The controversial Common Core

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Article Highlights

  • The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia.

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  • As part of Race to the Top, the Department of Education awarded $330 million to two consortia of states to develop assessments aligned to the Common Core.

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  • Moving forward, state and district leaders will have to manage the backlash that their under-the-radar Common Core adoption bred.

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The Common Core State Standards initiative began as a bipartisan, state-led effort to help states develop common benchmarks for the performance of their students, and the standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia. But implementation has been rocky as states attempt to integrate the standards and their associated assessments into existing structures, routines, and systems. Political pressures and tight budgets are pushing states to essentially opt out of the standards in everything but name. For the Common Core to succeed, we must recognize that it does not exist in a vacuum. And if implementation fails, states will have wasted precious time and resources, and the US education system may be in worse shape than it was before the introduction of the Common Core.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • The vast majority of US states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, but those states are struggling to integrate the standards into existing school structures, routines, and systems.
  • Schools have begun rolling out new assessments and professional development and are buying new textbooks and instructional materials, but ensuring quality and alignment and securing political support have proven difficult.
  • If the once-promising Common Core reforms fall apart during implementation, then an enormous amount of time and billions of dollars will have been wasted.



The Common Core State Standards are a set of goals to which 46 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to align their K–12 instruction. Although the standards flew under the radar as they were being drafted and adopted, they have become a lightning rod of controversy over the last few months as implementation has begun.

Who thought education standards could elicit such a response? In Wisconsin, during a standing-room-only hearing before the state legislature, a critic said the Common Core was “sickly marketed” and would “indoctrinate students with liberal, un-American teaching.”[1] Similar hearings were held in states such as Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio, in which individuals accused the standards of allowing federal coercion, National Security Agency–style data mining, and any number of other nefarious activities (including, but not limited to, using iris-recognition technology on juveniles nationwide).

What Happened?

As detailed in Common Core Meets Education Reform: What It All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling, a forthcoming volume that Frederick M. Hess and I edited, the Common Core was at the outset a bipartisan, state-led initiative by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to help states develop a common, higher standard for student achievement.[2] In the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB)—which for the first time required every state receiving federal dollars to test its students, report the results, and hold schools accountable for their performance—many states either dumbed down their standards or lowered the bar that students needed to clear to be deemed “proficient.” NGA and CCSSO decided to draft a set of standards that would be more rigorous and more closely aligned to what students would be expected to know in college or when starting careers.

Two things should be noted before I proceed any further. First, there is a useful and still unresolved debate as to the quality of the standards. On one side, in 2010, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—a prominent Common Core advocate—gave the Common Core standards a B+ in reading and an A- in math, ranking them higher than 76 of the 102 reading and math standards in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.[3] On the other side, the decidedly anti–Common Core Pioneer Institute has published numerous reports from various scholars arguing that the standards are lower quality than advertised.[4]

"Whether the standards are high quality or not, the vast majority of American schoolchildren will, at least in the near term, feel the effects of the Common Core standards."

There is also debate as to the value of the standards writ large. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution argues persuasively that high-quality standards are not linked to higher performance. Loveless failed to find any relationship between the quality of standards (as measured by the Fordham Institute and others) and performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). He also summarized research by the National Center for Educational Statistics that found that states with more rigorous “cut points,” or higher definitions of proficiency, saw no higher performance on the NAEP than states that had lower cut points.[5]

All that having been said, I will leave the debate over the quality and usefulness of the standards to those with more expertise. Whether the standards are high quality or not, the vast majority of American schoolchildren will, at least in the near term, feel the effects of the Common Core standards. So it is important to understand how they will work and why they became so controversial.

