With little doubt, poverty the root of education problems

At nearly the last minute, objections and weak-willed lawmakers are halting the implementation of Common Core curriculum standards in Michigan public schools.

By kowtowing to overblown fears of a federal takeover of education, the Republicans in Lansing seem poised to prevent adoption of the standards next year, even though school districts have spent three years preparing for them.

The standards have the support of Gov. Rick Snyder. Failure to adopt them will result in a colossal waste of time. However, the standards won’t accomplish much as long as so many Michigan children live in poverty.

Some more liberal interests oppose the standards because they aren’t rigorous enough. Other push-back comes from conservative and “tea party” voices who see a federal takeover where bureaucrats in Washington will dictate curriculum.

Even the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy finds “off-base’ a “fair amount” of the opposition to Common Core. Martin Van Beek, the center’s director of education policy, writes that Common Core establishes “standards (not a curriculum) that outline what students need to master. How students learn these concepts will still be left to local schools and districts.”

He feels the standards, now limited to math and reading, are better than those currently in use in Michigan. This is a reasonable position not often heard from the likes of Tom McMillin, R-Rochester, who is carrying the water for Michigan legislative Republicans in creating a crisis where none exists.

Van Beek is no fan of the standards. He thinks the feds will ultimately use the carrot of grant funding to force districts to adopt future standards. He also thinks that standards, by themselves, won’t provide better student outcomes. That would require high-quality teachers.

There is the rub. Conservatives like to kick around public schools as underachieving bureaucracies run by administrators in cahoots with or scared by powerful teachers’ unions. Just break that union monopoly and give parents free choice of schools, and the competition of the free market will do its magic.

But that’s just not the story. America’s public education problem can’t be explained by comparing national test scores. Nor can it be improved with standardized tests and Common Core standards.

The No. 1 problem in schools is that a large portion of children come to school unprepared or unable to learn. Much of that can be tied to the disgraceful fact that 20 percent or more of the nation’s children live in poverty.

In Finland, the current poster child for how education should be run, fewer than 5 percent of its children live in poverty.

Bring America’s poverty level down to that of the Finns and those test scores will soar higher than ski jumpers. But tackling poverty is hard. Far easier to bash teachers’ unions, promote vouchers and rave about the Race to the Top.

The Common Core standards should be adopted. But they won’t accomplish much.