One person’s view of Common Core

Please read another guest blog post, this one from Bill Whipple of S.A.F.E (Secure America’s Future Economy)

8/5/13 – Will Common Core standards enhance US education?

A recurring theme in this space has been that a free market beats central planning for making economic decisions, any day of the week.

Private firms create productive jobs, not governments.  Energy sources should be chosen based on supply and demand, not theories about what is “best” for the planet.  Healthcare subsidies are pointless because they are offset by cost increases.

And, of particular relevance to this week’s entry, control over education should be decentralized with parents enjoying a range of options as to where and how their children are educated.  See the Education page of this website.

But assuming our bias for decentralized decision-making is justified, couldn’t there be some exceptions?  After all, many human undertakings require highly structured thinking and action.  Ask non-experts to send a rocket to Mars, fight a war half way around the world, or map the human genome – and the project may fall flat.

Perhaps a hybrid approach is needed, in which experts use “smart design” to revamp economic systems and facilities.  The result, to borrow a line about the US Navy from The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, could be “master plan[s] designed for geniuses for execution by idiots.”  But to pacify the rank and file, this isn’t wartime after all, they could be given a bit of leeway in running things.

As a test case, this week’s entry will review the current push to implement “Common Core” educational standards across the country, thereby remaking the US education system.  Our analysis follows in point, counterpoint, assessment style.

POINT: How could one argue against providing “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn” so that “teachers and parents know what they need to do to help”?  The CC standards “are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world” and to provide “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.”  All to the end that American students will be “fully prepared for the future,” and “our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”  Amen!, (Mission Statement).

Far from being a federal power grab (see Frequently Asked Questions), the CC initiative is state-led.  Indeed, the two organizations providing oversight are the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  Currently, 45 of the 50 states (all except Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia) are shown as having adopted the standards.

Other supporters include Achieve, Inc, ACT, the College Board, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Hunt Institute, the National Parent Teacher Association, the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the American Association of School Administrators, and the Business Roundtable.

Teachers, parents, school administrators, state leaders, and experts from across the country provided input into the development of the CC standards.  Among the factors considered were (A) the “best and highest state standards in existence in the US,” (B) the expectations of “other high performing countries around the world,” and (C) “careful study of the research and literature available on what students need to know and be able to do to be successful in college and careers.”  The standards are described as “evidence-based . . . aligned with college and work expectations . . .  [including] rigorous content and skills . . .  realistic and practical for the classroom.”

Having CC standards versus varying standards, it is said, will give all students (wherever they may live) “the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate with their peers” in the US and elsewhere.  Also, interstate collaboration will be facilitated re (1) “development of textbooks, digital media and other teaching materials,” (2) “development and implementation of common comprehensive assessment systems to measure student performance annually that will replace existing state testing systems,” and (3) “changes needed to help support educators and schools in teaching to the new standards.”

The CC standards (by grade level, K-12) apply for English language arts and mathematics.  For now, at least, the NGA and CCSSO are not sponsoring the development of common standards for science, world languages, or the arts.

• English language arts: the CC standards require certain critical content for all students, including: (i) classic myths and stories from around the world; (ii) America’s Founding Documents; (iii) foundational American literature; and (iv) Shakespeare. “The remaining crucial decisions about what content should be taught are left to state and local determination. In addition to content coverage, the [CC standards] require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.” There are illustrative texts, but no set reading list.

• Mathematics: the CC standards lay a solid foundation in: (i) whole numbers, (ii) addition, (iii) subtraction, (iv) multiplication, (v) division, (vi) fractions, and (vii) decimals. “Taken together, these elements support a student’s ability to learn and apply more demanding math concepts and procedures. The middle school and high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges; they prepare students to think and reason mathematically.”

Other noteworthy statements about the CC standards include the following:

(1) The federal government was NOT involved in their development. and will play no role in their implementation.  Unlike No Child Left Behind, the standards are completely voluntary.

(2) “The standards establish what students need to learn, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.” However, the standards will “[guide] educators toward curricula and teaching strategies that will give students a deep understanding of the subject and the skills they need to apply their knowledge.”

(3) “The National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), among other organizations were instrumental in bringing together teachers to provide specific, constructive feedback on the standards.”

(4) The standards “will not prevent different levels of achievement among students [emphasis added], but they will ensure more consistent exposure to materials and learning experiences through curriculum, instruction, and teacher preparation among other supports for student learning.”

(5) There are no data collection requirements.  The standards simply “define expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade,” “The means of assessing students and the data that results from those assessments are up to the discretion of each state.”  However, “two consortia of states” – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) – “are developing common assessments.”  Down the road, it is visualized that the state-led consortia on assessment will “allow for comparison across students, schools, districts, states and nations.”

COUNTERPOINT: Enthusiasm for the CC standards is not universal, and some states that adopted them in 2010 are having second thoughts now – especially re development of testing procedures to demonstrate compliance.  Is Common Core failing the test?  Stephanie Simon, Politico, 7/23/13.

Georgia dropped out of the testing collaboration on Monday, saying it would create its own exams instead. Pennsylvania, Alabama, Oklahoma and Utah have already withdrawn. There are strong indications that Florida and Indiana will be next. *** The Michigan Legislature has effectively nixed the new tests by blocking spending on them, though the ban may be revisited next fall. New York is officially undecided but it’s already spending heavily on alternatives. *** And analysts expect more defections to come.

One explanation for this backlash is that the CC standards are strong medicine, which some educators are resisting because they will be so tough to meet.

[The retreat] could signal a return of the mindset that prevailed last decade, with some states dumbing down standardized tests so their schools would look successful *** “To the extent that we end up with 50 different exams and 50 different definitions of proficiency, we’re right back where we started,” said Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a firm supporter of the new exams.

