Louis, we feel your pain
The Common Core was foisted on students, parents and teachers with precious little open debate


Comedian Louis C.K.

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    Common Core Meets Education Reform: What It All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling
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  • Comedian Louis CK rants against the Com Core; could better media coverage have helped?

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  • New analysis shows "just how little attn the Common Core received when it was being adopted"

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The embattled Common Core effort took another hit this week, when comedian Louis CK unleashed a 12-tweet rant. The 46-year-old father of two, who has more than 3 million twitter followers and is featured on the cover of May’s GQ, ridiculed several test questions and blamed the Common Core for teaching his kids to hate math.

Common Core defenders were quick to charge that what Louis CK is upset about is actually testing, rather than the Common Core, and to argue that the questions he flagged should not be blamed on the core.

This has become a familiar ritual. As criticism of the Common Core has mounted, opponents have been routinely derided as know-nothing extremists. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deemed critics to be “misguided” and “misinformed.” Common Core advocates argue that, with more than 40 states having adopted the standards, the issue is settled and critics should pipe down.

But was the issue fully and fairly settled? In 2013, Gallup reported that 62% of Americans had never heard of the Common Core. The anti-Common Core documentary “Building the Machine,” released a few weeks ago, begins with a narrator intoning, “Before the fall of 2012, very little was known about the Common Core. The media wasn’t covering it. It wasn’t part of the national discourse. It wasn’t even on parents’ radar.”

If true, that’s a significant claim. The Common Core state standards are no small change. Forty-five states and D.C. adopted the K-12 reading and math standards, and promised to modify their tests, textbooks and teaching accordingly. In hot pursuit of federal Race to the Top funds, states hurriedly agreed to what proponents celebrated as a landmark change. The New York Times termed the Common Core “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” and Duncan said it “may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown vs. Board of Education.”

Change of this magnitude are typically hashed out in robust public debate. The Common Core was not.

In a recent study, we used the news search engine Lexis-Nexis to track media coverage of the Common Core during its five-year history. The results show just how little attention the Common Core received when it was being unveiled and adopted. In 2009, the year the draft standards were first released, there were 453 mentions of the “Common Core.” For comparison’s sake, that year, there were 2,185 mentions of Disney actor Zac Efron. Not a single reference to the Common Core mentioned “controversy,” “critic,” “opponent,” “supporter” or “defender.”

In 2010, when the final Common Core standards were introduced, there were 1,729 mentions. By year’s end, 38 states and D.C. — with a total enrollment of more than 40 million students — had adopted the standards. That same year, there were 2,252 mentions of “school vouchers,” at a point when just 190,000 students were using vouchers and when vouchers were already two decades old.

That year, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cheerfully observed, “This profound ... shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don't much care for government to start with.”

In 2012, as implementation proceeded, the Common Core started to garner notice. By 2013, the issue exploded into the national consciousness, with 26,401 mentions. Of course, by that point, most states had been implementing the standards for years. Some criticism of the Common Core has been hyperbolic and rife with dubious claims. But today’s seemingly “misinformed” pushback may be mostly a case of frustrated citizens waking up to a fait accompli.

What does this all mean?

First, it’s hard to look at these numbers and not conclude that the mainstream media dropped the ball. The standards were rarely covered even as states planned to alter instruction for tens of millions of students.

Second, these results reflect a strategy of supporters seeking to stay below the radar in 2009, 2010, and 2011, while relying on the helping hand of the federal Race to the Top program. The thing is, stealth is a dubious strategy for pursuing fundamental change in 100,000 schools educating 50 million children.

Third, the democratic process relies on information. A lack of familiarity has proven to be fertile ground for all manner of rumor and uncertainty. Ultimately, informed consent is the key to policy durability.

When Common Core boosters attack skeptics for being uniformed or late to the dance, it starts to look a whole lot like blaming the victim. Advocates would be well-served to spend less time belittling their critics and a whole lot more welcoming the full and fair debate that ought to have unfolded five years ago.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. McShane is a research fellow at AEI. They are the editors of the recent book “Common Core Meets Education Reform.”

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