Ex-Georgia Governor: Time for conservatives to reclaim Common Core standards

Across the country a false narrative is perpetuating the idea that conservatives are ready to cede the fight we started years ago for high education standards. From the headlines and from the bullhorns of commentators, one might well conclude Common Core Standards are all but doomed.

Yet, the facts paint a much different picture, and to give up on education reform would be a great disservice to the next generation of Americans.

As conservatives, we carry the responsibility to ensure children of all backgrounds have access to a quality education, the greatest tool to empower them to create opportunity for themselves. That’s why it is so perplexing to observe the shrill voices of naysayers prompting the retreat of a few prominent conservative leaders, whom I know to support higher standards in education. [pullquote]

It’s time conservatives reclaim the Common Core State Standards as our own.

Bill Bennett, Secretary of Education under President Reagan and a reliable voice of limited government, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Common, voluntary standards are a good, conservative policy… We should not allow them to be hijacked by the federal government or misguided bureaucrats and politicos.” We need more leaders willing to show the same resolve.

Fortunately, states from every corner of the country continue to push forward with the Common Core, buoyed by the unsung support of teachers, parents and longsighted lawmakers. All but one of the 45 states that adopted Common Core Standards in 2009 are moving forward with their implementation, or something similar in all but name.

Some states have rebranded the standards. Others have amended and built on them further, just as they were designed. Neither amount to what many label “repeal.” Almost unanimously, states continue to embrace the high, comparable education standards for which the Common Core stands.

Moreover, Common Core is working. In Tennessee, one the first states to adopt the Standards , fourth- and eighth-grade students made the biggest gains in the country in math and reading proficiency. In Kentucky, college-readiness scores have improved for the last four years since it adopted the Standards. Steady gains in New York prompted one paper to write, “The chorus of ‘can’t’… was wrong.”

That’s not to say there isn't a long road ahead. Since last year, support for the Common Core has fallen. Parents are wary what high standards and a strong system of accountability will mean for their children. But polling also suggests most people have learned about Common Core through headlines and television ripe with mischaracterizations. With so much misinformation astir, who can blame them?

There are legitimate concerns about implementation of the Standards and what they will mean for students, teachers and parents. Sadly, misperceptions of what Common Core is have largely sucked the air out of those discussions.

As the Governor of Georgia, I pledged to restore faith in our state programs by eliminating waste and putting control back in the hands of everyday individuals. I knew our students, who trailed the national average in some areas, could do better when challenged. I saw that we could create greater equity among students and hold schools to greater accountability.

Apologists pointed out every reason why measurements didn’t paint the full picture: we tested all high schoolers not just college-bound students. We faced poverty issues other states didn’t. Some of these defenses were legitimate, but taken in their totality they became a system of excuses that ultimately allowed classrooms to languish.

In 2009, I wholeheartedly endorsed the concept of the Common Core State Standards, as I do now. I participated in their formation because they marked a strong and even step up from the patchwork of standards states were using. Even opponents agreed the Standards are more demanding than 39 states’ math standards, and 37 states’ English standards. I support them because they give teachers and schools the ability to compare and measure what is working with others across the country. And they help close achievement gaps by setting high expectations for all students.

This month, millions of children headed back to school. In a handful of states, teachers and students find themselves in an unusual position: after more than four years preparing for the Common Core, they are now faced with uncertainty about what education standards they will be held to in the years ahead – in some cases this year.

Conservatives owe it to the men, women and children in our classrooms to see through the work we began. Now is no time to give up on the Common Core State Standards.  Our students can and will rise to the challenge, if we but give them a chance.