A Well Intentioned Disaster: A Presentation on the Merits of Common Core State Standards
The following is taken from a presentation given by Show-Me Institute Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy James Shuls on February 23, 2016, at a debate hosted by the Federalist Society and the Education Law and Policy Society at the University of Michigan.
In my remarks today, I hope to convince you of three things. First, the idea of the Common Core was noble, but misguided. Second, the Common Core State Standards will not significantly improve student achievement. And finally, the federal government created the controversy we have seen surrounding the Common Core over the past few years.
A Noble but Misguided Goal
The idea behind the Common Core is quite simple. Schools need standards because standards allow teachers to align the curriculum and allow teachers to see what they are to cover in each grade. I have been told many times that prior to schools adopting learning standards, it was not uncommon for students in the same grade in the same school to have radically different experiences depending on the teachers they had. Standards help alleviate that problem.
Following the infamous “A Nation at Risk Report” report of 1983, the standards movement was launched. This Reagan-administration report used alarming language to describe the nation’s education system. The authors of the report wrote:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
The report fueled a desire to improve the quality of our education system. State officials wanted to keep a watchful eye on how schools were performing. To do that they needed tests, and to have tests, they needed standards on which to base them.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, states began creating their own standards-based accountability systems. By 2000, 39 states had accountability systems in place. After the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, the remaining states were forced to follow suit. As a result, by the mid-2000s we had 50 different state standards and 50 different accountability systems.
These individual state standards created a problem. Students from families that moved from one state to another could miss entire topics if they were covered in one grade in one state and in a different grade in another. And, very importantly, the different tests did not allow us to compare one state to another because the accountability systems were different. In a state with very low standards a student might score “proficient,” but if he were in a state with very high standards he might score “basic.”
In reality, these were not problems created by having 50 state standards. They were problems that have always existed, and in many regards still exist. To be honest, these problems are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. I mean, would you go through all of the effort that the Common Core designers went through just to improve transparency across states? I wouldn’t, especially when we have the National Assessment of Educational progress, known as the nation’s report card, which already allows us to compare one state to another. The most valid reason to support the Common Core comes from the thought that these standards could improve student achievement for all students. This is where the supporters for Common Core were misguided. This is where the logic for Common Core falters, and this is what brings me to my second point: that Common Core will not improve educational outcomes for students.
Common Core Will Not Improve Educational Outcomes
Let me ask: How might a system of new standards improve educational outcomes for all students? As far as I can tell, there are three options:
- The standards could better align the curriculum.
- The standards could be more rigorous.
- Or, the standards could create a broader platform for collaboration.
Let’s examine each of these.
The standards could better align the curriculum
Remember, states have already developed standards and aligned curricula. We’d have to believe that the Common Core has somehow come up with a better way to do these things—that they have discovered the special sauce or that the designers have figured out the right progression of learning. Something tells me that is not the case. While the quality of education research is improving, there is simply not enough evidence to know if we should teach fractions in third grade or fourth, or whether we should introduce money in kindergarten or first grade. I recently sat on a committee to rewrite Missouri’s state standards. I can tell you, while the process is informed by research, it often comes down to educated guessing. The individuals making these guesses are indeed educated, but in the end, many of these decisions are completely subjective.
So what is the second option?
The standards could be simply be more rigorous
They could raise the level of expectations for students. After all, students rise to the level of expectation, don’t they? If this were true, we would expect students in states that previously had rigorous standards to perform better than students in states with weaker standards. In a study for the Brookings Institution, Tom Loveless examined this very issue. He found no relationship between the rigor of state standards and student performance on the NAEP. None. Another thing to consider is that ratings of the Common Core Standards by the Fordham Foundation, a group that has been very supportive of the effort, do not place Common Core at the top of the standards list. They are among the best according to Fordham, but in Math and Language arts, other standards were rated higher. If we believe that rigor or the quality of standards matter, then it puzzles me why supporters of national standards would be so willing to go to bat for Common Core. Why not simply adopt the superior Massachusetts standards?
The Common Core will not improve student achievement by better aligning curriculum, nor can we improve student learning simply by being more rigorous. What’s left?
A system of national standards could create a broader platform for collaboration
Before Common Core, textbook companies often designed curricula for more populous states like California and Texas. As a result, states found it difficult to get textbooks that aligned with their individual standards. Common Core helps alleviate this problem. Moreover, it allows teachers throughout the country to collaborate on lessons related to the standards. While this sounds great, planning on a substantial benefit from collaboration is misguided. If it were true that more opportunities for collaboration led to success, then we would expect to see more populous states—those that drive textbook production—to have an advantage. Not only would they have textbooks tailored to their curricula, but with a larger number of teachers, they would have greater opportunities for collaboration. Yet, we don’t see a California or Texas advantage.
In the face of the evidence, there is simply no logical model that can explain how a set of standards that simply tells teachers what to teach will improve student learning. At least not today.
To be clear: Standards are important, and evidence does show that the standards-based accountability movement has led to modest learning gains for students. It seems, however, that the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Schools have already aligned curricula, and we have already begun focusing on student outcomes. New standards may have some impact on the margins, but by themselves they cannot substantially improve student achievement.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive indictment of Common Core. I don’t believe Common Core will ruin our education system. I don’t believe it is some grand conspiracy to dumb down America. I simply believe it is bad policy.
But if Common Core is innocuous, then why are we devoting so much time to it? We are having this conversation today because promoters of Common Core oversold, and because the federal government overstepped. As is often the case, the actions of the federal government came with unintended consequences.
The Federal Government Created the Common Core Controversy
Common Core did not begin as a federal initiative. I hesitate to call this a “state-led” initiative, and it certainly wasn’t a grass roots initiative. It was instigated by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. These two trade organizations began the process late in George W. Bush’s administration, but the idea of national standards goes back even further, to his father’s administration. Early on in the development of the Common Core standards, some thought that the standards would be adopted by a handful of states; it was hoped that other states would adopt them voluntarily over time. That changed with federal involvement.
In 2009, President Obama launched his Race to the Top initiative, a competitive grant program that was part of the stimulus plan. States could compete for $4.35 billion dollars in prize money by proposing a series of reforms. This came at a time when states were feeling the pressure of the recession and could ill afford to pass up an opportunity for additional federal funding. One of the reforms supported in Race to the Top was the adoption of learning standards that were common to a majority of states—what would become Common Core.
As part of the first round of the Race to the Top process, states had to submit their applications (including a commitment to the Common Core standards) by January 19, 2010. The second round was June 1. But the final draft of the standards was not even released until June of 2010. In other words, the federal government encouraged states to commit to common standards before those standards were even finalized. Still, states jumped at the opportunity. By 2013, 45 states had adopted the standards. President Obama took credit for this in his State of the Union address.
At the same time, the Obama administration doubled down on support of Common Core by offering to waive certain No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements to states that adopted Common Core. Schools and states were finding it increasingly difficult to comply with various aspects of NCLB; that is, they had failed to meet the mandated 100 percent proficiency marks. States could avoid penalties by promoting education reform policies championed by the administration, one of which was common standards.
Whether you support federal involvement or not, it is difficult to deny that the actions of the U.S. Department of Education caused or at least contributed to the controversy surrounding Common Core. What might have been a coalition of states that grew and developed over time was catapulted into the national stage as a new and radical reform that many states adopted, if not against their will, then at least under duress.
While the motivation behind the Common Core standards was good, the outcomes—at least in terms of liberty—are not. Common Core moves control of one of the most important aspects of education—what students learn—further from students and parents, and it concentrates power at the federal level. As Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman once said, “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” The Common Core standards reduce individual liberty and academic freedom for states, teachers, and students. They nullify the great advantage of individual states—the ability to act as laboratories that allow us to evaluate different systems to see what works best—in favor of a monolithic approach that stifles innovation. Ultimately, the Common Core movement is an expression of the flawed mindset that we can mandate and orchestrate improved student achievement through centralized control.