The Common Core State Standards, which spell out what K-12 students should learn in school, are at the center of a heated debate: Who should control public education? What do students really need to know? Let's separate fact from fiction to figure out what's at stake.
1) The Common Core is a federal takeover of public education that imposes a national curriculum.
It isn't and it doesn't - though it has substantial support from the Obama administration, verging on coercion.
The Common Core has been spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington-based associations that get funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2009, with bipartisan support, they engaged education reform nonprofits to take the lead in writing standards for what students should know and be able to do in math and English/language arts, grade by grade, from kindergarten through 12th. The Core does not prescribe how students should meet those standards, though the English/language arts authors also wrote curriculum guidelines for textbook publishers, and school districts in different states can and are using the same prepackaged lessons.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core, and the Obama administration has a lot to do with that statistic. Its $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition makes adoption of "common standards" an incentive to win federal funding. The Education Department also wanted states that applied for waivers from No Child Left Behind to adopt common standards.
2) Opposition to Common Core is coming primarily from the tea party and white suburban moms. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last month blamed some of the Common Core backlash on "white suburban moms who - all of a sudden - their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were." Earlier, he characterized the opposition as "political silliness" and "a rallying cry for fringe groups."
The reality is that resistance to the Common Core is coming from every political direction. On the right, the tea party has indeed been vocal. Though the Core has support from the likes of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, conservative Republicans have mounted a sustained attack. Glenn Beck warned his listeners: "You as a parent are going to be completely pushed out of the loop. The state is completely pushed out of the loop. They now have control of your children."
On the left, Diane Ravitch, the most vocal critic of school reforms that focus on standardization, has suggested that federal promotion of the Common Core "may well have been illegal." In the middle are educators, students and parents concerned about how the Core has been designed, written and implemented. They worry that teachers haven't had time to absorb the standards and figure out how to teach them. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union and a supporter of the Core, has said: "You think the 'Obamacare' implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse."
3) Common Core tests will be more advanced than current assessments. Duncan promised that the new Core-aligned exams would be an "absolute game-changer in public education" - going beyond multiple-choice bubbles with open-ended questions that more deeply assess what students have learned and how well they can solve problems. But the tests scheduled to roll out next school year won't be the huge leap forward that supporters had hoped. An independent panel of education leaders determined that there wasn't enough time or money to create groundbreaking exams.
4) Common Core demands that teachers toss out Shakespeare. How much literature English teachers teach was one of the big education controversies of the year. Reflecting concern that U.S. students can't adequately read and analyze complex studies, reports and primary documents, the Core's English standards require that nonfiction texts represent 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, growing to 70 percent by Grade 12.
But the Core authors clarified that the requirement applies to reading assignments across all courses - not that a single English class had to have the 70-30 ratio. Still, they want English teachers to assign more non-fiction. Among the nonfiction works they recommend is Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 classic "Democracy in America," along with more obscure texts such as "FedViews" by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and the General Services Administration's "Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management" (2007).
5) New Core tests will save taxpayers money.
Some advocates think that districts can develop Common Core tests cheaply. But the costs of Core tests have been a big concern, especially for the five states that dropped out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a group of 18 states and the District of Columbia "working together to develop a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math," according to its Web site. This consortium has acknowledged that half of its member states will spend more than they do for current tests; one of them, Georgia, pulled out when the cost of new exams was announced. The price? More than $2 million above Georgia's existing state assessment budget.
One analysis indicates that Race to the Top would provide districts with less than 10 cents on the dollar to defray those expenses plus mandated teacher evaluations.
Bottom line: Nobody knows how much implementing Common Core will cost.
Valerie Strauss is an education reporter and columnist for The Washington Post.