Common Core and the Underpants Gnomes

By 01/27/2014

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It’s amazing how some very smart people can commit billions of dollars and  untold human effort to something like Common Core without having thought the thing through.  How exactly did they think this was going to work?  Didn’t they have meetings?  Didn’t someone have to write a paper articulating the theory of change?  Didn’t any of them ever take political science classes or read a book on interest group behavior?

As I have repeatedly said would eventually happen, the teacher unions are turning against Common Core in New York and threatening to do the same in other states if high stakes tests aligned to those standards are put in place.  And the unions are more powerful, better organized, and even better-funded than the Gates Foundation and their mostly DC-based defenders of Common Core.  So Common Core will either have to drop the high-stakes tests meant to compel teachers and schools to implement the standards, or Common Core will become yet another set of empty words in a document, like most sets of standards before them.

Here is what I expected would happen and I believe is coming true:

As I have written and said on numerous occasions, Common Core is doomed regardless of what I or the folks at Fordham say or do.  Either Common Core will be “tight” in trying to compel teachers and schools through a system of aligned assessments and meaningful consequences to change their practice.  Or Common Core will be “loose” in that it will be a bunch of words in a document that merely provide advice to educators.

Either approach is doomed.  If Common Core tries being tight by coercing teachers and schools through aligned assessments and consequences, it will be greeted by a fierce organized rebellion from educators.  It’ll be Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and their army of angry teachers who will drive a stake through the heart of Common Core, not me or any other current critic . If Common Core tries being loose, it will be like every previous standards-based reform – a bunch of empty words in a document that educators can promptly ignore while continuing to do whatever they were doing before.

This is the impossible paradox for Common Core.  To succeed it requires more centralized coercion than is possible (or desirable) under our current political system and more coercive than organized educators will allow.  And if it doesn’t try to coerce unwilling teachers and schools, it will produce little change.

How did the political strategists at Gates and their DC advocates think this doom would be avoided?  Did they imagine that teachers and schools were starving for a good set of standards and would just embrace them once they were issued from the DC Temple in which they were written?  Did they think teachers and their unions wouldn’t politically resist an effort to compel compliance to Common Core through high stakes tests?  Did they think they could sneak up on teachers and unions and implement the whole thing before anyone would object?

I suspect that their thinking was something like the Underpants Gnomes from South Park whose business plan for  profiting from stealing underpants from kids’ drawers during the night is lacking: “Phase 1 — Collect underpants  Phase 2 — ?  Phase 3 — Profit.”  The Gates/Fordham/College Board plan must have been: Phase 1 — Write standards  Phase 2 — Incentivize states with federal carrots and sticks to engage in the empty gesture of adopting standards Phase 3 — ?  Phase 4 — Learning improves.

Even now I’d love to hear someone try to articulate Common Core’s theory of change.  And it is not sufficient to say that this is just the “hard work” of persuading teachers and schools.  It is also hard work to jump to the moon — so hard that it is impossible.  And I don’t want to hear “Remember: Undoing the #CommonCore would require 46 separate, state-led actions…”  That’s true, but states have many worthless pieces of legislation that do little to change the world.  Thirteen states still have anti-sodomy laws despite the fact that the Supreme Court struck down that type of law .

I don’t think Gates, Fordham, or anyone else really developed a plausible theory of change for Common Core.  Instead, I think they just had the type of magical thinking too common among smart DC policy analysts that if only they had good enough intentions and “messaged” the issue just right, all problems would be overcome.  Tell that to the ObamaCare folks who thought that good intentions and artful “messaging” would somehow repeal the law of adverse selection in who would sign up for the risk pools.  Our technocratic minds cannot control the behavior of other people, just by thinking about it hard, wanting good things, and talking about it a lot.

—Jay P. Greene

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