Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Common Core, a good idea gone bad?

By Ruben Navarrette
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A teacher assists third-grade students in Chicago. Illinois is one of 45 states that have adopted Common Core educational standards.
A teacher assists third-grade students in Chicago. Illinois is one of 45 states that have adopted Common Core educational standards.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: The debate over the pros and cons of Common Core rages on
  • Navarrette: The idea behind a common school curriculum for all kids makes sense
  • But supporters failed to convey to the public why it's good and how effective it could be
  • Navarrette hopes more states stick with Common Core and give it another chance

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor, a Daily Beast columnist and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

San Diego (CNN) -- This academic year, the major lesson in America's public schools will be on the civil war.

No, not that Civil War. I'm talking about the brawl between what are usually ideological allies. Conservative vs. conservative, liberal vs. liberal.

On the left, the Obama administration, the Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan are scrapping with allies in the teachers' unions. On the right, pro-accountability education reformers are battling supporters of local control who think the federal government should butt out of the education business.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

This war won't be won or lost in boardrooms, classrooms or conference rooms but in the worlds of politics and public relations. You might have a powerful idea to reform the education system. But if you don't spend the time, money and effort fashioning an effective communication strategy to sell it, you're toast. You can't bring a policy paper to a Twitter fight.

Take Common Core.

Melinda Gates fights for Common Core
Arne Duncan remark irks suburban moms

You might think the word "common" describes the shared success that we'd like students to have. If you take underperforming schools and less-demanding curricula in some states and raise them to a level where they compare to higher-performing schools in states with more demanding curriculum, you give students a "common" experience. For the disadvantaged, this is a good thing.

But for those parents who are happy with the education system and content with the product, the word "common" can be terrifying. They worry about a one-size-fits-all process that holds back high achievers so all students in different schools and different states get the same level of education, even if the results students have in common are mediocre.

Here's a quiz about one of the most controversial -- and poorly marketed -- stabs at education reform in recent years.

Common Core is ...

a. A good and harmless idea that has been unfairly maligned by a small band of critics on the left and the right.

b. A reasonable concept that has been poorly executed and terribly communicated by the elites who devised it.

c. A nonsensical method of teaching that reeks of a big government and corporate takeover of the public schools.

d. A gigantic "fail" that is taking on water faster than the Titanic after the ship hit the iceberg.

e. All of the above.

The answer is e. Wait, that doesn't make sense.

Exactly. That is precisely what the opponents of Common Core say about, for instance, its meandering method of teaching math. Equations that could once be solved in two steps now take six or seven.

The sad part is that the idea was good to begin with: develop a common curriculum that outlines what students should know at every grade level so that students attending different schools in different states get roughly the same education.

What good does it do society to have a high school diploma in Mississippi that doesn't compare to one in Massachusetts?

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia signed on to Common Core right out of the gate a couple of years ago, and the federal government provided grant money. But not long thereafter, 10 states -- including Indiana, Oklahoma, Missouri and Iowa -- dropped out. More are likely to follow.

All of this seems familiar.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans grappled with "new math," a dramatic change in how math was taught in elementary schools that was prompted in part by the federal government's desire to ratchet up teaching of math and science. Some complained and thought traditional ways of teaching math were better.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Americans were rattled again when they were introduced to "whole language" instruction as a new way of teaching students to read by encouraging them to think strategically about the meaning of words, phrases and sentences in their entirety. Again, there were critics.

Now, here we are again: at each other's throats over a concept that many people don't even understand. There are lessons in this debacle for both sides.

Common Core supporters can't concoct a new national curriculum and then fail to effectively communicate what they did, why they did it and what effect it's going to have on kids. Politics is a reality. Learn to navigate it, or stay out of the arena. And elitism and condescension are better repellents than bug spray.

Opponents have to shelve the "look out for No. 1" approach to education. Americans are part of a collective with public roads, public libraries, public schools. How other people's kids are doing in other states is your problem, just like, one day, paying for your Social Security and Medicare will be theirs.

I hope that the people behind the new curriculum have learned some humility and are ready to show us why we should listen to them. And I hope more states stick with the Common Core and give it another chance.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:51 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says the AirAsia flight had similarities to Air France 447, which also encountered bad weather
updated 8:29 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Poverty isn't the only reason why so many parents are paying to have their child smuggled into the United States, says Carole Geithner
updated 11:49 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Michael Rubin says it's a farce that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted tweets criticizing U.S. police
updated 1:40 PM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Ron Friedman says your smartphone may be making you behave stupidly; resolve to resist distractions in 2015
updated 8:32 AM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT