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New Jersey

Just ‘Tell It Like It Is,’ Chris Christie: The Standards Are Working

A crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls has some candidates doing cartwheels to appeal to voters, shamelessly recanting past beliefs to curry favor with some of their base. The latest example is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s recent call to review the Common Core State Standards.

Rolling the Dice

This is a toothless announcement in that it changes very little about New Jersey’s academic standards. But what’s counterintuitive is that the move may also prove a bad political gamble. For starters, Gov. Christie’s reversal sends a mixed signal to teachers, students and parents. Less than two years ago, the governor, who professes to “tell it like it is,” did not mince words when affirming his commitment to the Common Core. “We are doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue,” he said then. Yet, as pressure from the far right has intensified, Gov. Christie’s tough-guy persona seems to have gone soft. With his recent announcement, Gov. Christie now holds a nuanced position: opposing the phrase “Common Core,” but endorsing Common Core-aligned tests, all while launching an unoriginal review that will likely result in a reaffirmation of the existing standards. To justify his decision, Gov. Christie said the standards aren’t working, yet he could  provide no proof. To the contrary, New Jersey appears to be on track towards eliminating the Honesty Gap between how students are actually performing versus the rosy picture provided by the state’s old education models. Certainly, Gov. Christie has  riled up New Jersey educators, but it’s doubtful that he cares since his focus is clearly on New Hampshire’s Republican primary voters. So, was it the right decision—either for his political aspirations or for New Jersey students?

Let’s Look at the Evidence

Politically, the about-face shifts Gov. Christie away from Governors John Kasich and Jeb Bush, to Governors Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal. Conventional wisdom holds that Common Core is a political liability and puts a thumb on the electoral scale for Gov. Christie. But if Common Core is so unpopular, why have more than a dozen  red states rejected Common Core repeal efforts this year? Why do so many Republican governors—including the Republican Governors Association Chair and Vice Chair— continue to support the Common Core? And why have Republican primary voters said that  support for Common Core is not an important factor? Support for the Common Core has proven a rallying cry for some conservatives, but for most voters, and certainly for families who want the best for their children, the standards are not a disqualifying issue. In fact, for candidates who are able to articulate the value of high, comparable academic expectations, they may prove to be an important asset.

Turns Out, He Can’t Handle the Truth

For Gov. Christie, perhaps the biggest consequence of his decision is the blow it deals to his self-professed status as the guy who will tell the hard truths. As the Washington Post wrote, “what distinguishes Mr. Christie’s betrayal is that he promotes himself as a straight talker willing to stand up for principle, no matter the consequence.” With his Common Core decision, Gov. Christie has shown that he neither had the courage to forcefully flip-flop on the standards, nor the fortitude to stand by them either. Instead he successfully prodded the media to write strong headlines without actually showing the leadership to direct his state’s educators and students. Unfortunately, lost in all of these horse-race calculations is the impact on teachers in the classroom trying to explain a clear progression of math and English standards,  on students trying to learn them, and on parents trying to reinforce them at home. One New Jersey teacher lamented that Gov. Christie’s “naked ambition and cynical disregard for the consequences of his turnaround” will confuse and frustrate thousands of teachers as they depart for the summer. It’s no wonder why teachers, students and parents are puzzled: Why it is so difficult for a handful of meek politicians to remain committed to a simple set of math and English standards?  
Karen Nussle currently serves as the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success.
Karen is a veteran communications strategist with experience in the private, public, political and non-profit sectors. Her work has included strategic communications plans, public relations, advocacy campaigns, corporate communications, strategic planning, lobbying and advocacy and media training.

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