WASHINGTON — Modern conservatism comes in two distinct architectural styles. The first seeks to build from scratch, using accurate ideological levels and plumb lines, so every wall is straight and every corner squared. The goal of politics is to apply abstract principles in their purest form. But there is another type of conservatism, often practiced at the state level, which attempts to build out of flawed, existing materials, resulting in some odd angles and incongruous additions. These conservative reformers assemble unexpected alliances, accept reasonable compromises and welcome incremental progress.
This contrast is increasingly evident in the debate over the Common Core State Standards. To ideological conservatives, it is the "Obamacore"; an "unprecedented federal intervention into education"; a "threat to the American tradition of individual liberty and limited government." According to a recent resolution passed by the Republican National Committee, the Common Core is "a nationwide straightjacket on academic freedom and achievement."
This is mostly a projection of baseless political fears. The Common Core standards are actually an attempt by governors — including many conservative, Republican governors — to set some coherent standards on what children should know about math and English by various grade levels. It emphasizes analytic reasoning and the interpretation of "informational texts," including historical documents such as the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address.
The Common Core standards "are rigorous, they are traditional," says Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, "one might even say they are 'conservative.' They expect students to know their math facts, to read the nation's founding documents, and to evaluate evidence and come to independent judgments. In all of these ways, they are miles better than three-quarters of the state standards they replaced — standards that hardly deserved the name and that often pushed the left-wing drivel that Common Core haters say they abhor."
The Common Core is neither perfect nor sufficient. The math standards, according to some analysts, are set one or two years behind international levels. But it says something about the American educational system that, by global standards, mediocrity would be a distinct improvement. And higher standards, of course, don't guarantee better student achievement, which depends on effective curriculums, quality teaching, useful assessment and rigorous accountability.
Higher standards are only potentially helpful. But low standards are uniformly destructive. And the Common Core generally raises standards. The approach was crafted by states. It is voluntary. It provides some common metrics to compare the performance of schools and districts across the country. And if this is a conspiracy against limited government, it has somehow managed to recruit former governors Mitch Daniels and Jeb Bush, current governors Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A plot this vast is either diabolical or imaginary.
The conservative reformers who helped shape the Common Core are trying to make incremental improvements in a deeply flawed system. Many of their conservative opponents are applying a single, abstract principle — an ideological commitment to localism in education. They distrust the federal government. Which is understandable in the Obama era. But the Common Core is not a federal approach. It is a national approach created by institutions outside the federal government.
The alternative to this reform is not an ideal ideological world in which state and local control has resulted in excellence. The main problem of American primary and secondary education is one that conservatives should understand: It is a market with insufficient information and choices, resulting in poor quality. We don't have standards and measurements that allow us to adequately compare the outcomes between students, between schools and between states. So many states can hide behind dumbed-down standards. Many school districts can betray minority children for generations without scrutiny or consequence. And the whole system can get away with leaving millions of American students unprepared for global competition.
Conservatives should stand for political principle. They should also reject the temptation to elevate one principle above all others, regardless of conditions and circumstances. Localism is not the answer to all our educational problems. And resistance to standards puts ideological conservatives in some questionable company. In fighting the Common Core, some tea party activists have made common cause with elements of the progressive education blob that always resist rigor, measurement and accountability. This alliance increasingly constitutes the mediocrity caucus in American politics.
Localism is an important conservative principle, but so is excellence. And the measure of a successful education policy is the demonstrated presence of actual education.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.