The War Against the Common Core

By 03/05/2012

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The Common Core State Standards Initiative landed in our midst with four great assets:

  • Its content-and-skill expectations for grades K-12 in English and math are, by almost everyone’s reckoning, about as rigorous as the best state-specific academic standards and superior to most.
  • It was developed outside the federal government, voluntarily by states, using private dollars. (The related assessments are another matter.) And both standards and assessments remain voluntary for states.
  • It opens the way, for the first time, to comparing student, school and district performance across the land on a credible, common metric—and gauging their achievement against that of youngsters in other countries on our shrinking and ever-more-competitive planet.
  • Besides comparability, it brings the possibility that families moving around our highly mobile society will be able to enroll their kids seamlessly in schools that are teaching the same things at the same grade levels.

Ever since it landed, however, the Common Core has been the object of ceaseless attacks from multiple directions. The number of zealous assailants is small and, for a time, it all looked like a tempest in a highly visible teapot. That may yet turn out to be the case. But the attacks are growing fiercer; some recent recruits to the attack squad are people who tend to get taken seriously; and anything can happen in an election year. Remember the classic Peter Sellers movie, The Mouse That Roared? The Duchy of Grand Fenwick ended up triumphing over the United States of America. As you may recall, that happened in large part because the U.S. government contributed to its own defeat. In the present case, something similar could well transpire. Please read on.

Before examining the assaults, however, let’s remind ourselves what the Common Core is not. It is no guarantee of stronger student achievement or school performance. Huge challenges await any (serious) academic standards on the implementation, assessment and accountability fronts. To get traction in classrooms, states that adopt these standards (and all but four say they’re doing so) must take pains with curriculum, teacher preparation, assessment, accountability and more. To yield real rigor (and comparability), the currently-under-development assessments must avoid numerous pitfalls and incorporate hard-to-achieve consensus on genuinely challenging issues (such as where to set the “cut score”).

In and of themselves, academic standards merely describe the end point to be reached and the major stops en route. They don’t get you there. But it’s far better to have an education destination worth reaching, i.e. rigorous standards set forth with sufficient specificity, clarity, and rich content to provide real guidance to curriculum designers, classroom teachers, test developers and more. Few states have managed to do that on their own.

To be sure, other states could simply copy the best of those that already exist. But that’s more or less what the Common Core is: an amalgam of good standards put together by people who know a lot—and care a lot—about both content and skills.

So why the nonstop attacks against it? As best I can tell, they arise from six objections and fears.

First, a few earnest critics are convinced that the standards are substantively flawed, that the algebra sequence (or grade level) is wrong, the English standards don’t contain enough literature, the emphasis on “math facts” isn’t as strong as it should be, etc. This sort of thing has accompanied every past set of standards of every sort, and it’s perfectly legitimate. Insofar as such criticisms are warranted, the Common Core can be revised, states can add standards of their own, and jurisdictions that find the common version truly unsatisfactory can change their minds about using it at all.

Second, the Common Core will be difficult and expensive to implement. Many organizations are working hard to help states surmount these genuine challenges. Many philanthropists are kicking money into the effort. And some groups (Fordham included) are trying to cost it all out. Nobody denies that doing this right will be hard and costly (though some of those costs are already embedded in state and district budgets.) Of course, those who think the country is doing OK today have every reason to shirk that challenge and stick with what they’re used to.

Third, the Common Core won’t make any difference in student achievement—but may cause a politically-unacceptable level of student failure. As noted above, standards per se do not boost achievement. (Of course, standards per se don’t carry costs or failure rates, either. They don’t, by themselves, do much of anything!) And failure rates will worsen only if (a) the new assessments are truly rigorous and (b) schools neglect preparing their pupils to pass them.

Fourth, states have done as well, or better, on their own, and switching over to the Common Core will just mess them up. This criticism mostly emanates from Massachusetts, which has done a commendable job on its own and where the decision to adopt the Common Core was truly conflicted. Other states that prefer to go it alone, mostly notably Texas and Virginia, have simply declined to adopt the Common Core. Others are free to exit from it (though doing so would, for some, violate commitments they made in their Race to the Top proposals.)

Fifth, “national” is not the right way to do anything in American education. We retain a deep (if, in my view, unwarranted) affection for “local control” in this realm and constitutional responsibility for education is undeniably vested in the states. Some folks dread the prospect of a “national curriculum.” (Some simply mistrust the Gates Foundation, which has bankrolled much of this work.) Others are incapable (perhaps willfully so) of seeing any distinction between “national” and “federal”, though we seem to have no difficulty making that distinction elsewhere in education. (E.g. National Governors Association, S.A.T., A.P., ACT.)

Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.

(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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