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.

Comment on this article
  • Ze'ev Wurman says:

    “The robbed Cossack” is a Jewish expression harking back to the late 19th century, when the Cossacks were famous for initiating lethal pogroms against the Jews in Russia. If any of the Cossacks happened — typically by mistake — to be detained by the Tsarist police for murder or robbery of the Jews, he would simply explain that the “Jew robbed him first,” and his crimes were deemed justified. The expression effectively depicts an aggressor pretending to be the victim.

    Checker’s lament that “ever since it landed … the Common Core has been the object of ceaseless attacks from multiple directions” reminded me of the robbed Cossack. Ever since it landed, the Common Core has been showered by praise by everyone high and low, from the President down to lowly teachers, as the panacea that will resolve the supposed “dumbing down of the standards” by those craven states. When Sandra Stotsky, Jim Milgram, and I, started to investigate and expose the mediocrity of the Common Core in depth almost nobody would publish us, or pay attention to us. When finally the Pioneer Institute published four devastating reports in 2010, there was barely a ripple in the mainstream media or in the academic journals. Almost nobody dared to pick up our theme, that the Common Core is not only akin to the Emperor without clothes, but the process to write them was secretive and given into the hand of select few lobbyists behind closed doors and without any meaningful public oversight. It took almost two years before the truth started to penetrate and now, when there is finally just a pittance of resistance among a few states, Checker complains that “ever since it landed, however, the Common Core has been the object of ceaseless attacks from multiple directions.” Right. Whatever.

    Checker’s four “assets” of Common Core also ring hollow. (1) That their quality is mediocre and below international benchmarks has been demonstrated, and the fact that Rick Hess had such a hard time to find a defender for them in the recent Education Next debate speaks volumes. (2) That they were developed outside the federal government is literally true but laughable, now that we know all the hidden personal and financial threads between Marc Tucker of NCEE, Mike Cohen of Achieve, Vicki Phillips and Carina Wong of the Gates Foundation, the various ex Gates Foundation officials parachuted into Arne Duncan’s office, and the buckets of money Gates Foundation dropped on CCSSO to develop the Common Core, and on its propaganda. (3) That they “open the way, for the first time, to comparing students, school, and district performance across the land” is simply incorrect, as Checker himself must know well. It was his own Fordham Institute that published some of the reports that allowed us to compare among various state content and proficiency standards, and hence also to compare “students, school, and district performance across the land.” (4) And his final purported “asset,” the advantage of Common Core in our “highly mobile society” has also been discredited — census data shows that while our intra-state mobility of children is a vigorous 12% annually, the inter-state mobility is a miserly 1.6%.

    But it is gratifying that even he acknowledges the federal entanglement in those “voluntary” standards, even as he studiously avoids touching on their illegality. The only thing that surprises me is that Checker himself is surprised that the federal government exerted its power over the national standards — does he really think there was ever a chance that it would not??

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute provides his response here:

  • Bob Henderson says:

    Ze’ev says, “the process to write [the Common Core] was secretive and given into the hand of select few lobbyists behind closed doors”. So does Jim Milgram count as one of the select few? Or not because he’s a “good guy” on your side?

  • […] For those of you just starting your education careers, here’s a run-down of the Common Core Initiative. Until 2010, State education systems were left largely to their own devices when it came to crafting appropriate benchmarks for measuring student achievement. Given variation and lacking a real way to gauge fundamental learning from state to state, the Common Core initiative rose as a national effort to create a clear framework for understanding student achievement and holding students to high expectations. The movement was spearheaded at the state level by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and though supported by almost all 50 states, the Common Core State Standards Initiative has a hefty amount of criticism. […]

