

The debate over Common Core has divided school choice advocates, just as it seems to have divided Bush against himself. Instead of fighting for creation and expansion of choice programs or promoting concepts like student-based budgeting and parent trigger laws, choice advocates are arguing over whether to retain the federally backed standards.

It’s an unfortunate waste of time, energy, and money because the honest answer couldn’t be clearer. Scientific studies find no evidence national standards improve student achievement. In addition, education and curriculum are supposed to be handled on the state and local levels because they are not enumerated as federal powers in the Constitution.

An unfortunate number of academics and bureaucrats belittle the importance of local control and state autonomy. Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, refers to local control of education as “quaint” but unrealistic. What is really unrealistic is to think what is taught and how it is taught in Philadelphia should be exactly the same as the standards applied in a small town in Montana. Different students in different states and districts have different needs, which requires teachers and administrators to use different tactics and methodologies to address those needs.

If a school is teaching students 1+1=5, the state government has the power and authority to hold it accountable. National standards actually undermine that authority.

Bush ought to listen to former constituents such as Susan Bowles. He has clearly begun to backtrack on Common Core, but it will be hard to accept his newly found advocacy of state autonomy unless he admits it was a bad idea in the first place.

[Originally published at the American Thinker]