Common sense on Common Core [Editorial]

As has long been his practice, Del. Pat McDonough, who represents Western Harford in the Maryland House of Delegates, recently made some rather prescient observations about education policy in Maryland and across the U.S. and then took the opportunity to make political hay out of a bad situation.

In a letter to the editor published Friday, Del. McDonough quoted Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance when he described the process by which Maryland's Common Core curriculum is being implemented: "We are building the plane as we fly it."

McDonough rightly went on to criticize Harford's neighbor county for having been the place where a critic of the Common Core was arrested for speaking out against the program during a public hearing. Indeed, this was a shameful event for Baltimore County.

At that point, the delegate turns away from discussions of policy and into the wind to launch a political volley: he refers to Common Core as a "federal 'power grab' " and says legislation he is introducing seeks to put a halt to the implementation of the Common Core curriculum.

McDonough is absolutely right in pointing out the problems with Common Core, but his so-called solution will do little more than shore up his constituency and ensure his re-election next year, even as his legislation languishes in the coming General Assembly session.

It is worth pointing out that the most substantial problem with Common Core in Maryland is that the tests being administered are out of synchronization with the teaching timelines in the Common Core curriculum, resulting in students being tested in areas of learning they have not yet been taught. It's a wasteful problem, but hardly a fatal one.

While there's a legitimate argument to be made that legislation sponsored by McDonough starts out with two strikes because he is a Republican in an assembly dominated by Democrats, there's a lot more at play here, and the tale goes back nearly four decades.

Prior to the administration of President Jimmy Carter, there was no U.S. Department of Education. Generally, such a federal agency was opposed by most Republicans and conservative Democrats on the grounds that education had been, since the earliest days of the republic, a state and local responsibility.

The argument was made by Carter and others that the U.S. needed a federal education agency to help coordinate education policy and encourage vigorous teaching of math and science. Keep in mind in those days fear of the U.S., as a country, not a conglomeration of states, falling behind other nations in education was a driving political force, probably even more so than it is today.

Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, was not a fan of the Department of Education, but made no particular effort to have it folded back into the old Department of Health Education and Welfare. Flash forward through two more presidential administrations to President George W. Bush, who was able to shepherd into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Flawed though all legislation is, it did set measurable standards for all states and resulted in some fairly massive changes in educational administration across the country, including in Harford County. Mostly, it was to good effect as it forced the issue on setting and meeting basic standards.

Politically speaking, the act was held in contempt by Democrats even as Republicans pointed out that it made sense for no child to be left behind. Indeed, who could argue with such a noble statement.

Realistically speaking, however, bringing all students to high levels of learning has certain limitations because of the human condition: all may be equal in rights, but equality in ability is not something that can be legislated.

As happens when flaws are found in legislation that is accomplishing some, but not all, of what it set out to do, other actions are taken. In the case of Common Core, a national set of modified standards that seeks to clear up flaws in the old program has been devised by the Department of Education. Most of the states have adopted it, but are struggling to get it implemented, resulting in the "building the plane as we fly it" description.

National education policy is probably here to stay, and that's a good thing. How can we maintain ourselves as a nation if people in Maryland learn lessons that are wholly different from what is being taught in Pennsylvania, Texas or Alaska?

There are problems, though, with administering standards that are set nationally, but are funded at the state and local levels. And there are bound to be problems in setting and changing new standards to keep up with newly-acquired knowledge. These problems need to be addressed in a meaningful way, not by concluding that the whole system needs to be scrapped.

If McDonough had beaten the drum more vigorously when the education standards being set in Washington, D.C., were coming out of a Republican administration, possibly his proposals would carry a little more weight. As it stands, however, he would do well to propose meaningful fixes to the real problems with Common Core rather than proposing a "moratorium or temporary termination" of the program.

While the situation exists where Common Core teaching timelines are at odds with the testing regimens in place, it is important to point out that our schools are functioning, our teachers are still teaching, our students are still learning and a public education is still a quality product.

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