In a superficial article last Friday, NY Times education reporter Dana Goldstein exhumed an education reform that has, mercifully, already been buried: the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core has pretty much faded out of the public consciousness, but now that Goldstein has chosen to examine the corpse, I wish she had done a careful job.
Goldstein explains that the Common Core Standards were created by “a bipartisan group of governors, education experts and philanthropists” and that, “The education secretary at the time, Arne Duncan, declared himself ‘ecstatic.'” Now, ten years after the experiment was launched, many of the over forty-five states that tried the Common Core have dropped it. They have recalibrated their curricula and dropped from their annual testing regime the standardized tests that were paired with the Common Core Standards, tests created by one of two test-development consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (the PARCC test) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (the SBAC test).
In her article last Friday, Goldstein wonders whether recent U.S. test scores on the international PISA test and our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) would be better if the Common Core were brought back: “The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.”
Much of her story covers an interview with a Kentucky teacher who liked the Common Core. She also quotes one of the developers of the Common Core math standards, interviews other people who favor a nationally aligned curriculum, and talks with the program officer responsible for the Common Core at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. What she leaves out is the history and substance of the Common Core experiment, and she also omits all the reasons states have pretty much abandoned this project.
The Common Core State Standards were an attempt by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to impose common curricular standards across the country. The Common Core was to be another step in institutionalizing the movement for standards and test based school accountability that was originally cast into law by No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind assumed that if states set tough standards, tested the students every year, and sanctioned schools unable to raise scores quickly, achievement would rise and all children would be proficient by 2014. But the federal government couldn’t, by federal law, impose a national curriculum. However, Arne Duncan figured out how to create incentives for states to buy into a national curriculum without its being federally imposed. As part of the 2009 stimulus package created to infuse money across the states to address the Great Recession, Duncan created a federal competitive grant program—Race to the Top. To qualify even to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores and agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization. And states had to agree they would adopt “college- and career-ready” standards.
The states had the freedom to develop their own standards, but conveniently, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers sat down with Bill Gates and together they agreed that the Gates Foundation would fund the development of Common Core Standards, which states could then use to meet Arne Duncan’s requirement that they adopt “college- and career-ready” standards in order to qualify for a Race to the Top grant.
There are certainly people who still believe in curriculum standards—even national standards—but there were a number of problems with the way the Common Core was rushed through. The substitution of new tests developed by the PARCC and SBAC consortia also intensified what many felt were unfair high stakes punishments being imposed on schools and on schoolteachers by No Child Left Behind.
The Common Core was developed by the same people who brought us test-based school accountability. In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, written just as the Common Core standards and the tests paired with the standards were being rolled out, Diane Ravitch explains the top-down origin of these developments: “The U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to two consortia to develop national assessments to measure the new national standards. States and districts will have to make large investments in technology, because the new national assessments will be delivered online. By some estimates, the states will be required to spend as much as $16 billion to implement the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16) “The Gates Foundation… supported the creation, evaluation, and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in almost every state. In addition, the Gates Foundation has joined in a partnership with the British publisher Pearson to develop online curriculum for teaching the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error, 23)
One of the huge criticisms of the Common Core Standards is that their developers focused on pushing more difficult content knowledge without enough attention to the wide variation in children’s readiness and to normal variations in linguistic and cognitive development. In their 2014 book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass observe that teachers who know and understand their students, but are at the same time under intense pressure to raise scores, have less latitude to meet children’s particular learning needs: (U)nder the new Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by 45 states, teachers have little control over the curriculum they teach and the time they can allocate for instruction.” (50 Myths & Lies, p. 52)
What caused the most intense backlash—as more than 40 participating states substituted the PARCC and SBAC Common Core tests for the standardized tests the states had already been using annually under No Child Left Behind to judge schools—was that the PARCC and SBAC tests were benchmarked with much more demanding cut scores. More schools appeared to be “failing.” And, for states to qualify for Race to the Top and the subsequent No Child Left Behind Waiver program, Arne Duncan demanded that states use the annual standardized tests as part of formal teachers’ evaluations. When students’ test scores dropped catastrophically on the new PARCC and SBAC tests, there were growing news reports about teachers—sometimes long experienced and award-winning teachers—being fired or reassigned. In some places, the teachers’ ratings based on the new test scores were published in newspapers to embarrass teachers into working harder. The replacement of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which banned the Secretary of Education from involvement in states’ evaluation of teachers, was one result. The other was the further discrediting of the Common Core experiment itself.
Goldstein explains why she dug up the Common Core again last week for coverage in the NY Times. Recently released scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress were disappointing, and U.S. scores recently released from the international PISA test were not significantly improved.
Back in 2010, Bill Mathis at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a cautionary analysis of the Common Core for the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. In the piece, Mathis warns against developing standards-based education policy as a way to make the U.S. appear globally competitive: “The Obama administration advocates for education standards designed to make all high school graduates ‘college- and career-ready.’ To achieve this end, the administration is exerting pressure on states to adopt content standards, known as the ‘common core,’ being developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers…. Contentions about global competitveness provide a key rationale given for common standards, along with increasing equity and streamlining the reform process. The analysis presented here suggests that the data do not support these contentions. U.S. states with high academic standards fare no better (or worse) than those identified as having low academic standards. Research support for standards-driven, test-based accountability systems is similarly weak.”
Mathis concludes: “The… common core standards initiative should be continued, but only as a low-stakes advisory and assistance tool for states and local districts for the purposes of curriculum improvement, articulation and professional development. The… common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials, and subsequent revisions before implementation… Given the current strengths and weaknesses in testing and measurement, policymakers should not implement high-stakes accountability systems where the assessments are inadequate for such purposes.”
In her 2012 Reign of Error, Ravitch agrees with Mathis: “Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the developers of the Common Core standards thought it necessary to field-test the new standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16) One reason we all watched the launch and failure of a giant experiment is that the Common Core and PARCC and SBAC tests were rolled out without validation and trials.
Reign of Error was published as the Common Core was being implemented across the states and before anyone knew how the Common Core standards and accompanying tests from PARCC and SBAC would work. In her 2012 book, Ravitch remained carefully neutral about what to expect: “No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them. Some scholars believe they will make no difference, and some critics say they will cost billions to implement; others say they will lead to more testing. ” (Reign of Error, p. 315)
Diane Ravitch has written a new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, to be published on January 21st. It is to be a history of several decades of corporate, accountability-based, test and punish school reform and privatization. When I read Slaying Goliath, I’ll be looking for Ravitch’s postmortem on America’s failed experiment with the Common Core State Standards.