Education & Academia

Tom Pauken: No more Common Core

Tom Pauken: No more Common Core

Republican advocates for the Common Core State Standards have been surprised to discover deep and persistent opposition to a top down, educational system driven by a “testing to the test” mindset which seeks to push all students towards a four year university degree. You might say that, by failing to anticipate objections from grassroots conservatives, Common Core advocates are guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations. But, the trajectory of the debate and the passion it engenders from many parents, educators, grassroot conservatives and employers dissatisfied with the increasing state and national control over local public education, is not at all surprising to those of us in Texas who have watched and participated in the battle over our state’s education policy in recent years. As Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, I was heavily involved in that battle.

Over the past two decades, intellectual elites took control of Texas public schools and implemented a philosophy that shares with the Common Core the same defining characteristics:

- a top-down, centralized approach

- an obsession with testing

- one-size-fits-all standards and curriculum

- the use of buzzwords like “rigor” so as to imply that opponents favor low quality education

- giving lots lip service to principles like local control while essentially threatening those (schools, districts, states) who don’t choose to comply to do so under state mandates.

In Texas, this approach to education goes back to initiatives begun by Ross Perot in 1984 which gained steam under Democratic Governor Ann Richards in the early 1990s. But, when George W. Bush was Governor, this top-down, centralized educational philosophy came to dominance.

Despite the liberal roots of Bush’s education policy Republicans in 1995 were generally supportive of his reforms even though the architect of his plan was Sandy Kress – the former Chairman of the Dallas Democratic Party. It’s not hard to understand why. Many Texans were tired of seeing their tax dollars go to fund public schools that did not appear to be doing well. High stakes testing was sold as necessary to keep administrators accountable. Moreover, conservatives were weary of the left’s constant accusations of racism; and, thus, the increasingly rigid graduation requirements that were promoted by the Bush Administration provided a good soundbite: The Bush Administration had high expectations for all Texas students, not just high achieving school districts.

Texans subsequently learned that you can’t legislate achievement. Getting students to pass an increasing number of state mandated tests came to be the focal point in many classrooms. The rest of the country learned the same thing when President Bush took his education policies to Washington in the form of No Child Left Behind. More than a decade after the passage of that bill, it is clear that you can’t make every student proficient in reading and math simply by writing it into law and requiring a bunch of tests.

Republican supporters of the Common Core have missed the shift that has occurred among conservatives since the time when Bush took office in Texas. Conservatives have returned to their roots. After letting their guard down in the mid-1990s, they recovered their healthy suspicion of centralization and top-down solutions. Common Core advocates appear to be genuinely dumbfounded that anyone would not support implementation of their standards. Yet the past two presidential administrations have taught us to be highly skeptical when a room full of experts say “trust us.”

Texans finally had enough. A remarkably diverse coalition emerged over the last couple of years — perhaps the most diverse political alliance I’ve seen in my half-century in politics. The bipartisan group consisted of parents from affluent suburbs and the inner city, teachers and superintendents, business owners, and legislators from both rural and urban districts. They were fed up with the obsession with high stakes tests that had come to dominate every aspect of Texas public schools. And, employers who were struggling to fill slots for good paying jobs in the skilled trades were tired of a mentality that denigrated working with your hands and said that all kids should go to college.

The result was that in its most recent regular session, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 5, which Governor Rick Perry signed into law after intense pressure from voters who barraged his office with calls in support of the bill. HB 5 significantly reduces the amount of standardized tests high school students must take to graduate. It also, undoes the one size fits all approach curriculum approach, giving students multiple pathways to graduation. Under the new law, local school districts will have greater flexibility to develop graduation plans that will help prepare those students interested in a career pathway to get an industry-certified credential or a license by the time they graduate from high school.

Some Common Core advocates may tell you that their approach to education has not been tried and found wanting but rather found difficult and not tried. Don’t believe them. Texans tried it for more than a decade and found it very wanting — so much so that they finally stood up to an army of well-paid lobbyists and condescending bureaucrats to demand a return to common sense.

Tom Pauken is a former Reagan official and Republican candidate for Governor of Texas.

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