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Common Core: The Obamacare of Education Policy

• March 10, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

The education standards now adopted by 45 states are nothing like the Affordable Care Act, but have a lot in common with “Obamacare,” that cartoon created by the conservative media to convince viewers of Obama’s socialist agenda.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Common Core State Standards. They are a set of skills expectations for students that have been adopted by 45 states plus the District of Columbia. They require that students be broadly competent in mathematics and literacy and know how to do things like critically read a text, argue and defend a point of view, interpret data, etc.—all things that we’d consider pretty useful for students entering college or the work world. The Common Core itself contains no specific prescriptions for content or curriculum, just the requirement that students learn these vital skills.

But that’s not at all what you’ll hear about it in the conservative media. For them, not only is the Common Core a massive federal intrusion into state and local education policy (a debatable point, but one roughly grounded in reality), but it’s a primary tool of President Obama and the Left (and possibly the United Nations) to fundamentally transform education, to undermine the authority of religion and parents, to track the location and behavior of children who’ve committed thought-crimes (perhaps using iris scans), and to essentially impose collectivism upon America. As Glenn Beck sums up, “This is like some really spooky, sci-fi, Gattaca kind of thing.”

“The poll found that two in three people had not heard of the Common Core…. Of those who did recognize the term, most had major misconceptions about the standards”

None of this is true, of course, but that hasn’t stopped some people from believing it. In this sense, it’s very much like “Obamacare.” I’m not referring to the Affordable Care Act, signed by President Obama in 2010, but rather the cartoonish version of it that’s a federal takeover of the health care system, replaces the capitalist economy with socialism, and establishes government death panels that determine who gets life-prolonging treatment and who doesn’t. Many people are terrified of Obamacare even as they sign up with health insurance exchanges, enjoy access to insurance despite having pre-existing conditions, or sign their children up even if they’re 25 years old—that is, take advantage of the provisions actually contained in the Affordable Care Act. It seems quite possible that “Obamacare” will continue to be unpopular even as the provisions of the ACA gain in use and acceptance.

So it is with the Common Core, which many on the right will continue to associate with Obama’s perceived socialist agenda at least until he leaves office (and despite the fact that it was first developed before he was even an Illinois state legislator). Every complaint about education, from the rise of standardized tests to an annoying assignment by a random teacher, gets blamed on the Common Core.

A recent Gallup survey on Common Core was telling:

The poll found that two in three people had not heard of the Common Core…. Of those who did recognize the term, most had major misconceptions about the standards and believed that they will have no effect or will make American students less competitive with their peers across the world.

Why do these myths live on even when we have so many readily-available tools for debunking them? As the work of Brendan Nyhan shows, just because the truth is out there doesn’t mean people will seek it or accept it. Our own social networks—the people whom we trust and speak with most—tend to reinforce myths rather that undermine them, in large part because we tend to seek out friends who think and feel as we do. If all our friends are telling us one thing but some politician or reporter is telling us another, we might very well believe that the politicians and reporters are wrong or have a hidden agenda.

What’s more, even if we’re confronted with empirical data from an unimpeachable source, that won’t necessarily jog us free of our previously held assumptions about the world. Sometimes, being exposed to countervailing information causes us to strengthen our old (incorrect) beliefs. Clinging to the lie is often psychologically easier for us than conceding an error.

Where does that leave us with the Common Core? Well, its implementation has continued rather rapidly, although it has been held up in at least a few states by (easily-debunked) concerns. Suffice it to say that those who oppose it now will continue to do so, at least while a Democrat holds the White House. The real battle will be for those who don’t know anything about it at all, and that’s a large battlefield.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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