Is the Common Core Just a Distraction?

By 05/09/2012

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All of the intense pushing and shoving about the Common Core leaves one simple question: should we care?

Policymakers and reform advocates alike have rallied around the movement toward a national curriculum, suggesting that this will break the stagnation in achievement of U.S. students.  But there is little evidence that confusion about what we should teach has been a real inhibition to student achievement.  In fact, the existing evidence suggests just the opposite:  there is no relationship between the learning standards of the states and student performance.

To be sure, it is a real problem when students in one state learn very different things than those in other states, and in particular when students from some states lack the skills needed for our modern economy.  We really do have a national labor market, and significant numbers of our population end up living and working in a state different than that where they were born and went to school.  The presumption behind having national standards (whether voluntary or coerced) is that having a clearer and more consistent statement of learning objectives across states would tend to lessen the problem of heterogeneous skills that students bring to the labor market.  Again, however, the fundamental problem is lack of minimal skills and not the heterogeneity of skills per se.

Experience provides little support for the argument that just more clearly declaring what we want children to learn will have much impact.   In arguing for focusing on standards, proponents of national standards conventionally point to Massachusetts:  strong standards and top results.  But it is useful to expand thinking from just Massachusetts to include California, a second state noted for its high learning standards.  Indeed, some have argued that both states would have to lower their standards in order to fit into the structure of the Common Core.  But California balances Massachusetts:  strong standards and bottom results.

In order to see the issue more broadly, it is possible to compare state-by-state measures of learning standards to student outcomes.  There are different independent ratings of the quality of the learning standards currently existing for each state, and these can be combined with assessments of student performance from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The most comprehensive rating of state standards is probably that of Education Week.   Education Week developed a comprehensive grading across grade-specific standards, testing, and the accountability that goes with them in each state.  This ranking provides aggregate grades for each state.  (Another widely acknowledged rating of state standards by subject is produced by the Fordham Institute.  These competing rankings are correlated with those of Education Week, though not perfectly, and it really makes no difference for the analysis which we use.)

The figure below shows how the ranking of standards compares to NAEP scores – here the 8th grade math scores.  (The specific NAEP assessment for grade and subject has no influence on the overall conclusions).

As can be seen, the better the state standards the worse the students tend to do.  But, of course, this does not imply that we should move toward weaker standards.  The real conclusion is that state standards have little to do with student performance.

In other words, what really matters is what is actually taught in the classroom.  Simply setting a different goal – even if backed by intensive professional development, new textbooks, and the like – has not historically had much influence as we look across state outcomes.

There are a number of refinements that one can think about for this analysis, but they do not change the answer.  This conclusion holds even under more sophisticated analysis, as demonstrated quite conclusively by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.  Indeed his analysis helps to frame the entire debate.

The continuing emphasis on Common Core standards, including the debates about the legality of them, is often interpreted as indicating that the Common Core is a really big deal in school reform.  The data suggest otherwise.

The one possible complementary gain from the move to national standards is that the assessments of performance might become better.  It is widely recognized that the current tests used to judge outcomes within individual states tend to be quite weak.  (This concern about tests is not leveled at NAEP, which was used in the comparisons above, but instead applies to the tests states use for accountability purposes).  If the new standards lead to better tests – something that might come out of the two testing consortia funded by the U.S. Education Department – we might have the basis for improved school policies.  But that is also not certain and cannot be used as a primary justification for the focus on Common Core standards.

One interpretation of the emphasis on developing the Common Core curriculum is that these debates provide a convenient distraction from potentially more intractable fights over bigger reform ideas like teacher evaluations, expanded school choice, or improved accountability systems.    While I am not against having better learning standards, I believe that we cannot be distracted from more fundamental reform of our schools.  The future economic well-being of the U.S. is dependent on improving the achievement and skills of today’s students.

-Eric Hanushek

Comment on this article
  • Anne Clark says:


    Not as much as some do.

