By: Amina Haleem
The state of American public education is in crisis. Legislative leaders are facing an uphill battle: repairing the nation’s primary and secondary public education system while attempting to appease an extremely partisan constituency. Compared to the world’s leading nations, the United States is not excelling academically. The United States is currently ranked number 10 in the 2014 World Top 20 Education Poll Official 2nd Quarter Rankings. According to the Center on International Education Benchmarking, the United States drags behind Canada, Estonia, Japan, China, and Singapore, among others, in the critical subjects of science, reading, and mathematics- areas of study the United States has been attempting to strengthen for decades.
Unfortunately, the country’s top legislators continually fail to come to a consensus on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, previously known as No Child Left Behind law) but not for a lack of trying. In fact, both the House and the Senate have separately attempted to reauthorize the ESEA since 2007, and a number of senators have drafted several bills to do so, including Senator Tom Harkin (D- IA), and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN). However, none of the committee markups have passed both houses. Currently, Congress is divided along party lines on education reform. In general, Republicans desire limited federal involvement by allowing local communities and states to determine academic accountability, while Democrats are more preferential to federal benchmarks for national academic standards.
The White House has also been a player in the education reform debate and has taken strides to fund its own public education programs. The Obama administration launched its Race to the Top initiative, receiving $5 billion from Congress in 2008. It dedicated this money to states that adopt strategies to promote effective teachers, rigorous assessments, improved communication, and increased educational resources. Because ESEA has yet to be reauthorized, the NCLB standards can still be legally enforced among states but all policy makers agree that the standards are too stringent and punitive to continue. One of the alternatives to those federal standards was the Common Core State Standards, a seven-year grassroots effort that began in 2009 to reform the traditional American classroom and is currently under intense criticism by state legislators and school administrators. Yet the Common Core standards has not always been so controversial. Only a few months after its release in 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia endorsed them.
Although the Common Core State Standards aim to improve learning in public education through developing critical learning skills and student-centered teaching, many political activists and educators believe they have become tainted by federal overreach, despite originally being adopted as national standards adopted to “circumvent federal restrictions on the adoption of a national curriculum, hence the insertion of the word ‘state’ in the brand name.” Some of these standards have become piggybacked onto federal Race to the Top grants and the NCLB waivers, provoking the conservative criticism that the Common Core standards are no longer voluntary among states.
As of May 15, 2014, lawmakers from 46 states collectively introduced over 340 bills addressing college- and career-readiness education standards, including the Common Core standards. The criticism ranges from sloppy implementation to inconsistent training of teachers, providing repeal efforts by North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, and Oklahoma to significantly change the Common Core standards. There have also been executive orders on the issue. In particular, on May 15, 2013 the Georgia governor issued a strongly executive worded order which included the terms that “no educational standards shall be imposed on Georgia by the federal government” and “that all decisions regarding curriculum and instruction shall be made at the local level.” A legal memo from the Wisconsin Legislative Council reveals that breaking free from already-enacted Common Core standards proves to be challenging; repealing the standards could undermine the legal authority of the State Superintendent and cause the state to be “out of federal compliance”. This is because although the standards were voluntarily adopted in 2010, the state agreed to adopt the Common Core standards in its Administrative waiver from the No Child Left Behind mandates.
It is clear from the rumbling legislative debates across the country that Common Core and education policy in general, like most other national issues, is strongly divided along party lines. However, if the United States hopes to successfully achieve elementary and secondary education reform as well as become a global leader in universal subjects of math and science, the country must not only come to a consensus on basic academic standards in public education but also nationalize those standards in an agreeable way. This is what the Common Core standards attempted to do, however time has proven that the political debate over the federal government’s place in local education will continue to impede academic progress among the nation’s brightest students. In the words of Diane Ravitch, a well-known education historian, “No other nation in the world has inflicted so many changes or imposed so many mandates on its teachers and public schools as we have in the past dozen years. No other nation tests every student every year as we do. Our students are the most over-tested in the world.” In the end, American public school education continues to be the biggest casualty in the war between states and the federal government over implementation of Common Core standards.