For the last three years, Michigan teachers have had a clear goal: Develop lesson plans and teaching targets that align with the Common Core educational standards.
All Michigan school districts are on schedule to start using the standards this fall, and by 2014, they'll be assessing educational achievement - and teacher performance - with the Smarter Balanced test, which is aligned to the standards.
But the best laid plans - even those designed by the nation's governors and vetted over several years by local officials - may be no match for the unfocused lunacy of the Michigan Legislature.
Led by state Rep. Tom McMillin, a Rochester Hills Republican, and supported by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville of Monroe and House Speaker Jase Bolger of Marshall, the most extreme elements of the state GOP are leading an eleventh-hour effort to block implementation of Common Core.
Legislators are supposed to act on the core standards before their summer break begins June 13 so, you know, teachers can actually plan what they're going to do next fall.
But opponents of the core standards say that simply "pressing pause" on implementation will be harmless. They want to hold hearings and discussions, Bolger says, to make sure these standards are right for Michigan.
Of course, the state Department of Education offered plenty of opportunity for public comment before it adopted the standards in 2010. And this has been talked to death by policymakers; already, some 46 states have approved Common Core, although some, like Michigan, are being held hostage by last-minute second-guessers.
And let's talk about what "pressing pause" would actually mean. Go back to those teachers, and the core-oriented lesson plans they've been working on. If Common Core goes, the Smarter Balanced test goes, too. And that would mean that the lesson plans teachers have spent years developing would be operating at a serious handicap. They won't match up with the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests, which means the tests won't be a reliable measure of how well teachers and students are performing.
That's lousy timing, given Michigan's plans to switch to teacher evaluations that are based, at least in part, on student performance - an important reform pushed by some of the same Republicans who are now derailing Common Core. It also gives credence to teacher unions' skepticism of the whole performance-based evaluation system.
Here's the worst case scenario: The Legislature doesn't act, and teachers spend the summer in limbo. The Legislature scotches the core standards in the fall, leaving teachers without enough time to shift to lesson plans that meet MEAP assessment goals - to call it "chaos," state Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan says, isn't an exaggeration.
The biggest difference between the core standards and the state's current plan is a narrowing of focus, Flanagan says. Modern educational systems have tended to spread a mile wide and an inch deep, covering more topics and subjects but without depth. Common Core focuses on fewer topics, but with depth, and is benchmarked against international standards. The countries educationally outperforming the U.S. all have such standards - clear, concise and rigorous expectations.
Opposition to the core standards centers around the provably untrue idea that the core standards represent a "federal takeover" of education, or at least a Trojan horse that will lead to federal interference down the road.
But adoption of the standards is voluntary, and it's supported by education advocates on the right and the left.
Right now, educational standards in America are a patchwork of goals and assessment. A high school diploma means something different in Michigan, or Mississippi, or Maryland.
Common Core is the path to consistency - an important factor in global competition.
The Legislature needs to stop dawdling and pass it, so teachers, parents and students can see in classrooms what they've spent three years planning.