In 2009, as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as “the stimulus”), the US Department of Education offered $4.35 billion to states in a competitive grant program called Race to the Top. States could win a cut of that money if they agreed to adopt a particular set of reforms favored by the Obama administration, including revamped teacher evaluation systems, charter schools, and “college and career ready” standards. Out of a possible 500 points on the department’s rubric, 70 points were devoted to standards and assessments—40 points came from “developing and adopting common standards,” 20 points came from “supporting the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments,” and 10 points came from “developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments.” While not specifically citing the Common Core, the department made it clear that the Common Core satisfied these criteria.[6]

In 2011, the Common Core became enmeshed in a set of waivers offered by the Department of Education to states requesting regulatory relief from some of the strictures of NCLB. Because NCLB set a requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014, increasing numbers of schools (even including those that were getting the vast majority of their students over the bar) were being rated as failing and falling under sanctions. Thus in a similar fashion to Race to the Top, the Department of Education offered relief to states that would agree to a set of reforms the department supported.

The nod to the Common Core was made even more directly in the waivers than it was in Race to the Top. In the policy document outlining what was expected of states that received waivers, the first sentences under the heading “College- and Career-Ready Expectations for All Students” read:

Over the past few years, Governors and Chief State School Officers have developed and adopted rigorous academic content standards to prepare all students for success in college and careers in the 21st century. States are also coming together to develop the next generation of assessments aligned with these new standards, and to advance essential skills that promote critical thinking, problem solving, and the application of knowledge. To support States in continuing the work of transitioning students, teachers, and schools to a system aligned to college and career ready expectations, this flexibility would remove obstacles that hinder that work.[7]

To read this quote and not see the Obama administration specifically privileging the Common Core would simply be slipshod sophistry. In the 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama touted the Common Core as a signature accomplishment of his administration. He argued that Race to the Top was “The most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation” because “For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. And these standards were developed, by the way, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.”[8]

In 2012, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) made the Common Core a campaign issue. The DNC platform stated that “The President challenged and encouraged states to raise their standards so students graduate ready for college or career and can succeed in a dynamic global economy. Forty-six states responded, leading groundbreaking reforms that will deliver better education to millions of American students.”[9]

"In 2012, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) made the Common Core a campaign issue."

All of these factors transformed a quiet and generally noncontroversial state-led effort to improve education goals for students into a much larger, more acrimonious debate about the size and role of the federal government. It also raised serious concerns for those who support the local control of schools that the federal government would enact increasing influence over the Common Core, and by connection, over any states that use the standards.

Tests, Tests, Tests

Standards are simply aspirational words on a page. It is assessments that make them real for teachers and students.

As part of Race to the Top, the Department of Education awarded $330 million to two consortia of states to develop assessments aligned to the Common Core standards. The hope was that by having multiple states participate, no one state could dumb down its standards or assessments to make it look better. The more honest comparison should drive states to improve, or so the logic goes.

When these grants were announced, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan set an extremely high standard for them. He said, quite plainly, “I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education.” He claimed that the new tests would be “tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom” and “will provide students with realistic, complex performance tasks, immediate feedback, computer adaptive testing, and incorporate accommodations for a range of students.” And they would allow students to “show that they can analyze and solve complex problems, communicate clearly, synthesize information, apply knowledge, and generalize learning to other settings.”[10]

Unfortunately, there is almost no way these tests, at least in their initial iterations, will be able to live up to these expectations. In particular, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the two multistate consortia developing assessments aligned to the standards, has already seen numerous problems. After starting as an organization of 23 states that agreed to help develop and eventually use the standards, eight states (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma) have either backed out of the consortium or signaled they will not be using the PARCC-developed tests.

States have left the testing consortia for several different reasons. First is cost. The day PARCC released the price point for its tests ($29.50 per student), Georgia decided to develop its own tests. According to Education Week, in 2010 Georgia spent only $10.70 per student on testing, meaning a Common Core–aligned exam would represent a significant new cost.[11] But politics have also played a role. Florida Governor Rick Scott backed the Sunshine State out of PARCC—the state being the federal government’s fiscal agent for the grant—stating in a letter to Secretary Duncan that “PARCC has become a primary entry point for the involvement of the federal government in many of these state and local decisions.”[12]

What does this mean for Common Core assessment? Well, if part of the promise of the Common Core was the ability to directly compare students across states on the same assessments, then states developing their own tests would completely undermine those efforts. Likewise, if each state does its own testing, it will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to determine if they have really “aligned” their instruction to the Common Core, as they promised in their Race to the Top and NCLB waiver applications.

