Common Core and the War on Self-Deception

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Learning the truth about schools helps the school reform cause


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SPRING 2014 / VOL. 14, NO. 2

“Think Globally, Act Locally” is a slogan around which the public should rally as much concerning education as environmental issues. Since the American school is in sad shape globally, one expects the pragmatic, Mr. Fixit American public to be actively engaged locally in school reform.

We have just been told again, for the 15th time, that U.S. students rank below the industrialized world average in both math and science and hardly above that average in literacy. Few doubt that persistent low performance endangers our nation’s prosperity (see “Underachieving in America,” book reviews, Spring 2014). Clearly, it’s time for local action to address a problem of global significance.

Yet at the local level, antireform forces are gaining strength. Both in New York City and in Boston, teachers union–financed candidates swept into the mayor’s office in the closing months of 2013, and there is reason to believe similar events could happen elsewhere. But the enemy of school reform is as much self-deception as it is the organized opposition of those with vested interests. Members of the public see the school problem globally, but they deny the reality in front of their local noses.

When asked where the U.S. ranked relative to other countries in math, the average answer made by a nationally representative sample of Americans surveyed by Ednext was 19, a pretty good guess and barely higher than the official estimate offered by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which reported that the United States stood somewhere between 22 and 28.

But many people, even when they know the nation’s schools are in trouble, give their local schools an exemption. Only 21 percent of Americans assign the nation’s schools an “A” or a “B,” while 49 percent hand out one of those higher grades to their own school, the Ednext poll shows.

Having accurate local information opens the door to reform. Conventional wisdom—the general knowledge circulating in informed circles—is probably quite accurate regarding global issues, about everything from the climate to car dealers, Congress, and schools in general. Learning the truth about particular individuals and institutions can be as challenging as trying to figure out the weather next month.

So when the Ednext poll told respondents how students within their local school district compared to students internationally, their willingness to give their local district an “A” or a “B” slipped by 14 percentage points, from 49 to 35 percent. A slap in the face woke quite a few Americans up to the fact that things locally were not much different than things were nationally.

Not only was the public less willing to give local schools a pass, but it was also more inclined to call for change (see “Information Fuels Support for School Reform,” features, Spring 2014). Among those told of the national ranking of their local schools, the percentage willing to support school vouchers for all students rose by 13 percentage points, and backing for charter schools increased by 7 percentage points. People also became less inclined to grant tenure to teachers, and, in those districts that scored below the national average, enthusiasm for teachers unions fell noticeably.

To act locally, you need to think globally, but you also have to know what is in fact happening nearby. It’s not just the labor-electoral complex, as Mayor Bloomberg put it in a farewell address to New Yorkers, that blocks reform. The biggest opponents of all are Mr. and Ms. Self-Deception.

For that reason I do not join those who oppose common core state standards.

If the attempt to establish a common framework for what students need to learn can identify more precisely how well each school is doing, then it will provide the public with a tool it needs to correct its own self-deception.

—Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Erin says:

    Completely agree with your assessment of US students vs international students. We really should be taking that evidence more seriously.

    But, I am really not sure how that jives with supporting the Common Core Standards.

    Standards have never been shown to improve student learning. Whitehurst (Brookings) clearly demonstrated that standards alone have ZERO effect on improving the student learning that is tested on the US and international exams. So why would the Common Core Standards be any different?

    Improvements in student learning require improvements in curricula and teaching (Whitehurst). Something that has not happened under the various state standards, and is very unlikely to happen with the Common Core Standards, as well. There is nothing in the implementation of the Common Core Standards that would suggest that there will be any improvements in either curricula or teaching. It really seems that the same poor programs that were used with the previous standards also ‘align’ with the new standards. Using the same programs (under a new name) will not effect improvements in student learning.

    Your use of international evidence is awesome. But these data do not support the use of the Common Core Standards.

  • Jerome Dancis says:

    Education is not a horse race.
    Is PISA valid? The question rarely asked. Answer: NO!
    It’s Finland Beware – NOT Beware of Finland. Finnish engineering students have difficulty with fractions and simple algebraic expressions.
    “What does [students’ answers on] the International PISA Math Test Really Tell Us?” is the title of my article,” which appeared in American Association of School Administrators Journal of Scholarship and Practice. See Pages 31-42 at
    What does PISA Math Really tell us? Students need instruction in multi-step Arithmetic word problems.
    What does PISA Math not tell us? Students need instruction in Arithmetic and Algebraic calculations. Students need the opportunity to develop “number sense”.
    Education is not a horse race.
    For these reasons, do not rush students into Algebra in Grade 8.

  • Nancy Bartley says:

    Standards do work if they are taught. However, it is very difficult to teach anything if the environment is not conducive to instruction. Behavior within and outside the classroom must be addressed. Attitudes of everyone (teachers, administrators, parents, public, students) must be addressed. Common Core has to address these aspects of education (the environment) before it can even begin to hope to establish for and impart to students a strong academic preparation for life.

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