Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Common Core Standards and Public Justice

Stephanie Summers


By Stephanie Summers

April 4, 2014

Last week, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed a measure voiding the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for education. Indiana will likely replace the CCSS with a nearly identical set of standards. The development of the CCSS was spearheaded by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Designed to “ensure all students are ready for success after high school, the Common Core State Standards establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Proponents and detractors have lauded and decried this recent development, and as is the case with most changes in public policy, the change has prompted a number of what can only be described as baseless conspiracy theories about the CCSS. The government’s effort to develop standards is being met with suspicion, rather than being weighed against the requirements of public justice.

This ongoing activity surrounding the CCSS brings a foundational question to the foreground: Should government be involved in setting educational standards at all?

The short answer is yes.

Government has at least three key responsibilities in setting educational standards. These include being part of the political community’s decision about what constitutes a well-educated mind (and ensuring the participation of other institutions), articulating its mandates clearly once educational standards are determined, and ensuring that standards or benchmarks remain as such and do not then determine the worldview or curriculum taught in classrooms or homes.

The decision as to what constitutes a well-educated mind is not one limited to the government, but is a task for an entire political community that includes institutions and individuals with an interest in the education of the children within it. Citizens in a pluralistic society have different ideas, and with no neutral means to determine what constitutes a well-educated mind, the answer must be determined by all the stakeholders in the political community-- parents, businesses, civil society institutions, teachers, educational experts, and government.

In fulfilling its role to uphold public justice, it is indeed appropriate for government to clearly articulate what constitutes a well-educated mind.  In setting out mandates that apply to all citizens, government should allow schools and families to fulfill these standards and to go beyond them as they choose. Without promoting specific ideas, government can say that in order for citizens to have equal opportunities to participate in the political community and obtain employment (among many other things), those responsible for their education (families, schools, churches, etc.) must demonstrate that students can show proficiency in meeting articulated benchmarks or standards. The government can require that any school or family must choose some publicly recognizable test and use it to measure this proficiency. 

In addition, government should ensure that educational standards remain limited to benchmarks or standards, and should not promote or establish a common curriculum or curricular framework. This takes into account the differences among individual states and among individual schools within each state, as well as the differences in worldview that animate various types of schools and families. Standards allow for equity while meeting the specific needs of specific school communities, but they fail to allow for equity if they hinder those who operate schools (or who choose to educate their children at home) from doing so in a manner in keeping with their beliefs.  As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Education states, “Those who educate and establish schools should be free to decide on the philosophical and pedagogical approaches they offer, the curricula they adopt, and the means of governing and administering the schools they open to the public.”

Government has many responsibilities regarding education, and articulating educational standards is one that helps ensure public justice. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have adopted some version of the Common Core State Standards. Within the language of many state policies are clear guidelines for implementation that accomplish the three key responsibilities outlined above. As designed, the CCSS remain an effort to articulate a series of benchmarks or standards for demonstrating what our children know, not an effort to establish a curriculum or curricular framework or to undercut the ability of parents to direct the education of their children.  

-  Stephanie Summers is the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”