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Common Core Meets Education Reform: What it All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling

reviewed by Scott F. Abernathy - May 16, 2014

coverTitle: Common Core Meets Education Reform: What it All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess & Michael Q. McShane (eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754781, Pages: 240, Year: 2013
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If No Child Left Behind were a fictional male model, it would probably be feeling a lot like Derek Zoolander right about now. Zoolanderportrayed by actor Ben Stiller in the eponymous absurdist send-up of the fashion industrywas once at the top of the male modeling world. He soon, however, finds himself upstaged by a younger, hipper competitor, Hansel, portrayed by Owen Wilson. As Hansel is about to take the VH1 male model of the year crown from Zoolander, the arch-villain of the movie turns to his partner in crime and exclaims, That Hansels so hot right now.

Alas, poor NCLB. As it wades into an uncertain future in the rush for states to obtain waivers from many of its most stringent provisions, there is a new face in reform town: the Common Core. If education policymakers had their own tabloids, the Common Core would be gracing the covers, with NCLB relegated to some sad story late in the issue, probably depicted in a grainy photo without makeup.

Introduced only in 2009, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative has emerged as one of the hottest and most controversial topics in American education reform. In Common Core Meets Education Reform: What it All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling, editors Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane, along with their co-contributors, examine why what is fundamentally a set of standards is making such a splash in the policy world, how the future of the CCSS may play out, and what policymakers need to think about to ensure that it does not follow other once promising initiatives into irrelevance, or worse, ignominy. As Hess and McShane warn, Yet the last half century of school reform included a remarkably long list of once-celebrated, now discarded ideas, accompanied by the common lament that they were undone by implementation (p. 1). Unpacking what precisely is meant by implementation of Common Core is the contributors collective agenda, and a much-needed one at that.

Theirs is a thorough and wide-ranging analysis of key players in the process of implementation, which both advocates and opponents concur, is likely going to be the key to the initiatives success or failure. And, as Hess and McShane warn in their introduction, because of its national scope, failure could be very consequential: If it blows, up, or is undone by implementation, the costs in terms of time, dollars, and disruption will be enormous. The stakes are high (p. 2).

Formulated and put forth by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and other players in the education reform space, the Common Core standards attempt to redirect instruction to developing higher order thinking skills in a way that is both standardized across states (unlike the patchwork of NCLB standards and assessments) and that is amenable to computer assisted assessment.

Highlighting three primary challenges to successful implementation of the CCSSinstruction, politics, and the current reform landscapethe contributors place their focus on the third: how the CCSS will interact with, alter, and be altered by the many, and sometimes contradictory, educational reform efforts currently underway in the United States. It is, they argue, likely to be a story of unanticipated consequences, but one that can avoid the most serious pitfalls if policymakers and stakeholders attend to the warnings of lessons past.

While it is not uncommon for the utility of edited volumes to be undone by the diversity of approaches and foci among the contributions, here the variety makes sense and adds to the overall project.  With chapters covering, for example, governance, teaching and teachers, charter schools, accountability, and technology, the volume appropriately treats implementation as an interactive and layered endeavor, with potential potholes developingnot just in one area of focus and attentionbut also in the interaction between them.  The volume is, therefore, likely to be of use to policymakers as well as students and observers of the policy process.

The one area where the reader may be left wanting more analysis is on the political side of things.  To be fair, the editors note that this was not their primary agenda. However, politics, and political counter mobilization to the Common Core, are playing an increasingly loud role in the debate surrounding its implementation. As Morgan Polikoff notes in Teacher Quality Reforms, and Patrick McGuinn in Visions and Challenges for Multistate Governance and Sustainability, the politics surrounding implementation are becoming increasingly contentious and are likely to shape the success or failure of Common Core in important ways.  

Concerns over the potential linkage between the standards and pay for performance initiatives have helped galvanize opposition to Common Core by teachers and their interest group advocates. Professor Polikoff argues, Perhaps the most serious challenge to the Common Cores influence on teacher policies is the role of politics (p. 69). Fears over federal centralization of education have sparked opposition by conservatives. One interviewee in McGuinns study noted that, on many, many occasions, we cringed when the feds tried to be helpful. They have to be very, very careful and smart about how they talk about this (p. 174).

Should the relevant policymakers attend to the admonitions and suggestions of the authors in this volume, as well as those offered by other scholars, perhaps Common Core can become an exception to its standards-based lineagea success. If not, then the lessons and prescriptions may have to wait for the next attractive face to take the national educational reform stage, for there will almost surely be another.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 16, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17534, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:55:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Scott Abernathy
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    SCOTT ABERNATHY is an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. He has published two books on education policy in the United States, School Choice and the Future of American Democracy and No Child Left Behind and the Public Schools, both with the University of Michigan Press. He is currently working on several projects involving narrative and politics, including an immersive, narrative-based introduction to American government (forthcoming, Sage/CQ Press) as well as research into the role of narrative in civic education and public policy.
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