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A Lesson in Education Reform

Monday, February 1, 2016
A Lesson in Education Reform

In January, the Senate approved the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—signaling the demise of the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. This move reverses a fifty-year trend of increased federal involvement in education. It also reflects a growing tide of popular opposition to Common Core.

While some argue that education reforms calling for national standards have fallen short of their goals, others contend that these measures simply don’t give students the skills needed to thrive in today’s economy. Amid widespread discontent, changing generational values are pushing new political currents in education reform. Ironically, they will likely lead to a more rigorous national curriculum—not because Xer parents like national standards, but rather they want a uniform system that sets their children on a path to lifelong success.

Over the past fifty years, the federal government’s role in public education has steadily expanded—though its agenda has periodically shifted. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the educational system worked well. The only real challenge was to scale it up for the masses. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for example, allocated federal funds to grant equal access to education—becoming the most far-reaching education legislation in U.S. history. But after 1983’s A Nation at Risk report characterized education as bro­ken (and excoriated the academic achievement of Gen-Xers then graduating high school), federal efforts shifted to reforming the system and improving outcomes. In 1994, the Impro­ving America’s Schools Act required states to publicly reveal test scores through participation in the National Assessment of Education Progress. And in 2001, NCLB set high standards and measurable goals designed to improve educational outcomes—forcing underperforming schools to close.

The passage of ESSA, however, represents a shift in yet another direction. Now the federal government is scaling back its role. Although the federal government retains NCLB’s annual standardized testing requirements, ESSA declares that states are now responsible for holding schools accountable.

This shift not only terminates NCLB, but it also undermines Common Core, the curriculum designed by states to raise actual achievement to the NCLB standards. (See: “Making Common Sense of the Common Core.”) Starting in 2009, Common Core created uniform K-12 educational standards for every grade level. As many as 46 states have fully or partially adopted this program to date. While some states believed in Common Core, others were nudged by NCLB. Although Common Core was not federally mandated, the U.S. Department of Edu­cation encouraged states seeking waivers from NCLB to adopt the pro­gram. But now, ESSA explicitly states that the federal government may not man­date or incentivize states to adopt such standards.

Over the last two years, however, Common Core has incurred much of the same wrath that led to the demise of NCLB. Indeed, the outcry recently reached a fever pitch. Last October, a third grader’s math homework went viral when his response to “5×3” as three sets of five was marked incorrect. (Com­mon Core’s answer: Five sets of three.) In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal filed a lawsuit to repeal Common Core—legislation he supported and signed into law six years ago. Under mounting pressure, Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina dropped Common Core in favor of state standards. A handful of states have kept the tests, but changed the name to avoid the stigma. (See: “Did You Know? The Not-So-Common Core.”)

Why have national reforms fallen out of favor? Some argue that they failed to accomplish their original goals. For NCLB, the threat of losing federal money persuaded many states to purposely lower their standards. And while NCLB mandated teacher evalu­ations, it didn’t help teachers improve. What’s more, over a decade after NCLB’s adoption, there isn’t much evidence that test scores have risen. The most recent Nation’s Report Card shows an increase in math scores for fourth and eighth grade students in the mid-‘00s, but these numbers have plateaued in recent years. Meanwhile, English scores have remained stagnant since the ‘90s.

Others contend not so much that national standards aren’t raising achievement, but rather that academic tests don’t evaluate the skills today’s students need. When national leaders from President Obama to Senator Lamar Alexander complain about over-testing in public schools, they are in part implying that there is an overemphasis on pure academ­ics and “college readiness”—even if many students would be better off not attending college. This backlash has coincided with a growing emphasis on applied learning and career pathways. As a high school diploma continues to lose value, schools are already doubling down on career and technical education courses that set students up for a career after graduation. (See: “Voc-Ed Makes a Comeback.”)

These concerns have ignited complaints on both sides of the political spectrum—a frustration having distinct generational undertones. Today’s red-zone parents and poli­ticians want to incentivize schools that succeed and punish those that fail—they just don’t want the federal government to oversee such measures. While conservative Boomers were once willing to enlist national policymakers to help enforce accountability, conservative Xers want the incentives to be driven by parental control and parental choice—which works most powerfully at the local level.

Meanwhile, today’s blue-zone parents and politicians want their children’s edu­cation to prepare them for a successful life—not a test. While progressive Boomers considered a well-rounded, “liberal arts” education incomplete without music and art, Xers want courses that translate to college acceptance letters or job certifications.

Ironically, this generational shift may favor the eventual adoption of a national curriculum for the Homeland Generation. Conservatives don’t want the federal government involved, but they do want standards—with Common Core being the most effective. Mean­while, liberals may not like test-based achievement, but they do want every child to have access to learning tools like Common Core that enable them to succeed in life. Xer parents often recall from their own childhood classrooms lacking structure or standards. They want something more substantial for their own children.

In the end, Common Core is likely to prevail. The curriculum is beginning to look the same across states, including those that have already dropped Common Core. In South Carolina, an oversight committee found that 92 percent of the new state math standards aligned with Common Core. Some school districts in Oklahoma plan to use Common Core materials to teach the new state standards. Even in states like Virginia that haven’t adopted Common Core, state researchers confirm that the overall content of Virginia’s state tests is generally aligned with Common Core.

Looking ahead, the long march to a stronger national curriculum is likely to be unstoppable. Although the federal government is giving up the education fight for now, state and local governments will need to prepare for the onslaught of motivated Xers of both political stripes calling for change. Focused on the bottom line, these parents will be pushing for applied learning courses and career academies in their local school board offices where their voices can be heard loud and clear.


The end of NCLB marks the beginning of a new era in education reform. With motivated Gen-X parents at the helm, the future will likely bring a uniform national curriculum tailored for the Homeland Generation.
  • Despite political posturing, Common Core will continue to gain trac­tion. On the 2016 campaign trail, the Republican Party is divided on Common Core. While Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have taken a clear stance against the standards, Governors Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich have distanced themselves from the issue. Although Bush and Christie have openly denounced Common Core as a national pro­gram, they still support the tests (under a new name) in their respective states. Kasich has avoided uttering “Common Core” altogether. These governors know they cannot abandon Common Core in their states, so they have shifted their language to avoid public backlash.
  • Businesses large and small can benefit from Common Core. While companies like Exxon Mobil, Intel, State Farm, and SAS have backed Common Core Stan­dards on the national level for years, smaller busi­nesses will likely exert increased pressure on state and local governments to adopt the program now that the federal government has relin­quished control. For busi­nesses facing a workforce shortage, education standards certify that prospective employees have mastered the skills needed to succeed in the workforce. Similar to the career academy movement, local businesses are begin­ning to partner with Common Core schools and create pipelines to careers that benefit both students and employers in the community.
  • Common Core is a good fit for Homelanders. Common Core’s high standards, applicable concepts, and collaborative structure will continue shape Homelanders into a well-educated and well-socialized bunch. When Xers were in school, the goal was to do no more than was necessary to pass the test, and teachers often helped out by teaching to the test. Today, Home­landers are asked to extract problems from sections of text, encouraged to exchange varying points of view with their peers, and taught that there isn’t always one right answer. Rather than simply knowing the right answer, the Common Core expects students to use learning tools to find the answer—tools that can be applied later in life as they progress through school and work. 

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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