The Euro and the Common Core

If you hope the Euro crashes, that this week’s Brussels
summit fails, and that European commerce returns to francs, marks, lira,
drachma, and pesetas, you may be one of those rare Americans who also seeks the
demise of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in U.S. education. Crazy
analogy? Please read on.

To be sure, the Euro already exists in the real world—you
can hold one in your hands and buy things with it—and its demise would likely
trigger a worldwide economic crisis, whereas the Common Core so far exists only
on paper and all of its implementation challenges lie ahead. If it fails to
gain traction, the sky won’t fall; we’ll simply stick with the status quo.

If you find the status quo in American K-12 education
acceptable, bully for you. I find it akin to the condition of Europe and its
economy after World War II: weak, battered, and fragmented, in need of a major
tune-up and tone-up. It needs more focus, too—and greater capacity to help states
pull in the same direction instead of pulling apart.

Recognizing those woes, and sensing that their war-torn
nations would be better served by joining forces, the post-war years saw a
half-dozen visionary European leaders striving to construct something more
coherent and viable. In 1957, six core countries signed the Treaty of Rome,
creating the “common market,” or the European Union as it’s been known since
1967, which has slowly grown to include twenty-seven countries allied in a
federation of shared economic and political interests. (Several more are
“candidates” for admission.) Almost all of western and central Europe now
participates, save Norway and Switzerland. Within the EU, a subset of seventeen
countries (not including Britain, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, etc.) share the
common currency known (since 1999) as the Euro.

Like Europe in 1950, the nation remains at grave risk, educationally and economically.

 
   
 

Today finds the Euro (and, by association, the European
Union) in jeopardy, because participating countries have handled their
economies in radically different ways. Worsened by the 2008 recession, the real-estate
collapse, and the banking crisis, some of them (Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and
maybe more) have needed major outside help to keep going, while the better
managed, less-indebted, and more prosperous nations (above all Germany and
France) have been reluctant to “bail out” their embattled counterparts. That
may change in the coming weeks—if the “Merkozy” plan
to rewrite the treaties
and reshape Europe’s political and economic
structures finds favor across the continent.

Our states are not educationally inter-dependent in the same
way, of course, and some may implement the Common Core well while others don’t.
Unless Congress or the Education Department makes a dumb move and entangles the
Common Core with ESEA reauthorization and federal funding, participation in it
will remain voluntary and its implementation will likely be uneven.

That unevenness will be harder to sustain, however, when
common assessments come on line, particularly if the multi-state consortia
developing those assessments can actually (as their RTTT grant says they must)
agree on common “cut scores” to denote student proficiency—and “college-career
readiness”—in every participating state.



tandem skydive photo

What was that Franklin said about "hanging together"?
Photo by SkydiveAndes

Those cut scores will be more like the Euro, a sort of
common currency that moves across state borders much as EU passport holders are
able to move across national borders. It will certainly make for easier
comparisons of student and school performance than we’ve ever had before and is
apt to forge various new uniformities in curriculum, teacher preparation,
textbooks, and more. (It will also be a huge benefit to providers of virtual education
for whom district and state borders have been an irksome and archaic obstacle.)

Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska have not wanted to
participate at all. Like Norway and Switzerland, they prefer to go it alone. So
be it. The Common Core enterprise, like the EU, is voluntary and its main
selling point is that participants will be better off in various ways than will
the outliers.

The small but noisy band of Common Core critics and
kvetchers, however, clearly wants the whole enterprise to go away. They
mistrust claims of voluntarism and find the potential loss of state sovereignty
a bigger threat to America’s educational wellbeing than today’s uneven
standards and slipshod academic performance. They use scary language akin to
the New
York Times
correspondent describing
the major changes in treaties and governance that Merkel and Sarkozy hope the
entire EU will agree to: “The changes…would effectively subordinate economic
sovereignty to collective discipline enforced by European technocrats in
Brussels.”

That’s what Common Core critics fear will happen here. They
worry especially that the U.S. equivalent of “Brussels technocrats” (i.e. Uncle
Sam) will end up taking over—and they’re mindful that no durable governance
mechanism yet exists for maintaining the Common Core, managing the new
assessments over time, keeping it all voluntary while keeping the states in
charge. Nor has anyone made a serious move to create such a mechanism. (When we
at Fordham suggested
that something of the sort is needed
, we were admonished
by NGA and CCSSO to butt out
.)

The critics’ angst is not baseless. The absence of a Common
Core management mechanism for the long term—for the standards and especially
for the assessments—is a problem and creates a vacuum that the “Brussels
technocrats” may well be tempted to fill. It’s also true that uneven
implementation by states, like uneven implementation of sound economic policy
by the countries of Europe, could lead to a Merkozy-like call for greater
centralization.

But is that grounds to abort the whole project—for states to
pull back from it and presidential aspirants to denounce it? Depends, I think,
on your view of the status quo and the risks you are willing to take to see it
altered. Like Europe in 1950, the nation remains at grave risk, educationally
and economically, and almost nobody looking at our long term prospects thinks
we can climb out of this ditch without a major boost in educational
effectiveness and productivity.

No, the Common Core does not assure that boost. Plenty of
other things need to change, too—and every one of them has critics, kvetchers,
and hostile interest groups. (So did the European Union: DeGaulle, for example,
really didn’t want Britain allowed in.) It may be that Massachusetts and a few
other states can do as well or better on their own. Perhaps the “Chiefs for
Change” will eventually have fifty members. Or perhaps it’s acceptable for
Arkansas and California and others to continue wallowing in mediocrity. Maybe
we’re not a “nation” at risk, just fifty states with varying degrees of risk.

I for one hope this week’s summit in Brussels leads
them to rewrite the treaties. And that the Common Core prevails over its
critics. The people of Europe—and the world—are better off with the Euro than
without it. And the people of the United States would be better off if all our
kids were held to the same high educational expectations.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the EU and Common Core from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

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