  • […] What are the concerns that are surfacing about CCSS? There are many concerns about the CCSS which I will try to summarize. First, as always when anything changes, you have the normal critics who do believe that the CCSS are flawed – everything from wrong sequences, not enough of specific kinds of content, and too much of other. These critics are probably well-meaning. However, “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Second, many believe that implementing the CCSS will be very expensive. That may be true but much of the bankrolling of this initiative is being carried by private philanthropists. (That brings another concern in and of itself.) Third, some critics are worried that the CCSS are too rigorous and will cause even higher levels of failure than we are already seeing across the country. The reality is that the CCSS are simply standards – not the blueprint to higher student achievement. If all we have are the standards and they are not used the way they are intended as a guide and stair step to achievement, indeed nothing will happen and student achievement may indeed decrease. Fourth, a few states – Massachusetts – are concerned that they will be lowering their standards because they have done fine by themselves. They further believe that CCSS will just level everyone in the country – bringing down those who are high and bringing up those who are low. The reality is that participation is voluntary and those states that believe they are doing fine are not required to participate in this initiative. Fifth, and perhaps one of the two biggest concerns (I saved the best for last) is that many are concerned that this is making a “national” curriculum and usurping state and local control. However, there needs to be a differentiation about “national” versus “federal” (as in federal government). We truly already have national standards for college admissions in the form of the ACT and SAT tests as well as Advanced Placement courses. As for the “national” curriculum, the CCSS are NOT a curriculum. That is still totally under state and local control. The last objection is perhaps the most legitimate: that the federal government will interfere and the CCSS will become “politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive.”  Unfortunately, though perhaps not intentional, this last objection has some evidence to back it up. There are at least three things that the federal government, in the form of the Secretary of Education and the President of the U.S., has done that support this objection/fear. 1. Race to the Top monies were tied to states accepting the CCSS 2. Obtaining a waiver from NCLB was also tied to accepting CCSS, and 3. Federal money granted to 2 different consortia of states to develop the assessments that would align with CCSS. These three political maneuvers remove the voluntary part of adopting CCSS and give the impression, if not the reality, that CCSS are being controlled by the federal government. Add to that public comments made by both Secretary Duncan and President Obama that lambast the states that don’t want to adopt the CCSS and you have a definite impression of political maneuvering and interference. You cannot say that adoption is voluntary and then ridicule states that haven’t adopted the CCSS or have and are thinking of changing their mind. That is then no longer voluntary. Furthermore there is talk about tying Title One monies to CCSS also, another coercive tactic aimed at the districts that have the greatest need. ( […]

  • Peter Kalberer says:

    Why has no one pointed out that it provides standrards for language arts and math specifically, but science and social studies are given a short shrift (understatement). As an 8th gr Sci teacher the standards will cause me to deemphasize science to cater to what are really lang arts standards. Why would someone think that whilst in America’s longest war and with an economy crippled by energy issues that our biggest concerns are about plot, character, theme, and debate. These things are important but basically de facto divert focus from 2 very critical areas of learning.

  • Scott Plan. says:

    As a parent I am appalled at this entire process from inception to implementation. In our district, parents were invited to attend an evening session in September, during which the BOE officials took about 30 minutes to tout the program. They then sent us into breakout sessions, 30 minutes for Language Arts, and 30 for Math. More propoganda, little specifics. Parents with questions and concerns were told to write their comments on an index card and hand it in, because there “wasn’t enough time” to address us publicly. I did ask where CCS had already been tested, thinking surely there is a model where empirical results had been studied. Nope, no data available. Then I asked if other countries’ education systems had been studied, particularly those where student performance is superior to ours. No again. In fact, said the BOE, the implementation of CCS throughout CT is being done so quickly that there aren’t even textbooks ready yet. So a new guideline for teaching is being rolled out in our state, without any prior experience, no results to indicate whether or not they have any chance of “working”, and it’s being done so fast that the accompanying teaching materials don’t even exist yet. Parents are being told about it after-the-fact, and objections are suppressed with short, over-crowded information sessions and the “write your question down” tactic which is so effective at silencing opposition. Something smells, and it’s coming from D.C. through Hartford.

  • Scott says:

    Californians United Against Common Core

  • Bryan says:

    As a teacher, I took the sample tests today. Rigorous standards have their purpose, but the tasks are way beyond reasonable general population expectations. They might not be so bad if the questions started easier and progressed in difficulty. These start right out as multi-step problems that require perseverance that many are not capable of. These test cognitive abilities more than knowledge and computation abilities. These are going to cause despair for many.

  • Incredulous1 says:

    I just want to know who’s behind the TV commercials promoting CCSS? Alleged teachers say, “CC is voluntary and NOT being pushed by D.C.” Really? Someone is spending some big $$$ pushing CCSS. WHY? Pappy always said, “Follow the MONEY if you want to find out who’s benefiting.” At the end of that road, I doubt students are the real beneficiaries.

  • Frank says:

    Bryan, can I quote you on that for my project. Im doing research on the common core for a school project, and I figured if I could get a quote from someone with first hand experience with the academic standards, such as yourself, I could better understand the issue

  • Michael Toso says:

    Why not fix LOCAL CONTROL to allow pipelines to share ideas and solutions above LOCAL CONCERNS across the nation. This would be a good job for DeptED to help “SUPPORT” local control.
    Now we are so concerned about “BEING TOLD WHAT TO DO” we are like wild animals fighting VETS, blind to any help.
    We need skills to DISCUSS opposing views to rise ABOVE the DEBATES (winning more important than solutions) that define our DYSFUNCTIONAL CONGRESS.

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