    Why not mention curriculum/textbooks (esp. for math) as one of the “bigger reform ideas”? Didn’t someone recently put out a paper discussing the impact of curriculum? Certainly, those of us in the concerned math community think this is of great import. It may not be sexy – or new – but it might be the easiest way to make an impact as a result of the new standards. Whose writing a set of really good, solid math textbooks based on the new standards? Anyone even trying?

  • Anne Clark says:

    Sorry – who’s not whose.

  • Clay Forsberg says:

    I look at a Common Core curriculum with the same disdain as I do “No Child Left Behind” and it’s current descendant. The United States has 300 million people that live here. And the country is probably as diverse as any nation in the world. How can someone, or group of someones, be so ignorant and self-righteous to think they know what is best for children who live, and will probably live – in places they’ve never been and under conditions they could never conceive.

    The further we remove educational control from the local, the worse will be the results. Living in South Central Los Angeles is the furthest thing from living in North Dakota (and I’ve lived in both). The skill sets needed to succeed are radically different. Not that one is good or bad … just different.

    The educational elite in this country need to clim down from their ivory tower just long enough to realize not all answers are conceived inside the beltway.

  • Ed Jones says:

    Emphasis on ‘just?’.

    As we design an education system that has the same tools that Amazon, SABRE, Linked-in, WIN-T, etc. brought to their sectors, will we be building it with standards left over from the pre-interactive age?

    It’s telling to hear Anne above call for ‘really good, solid math textbooks’. Books? How ’bout Khan Academy 2.0?

    Or, is Algebra II really still the best way to give non-college-bound students analytical thinking discipline? I’m inclined to wonder if they might not benefit much more from mastery of Ruby, Haskell, and/or a robotics framework.

    More my specialty these days, I look at “history standards”, which in Ohio are anything but history. They are instead supposed to teach students who know nothing about history and little about analysis, to “think critically” about each and every phase of time under discussion. They succeed at neither.

    My hope is that the CCSS are at best a stepping stone, at worst irrelevant to the near future. My fear is they will be more ballast.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Your graph is quite amusing. Very, very amusing.

    Of course, some past research found that highly specific learning objectives interfered with deep learning. Having too many objectives (often confused with quality) may also interfere with the quality of learning.

  • Oak says:

    NAEP scores should also be broken out demographically. In Utah the state office touts being above national average while having one of the lowest per pupil funding rates in the country showing we have a lot of bang for the buck. However, when you break our our demographics and realize Utah has an 82% Caucasian population, comparing race to race, we’re at the bottom of the barrel, not above national average. This may also fix your California issue as well since they have a very high minority population.

  • Scott Merrick says:

    Oak’s is a good point–the two matrices are each potentially so affected by alternative interpretations and bias influences, and not just racial but socioeconomic, familial makeup, religious, and above all data collection and reportage methodology, that, well, you know what they say about statistics. The title of this piece is still unanswered and will remain so as long as our citizenry meekly concur that you fatten the pig by weighing it and the people who construct and sell the scales to do so continue to profit and thrive.

  • Bruce William Smith says:

    This is a surprisingly weak argument. In spite of the lack of correlation found so far between American state standards quality and NAEP performance, arguably because of inconsistent and sloppy implementations, when one looks at the picture from an international, comparative viewpoint, for example by looking at the performance of APEC economies on the TIMSS assessment for 8th grade mathematics students, the case for national standards leading to a national curriculum and the resulting consistent training and teaching throughout a country towards the students actually achieving those standards looks much stronger; this is the common approach in Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, the top five scorers on the most recent assessment.

  • Careshia says:

    I think that some of the things we are implementing in the name of Ed reform are ineffective because we are over thinking the issues. Everything that needs to be fixed doesn’t require an entirely new mechanism. Sometimes we need to look at what we are doing incorrectly with what we have. So much of achievement has to do with what happens before the students even walk into the classroom. Perhaps there are ways to deal with school readiness, and social issues that affect students behavior and ability to learn in the classroom. It’s not another book of buzz words and acronyms that will reform our education. It’s focusing on the issues that affect our children’s ability to achieve.

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