Uncivil Discord in D.C.

By Maria Ferguson, Executive Director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.

(This blog was also published in the September 2013 issue of Kappan Magazine.)

Despite its international stature as America’s seat of power, Washington, D.C., operates a lot like a small town. Everyone kinda sorta knows one another — didn’t we (fill in the blank) together? — and the longer you live and work here, the smaller your world gets. In other words, while you’re speaking your mind (which is why people come to D.C. in the first place), you need to mind how you speak because chances are the person you’re talking to is a friend, neighbor, or future colleague.

This is especially true in the education sector. Many of us who lead or work for education organizations have known one another for years. We may have changed jobs or wear different hats from time to time, but we remain part of the same network of people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and talking about education.

Throughout the almost 50 years since the 1965 passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a great many of us — researchers, policy makers, lawmakers, program officers, advocates, and, of course, lobbyists — have engaged in this work to reach a common end: to make education in this country everything it should and can be for all students, regardless of their race, gender, family income, or disability. We may come at it from different positions and focus on different pieces of the puzzle, but undergirding all that effort is a common belief that a quality education is the best and clearest pathway to opportunity and equality.

And yet, despite the almost five decades of debate and discussion about the most effective way to build more equitable and robust school systems, the education sector seems more at odds than ever. There was a time when education policies were debated fiercely but fairly. Everyone had their opinion, but the notion that the final decisions would come from compromise was not out of the realm of possibility.

The sad truth is that those days appear to be over. The common belief in education as the best and most permanent way to right the wrongs of segregation, poverty, and inequality is still out there, but today’s efforts to champion this belief generate far more heat than light. The power of social media has unleashed a beast that has empowered far too many personal agendas masquerading as strategies to improve the nation’s schools. Former colleagues, friends, and mentors now attack one another via blog posts and tweets, while eight major pieces of education legislation await federal reauthorization if only the players could reach mutually agreeable decisions. Civil discourse is a charming notion, but don’t look for it around here. The blog posts and tweets about education these days read like some kind of nerdy jihad.

Common Core fuel
If the ease and accountability-free aspects of social media have contributed to this new and decidedly uncivil type of discourse, the adoption of Common Core State Standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia has only added fuel to the fire. The state-led movement to ensure that most of the nation’s students are learning to the same rigorous, internationally benchmarked standards in math and reading is not exactly a new notion, but the Core has nonetheless created a firestorm, resulting in perhaps the most significant debate about American education since desegregation.

Although disputes have arisen in education before (controversy swirled around President Clinton’s Goals 2000 and School to Work programs in the 1990s), the attacks on the Common Core are outsized by comparison. The specter of corporate involvement coupled with longstanding fears from some quarters that the feds have long wanted to impose a national curriculum on schools has everyone arguing whether the Common Core is a good thing, bad thing, right thing, or left thing. Politics, race, poverty, and the never-ending conversation about “the appropriate federal role” are always lurking in the background, waiting to be manipulated or mishandled by a growing array of actors. The irony is that amid all of this fussing and feuding, most state and local education leaders are doing what they always do: They’re putting their heads down and plugging away, doing their best to figure out how to make the Common Core work in their schools and districts.

Common Core future
Where does all of this righteous indignation leave us? Will the tirades and fits of pique bring down the Common Core and other efforts to improve education at the national level, or is the public outcry all sound and fury with no real meaning and even less effect? Unlike the proverbial tree falling in the forest, everyone has heard the arguments about the Common Core. But will opponents from the left or the right actually affect implementation?

Probably not, at least in most states. The reason is not really so complicated: Teachers, school leaders, and many others have already invested a huge amount of time and effort into figuring out what these standards actually mean for classroom practice and student learning. Reversing course now would be completely impractical, not to mention a significant waste of resources already stretched far too thin in most states and school districts. Policy makers and Washington pundits may be able to talk, talk, talk about this but teachers, administrators, and state leaders can’t afford to ignore practicality. That is a luxury reserved for those of us who support education from a safe distance, far from any classroom or district office.

A survey done this spring by the Center on Education Policy, which I head, supports this.  A majority (37) of officials participating in the survey in Common Core-adopting states said their state is unlikely to reverse, limit, or change its decision to adopt the standards during 2013-14. In addition, very few respondents said that overcoming various types of resistance to the Common Core posed a major challenge in their state; at the time of the survey in spring 2013, most respondents viewed this as a minor challenge or no challenge. The complete report is at http://bit.ly/15qTSmL.

In the end, the Common Core will likely live to see another day for a range of important reasons: These fewer, clearer internationally benchmarked standards do represent a watershed moment in education policy. Twenty years go, nobody in Washington would have predicted that an overwhelming majority of states would adopt common standards. But today, after years of recession and concerns about the impact of the global economy on jobs, most parents, business leaders, and state leaders and legislators agree that the nation’s interests are better served when a majority of U.S. students are all striving to meet the same high academic standards. The standards are also shining a light on testing and assessment, a crucially important aspect of education reform that most people outside the education sector don’t fully understand. Equally important is the simple fact that in most communities, teachers, parents, students, and administrators have already boarded the Common Core train, and it is long gone from the station.

Attacks on the Common Core are outsized by comparison to earlier education battles.
So, as Washington begins thinking about what’s to come in 2014, maybe, just maybe, the education sector will stop yelling, tweeting, and blogging long enough to get some real work done. From where I sit, the  uncivil discourse around the Common Core has done nothing to actually help anyone better understand the standards or how to best implement or assess them. With so much work still to be done and so many key decisions yet to made, perhaps old friends and former colleagues can make a resolution that 2014 will mark the return of civility to the education sector. That would make for a very good year indeed.

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