Implications for Education Policy Writ Large

There are numerous specific effects that the Common Core will have on the day-to-day decisions of teachers and school leaders—too numerous, in fact, to list here. What might be more fruitful is a more far-reaching discussion of the effects of the Common Core, and what the Common Core can teach us about broader issues in education reform.

Lesson One: Good Intentions Only Go So Far. The initial push for the Common Core was a good-faith effort by governors and state education leaders to hold themselves and their counterparts to higher standards. While this was still in the developmental phase, everyone was on board, and the train kept rolling. But when tests had to be chosen and plans had to be developed to link new results to accountability systems that could have real negative impacts on teacher and school-leader evaluations, the support cooled.

"If states are able to opt out of the standards in everything but name, then there will be little difference between the pre– and post–Common Core eras."

This happens because ultimately, good intentions can only drive policy so much. When in tight financial times the costs of new assessments are balanced against the costs of new textbooks, new professional development, or raises for teachers or other functions of government, untried standards and their associated assessments take a back seat. An education governor (a state governor trying to make his or her name by improving the education system) has every incentive to call for adopting clearer and higher standards, but if implementing those standards could cause state test scores to take a huge hit, then the governor has every incentive to water them down. States ultimately lowered their standards and proficiency cut scores because the political incentives were aligned for them to do so. Absent attempting to change those fundamental determinants, no amount of good will alter the political calculus facing elected leaders.

Lesson Two: National Governance Is a Catch-22. One possible response to this would be to empower a national organization, or at least multistate organizations, to play Common Core cop. In fact, in our volume, Patrick McGuinn of Drew University offers numerous possible governance models for the Common Core that range in size and scope. But in reading those proposals and in watching the multistate testing consortia taking hit after hit, it is hard not to be struck by the Catch-22 of attempting to govern education across states.[13]

Any organization that is powerful enough to hold states’ feet to the fire will rile those who advocate for local control of schools. Any organization that is weak enough to mollify the concerns of those who advocate for local control will not have the teeth to actually hold any states accountable. There is really no way around it.

People like local control for many perfectly reasonable reasons. We live in a large and diverse country and it is hard to imagine any central body that will know what is best for every student in every school in every community. States and districts are also incentivized to have better schools to attract more taxpayers to their communities. These impulses have driven the creation of many outstanding schools and school districts, and they need to be respected. Those who advocate for the Common Core need to better understand how to fit the called-for commonness in with these traditions—otherwise, they will risk alienating huge swaths of the American polity.

Lesson Three: Reform Is Not Painless. When I wrote about some of my concerns regarding Common Core implementation for US News and World Report several months ago, Marc Tucker, one of the most prominent supporters of the Common Core and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, wrote a scathing response in the comments section:

I have argued elsewhere that poor implementation will mean that our legitimate hopes for the standards will not be reached. But it makes little sense to me to argue that poor implementation will lead us to a world in which we would be better off without the Common Core standards. The fact remains that the Common Core standards are essential to widespread higher achievement for American students, but they are not sufficient by themselves to bring about that outcome.[14]

Implicit in his argument is a belief that implementing new policies has no cost in and of itself. Beyond simply the money that would be wasted that could be put to better use buying new textbooks, new professional development, and new instructional materials, completely changing the standards to which students are instructed would be hugely disruptive for teachers and school leaders. Asking them to change everything they do in order to support a plan that might not end up working is not only callous and inconsiderate, but could also ultimately be extremely disruptive. As my colleague and fellow editor noted in his landmark book Spinning Wheels, the near constant “policy churn” in school districts that are implanting program after program layered in incomprehensible and often competing fashion has a huge negative effect on teachers and school leaders. This program wastes their precious time and makes them more jaded toward new innovations that could ultimately be helpful.[15]

Conclusion

While rumors of the Common Core’s death have been greatly exaggerated, it does have a rough path ahead. As states roll out new assessments, there will inevitably be issues with the technology necessary to administer the tests, the required reporting of the results, the process of integrating the results into the longitudinal data systems that states have been developing for the past decade, and other such issues. Will any of them be great enough to overwhelm the entire endeavor? It is hard to say today.

The political issues around participation and implementation loom the largest in my mind. If states are able to opt out of the standards in everything but name, then there will be little difference between the pre– and post–Common Core eras. If that happens, an enormous amount of time and billions of dollars will have been wasted in an effort that caused collateral damage to any number of other promising reforms. What is most troubling about that possible future is just how predictable it was at the outset. The education landscape is littered with once-promising reforms that fell apart in implementation. The savvy advocates of the Common Core should have known better.

Moving forward, state and district leaders will have to manage the backlash that their under-the-radar Common Core adoption bred. Public meetings will continue to be acrimonious and leaders will have to confront criticisms head on, regardless of how far afield they find them to be. Trade-offs regarding governance will need to be made and a governance structure (McGuinn outlines numerous possibilities in his chapter) will have to be chosen. And decisions about integrating new test scores into existing systems will have to be made, which will also breed dissent. The Common Core has coasted along by not angering too many people, but any observer of public policy knows that it cannot stay that way forever.

Notes

1. Erin Richards, “Wisconsin Hearing Repeats Debate Over Common Core School Standards,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 3, 2013, www.jsonline.com/news/education/wisconsin-hearing-repeats-debate-over-common-core-school-standards-b99112191z1-226375421.html.
2. See Dane Linn, “The Role of Governors,” in Common Core Meets Education Reform: What It All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling, eds. Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane (Teachers College Press, November 2013).
3. Sheila Byrd Carmichael et al., The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010 (Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, July 2010), www.edexcellence.net/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/SOSSandCC2010_FullReportFINAL_8.pdf.
4. Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, National Standards Don’t Make the Grade (Boston, MA, April 2010–2013), http://pioneerinstitute.org/download/one-page-primer-on-common-core-quality/.
5. Tom Loveless, How Well Are American Students Learning? (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Brown Center on Education Policy, February 2012), www.brookings.edu/~/media/newsletters/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf.
6. US Department of Education, Appendix B: Scoring Rubric (Washington, DC, January 2010), www2.ed.gov/programs/
racetothetop/scoringrubric.pdf
.
7. US Department of Education, “ESEA Flexibility,” June 7, 2012, www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/esea-flexibility/index.html.
8. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address,” (speech, White House, Washington, DC, January 25, 2011), www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/remarks-president-state-union-address.
9. Democratic National Committee, “2012 Democratic National Platform: Moving America Forward,” www.democrats.org/democratic-national-platform.
10. US Department of Education, “Beyond the Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments—Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks to State Leaders at Achieve’s American Diploma Project Leadership Team Meeting,” September 2, 2010, www.ed.gov/news/speeches/beyond-bubble-tests-next-generation-assessments-secretary-arne-duncans-remarks-state-l.
11. Catherine Gewertz, “Georgia Drops Out of PARCC Test Consortium,” Curriculum Matters, July 22, 2013, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2013/07/georgia_drops_out_of_parcc_tes.html.
12. Rick Scott, Letter to Secretary Duncan, September 23, 2013, www.flgov.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/
SecretaryDuncan092313.pdf
.
13. Patrick McGuinn, “Visions and Challenges for Multistate Governance and Sustainability,” in Common Core Meets Education Reform, eds. Hess and McShane.
14. See Marc Tucker’s comment in response to Mike McShane, “Common Core Complications,” US News & World Report, July 3, 2013, www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/economic-intelligence/2013/07/03/five-complications-of-common-core-
education-standards
.
15. See Frederick M. Hess, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1998).

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