Business leaders tend to support the CC standards as a necessary step in bringing US students up to snuff.  Common Core can make America competitive, John Engler (the Business Roundtable), Washington Times, 7/22/13.

US students are falling behind their international peers in reading, math and science. But there’s hope — the state and local adoption of the [CC standards] provide the best opportunity in a generation for understanding the gap, reversing this decline and putting all students on the right path. The [CC standards] have the support of America’s business leaders, and these standards should have the support of any American who wants to ensure our country and our children are ready to compete in the 21st century global marketplace.

Other observers predict that a “set tough standards and enforce them” approach won’t work – any more than previous educational fads, of which No Child Left Behind is only the latest– because educators will find ways to sabotage the effort.  Reality hits Sunshine State “accountability,” Neal McCluskey, Cato Institute, 7/23/13.

Once again, we have to visit our ol’ buddies, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Put simply, the people with the most at stake in a policy area will have the greatest motivation to be involved in the politics of that area, and in education those are the schooling employees whose very livelihoods come from the system. And being normal people like you or me, what they tend to ideally want is to get compensated as richly as possible while not being held accountable for their performance.

It has also been suggested that the CC standards are not so tough anyway.  Consider these examples cited by Karen Schroeder, an experienced teacher and educational consultant.  Common Core: Statist to the core,, 7 /19/13.

• Dozens of standards that are far more rigorous than [the CC standards] are free and available on the internet. States have always had access to them. When one compares TIMSS math standards for fourth graders to those of Common Core for the same grade level, it becomes painfully obvious that [the CC standards] are not the rigorous standards promised. *** Most math skills required under TIMSS at fourth grade can be found under the CC standards for fifth grade.

• [The CC standards are] peppered with standards like this one for nine-year olds in fourth grade: “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others”. Most teachers would ask themselves: What is a viable argument appropriate for a nine-year-old child? What happens when a non-conformist refuses to critique a classmate/friend? What remediation will be provided? Will that remediation help the creative child learn to use non-conformity in a productive manner? How will this standard be assessed or tested for mastery?

Here are more examples from another source.  The Common Core: A poor choice for states, Joy Pullman, Heartland Institute, May 2013. (download PDF)

• . . . former U.S. Department of Education official and mathematician Ze’ev Wurman has said Core math standards would graduate students “below the admission requirement of most four-year state colleges.” He has particularly criticized that the Core pushes algebra back to grade 9, “contrary to the practice of the highest- achieving nations,” which begin algebra in grade 8.

• University of Arkansas professor and reading expert Sandra Stotsky served on the Core’s validation committee but, along with four other committee members, refused to sign it. One of her reasons: The standards writers refused to provide evidence that research supports the Core and that it is benchmarked to international tests. She says the Core’s “hard to follow,” “low-quality” English language arts standards constitute “simply empty skill sets.”

• California recently announced the new Common Core tests mean a shift away from fill-in-the- bubble tests and toward measuring “creative thinking.”  Last time the state did that, it literally meant tests asked students to doodle and conduct group discussions. This sort of testing and emphasis has not only been shown to particularly and permanently keep poor and minority students behind, it moves education from the pursuit of knowledge to social engineering.

While rote learning can certainly be overemphasized, there are indications that the CC standards go to the opposite extreme.  Common Core’s abstract disability; the latest educational fad won’t boost American competitiveness, David Craig, Washington Times, 7/12/13.

• It won’t be enough to know how many miles away the moon is from Earth. The poor student will also have to explain how that figure is derived.

• According to the Maryland Common Core “Standards for Mathematical Practice,” first-graders are expected to “decontextualize — to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents — and the ability to contextualize, to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved.” [What the heck does that mean, and will it really be useful in teaching seven-year-olds?]

Last but not least, the claim that the CC standards are not a federal initiative is false.  These standards have been strongly backed by the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and their adoption by most states in 2010 was procured by using federal funds as a bribe. Common Core: the “state-led” myth,, 5/2/13,

On February 22, [2010,] President Obama in a speech revealed his intent to tie all Title I funding to this same Common Core commitment, essentially cutting off nearly all federal education funding to states that opt out. A March, 2010, DOE report stated that this cut off would occur by 2015.

In March of 2010, two months after [“Race to the Top”] applications had been received committing states to the standards, the first draft of Common Core was finally released by NGA and CCSSO.

ASSESSMENT: Proponents of the CC standards (Side A) assert that these standards are needed to reverse the slippage in US educational standards. This view has been recapped already, along with the views of critics (Side B).  Now, being as objective about the matter as we can, it’s time to consider which side is right.

We would begin by observing that some of Side A’s claims seem disingenuous. 

# The CC standards were not developed by the states, but rather commissioned by a handful of nonprofit entities (notably the Gates Foundation, see the college-ready education strategy overview on their website with a national and/or global policy bent.

# Don’t deny it, the federal government has strongly backed this initiative using federal education funds as a bargaining chip to encourage “voluntary” state adoption of the standards.

# If the standards do not involve new data collection and testing requirements, i.e., are simply meant to provide a useful reference point, why are “two state consortia” at work to develop “common assessments?”  It seems more likely that changes in data collection and testing were contemplated from the outset, even though execution was deferred.

There seems to be a tendency to dismiss CC standard critics instead of considering their substantive points.

# Numerous organizations and segments of the population are identified as supporters on the CC standards website.   Political leaders – school administrators – teachers – parents – educational policy – higher education – industry.    Seemingly no thinking person could be against the standards or have other ideas meriting consideration.

# And then, when critics do surface, Side A tends to characterize them as ill informed or obstructionist.  Here’s a case in point.

The CC standards in Delaware and related topics were discussed at a civic forum on July 30, organized by the Delaware Education Reform Coalition and the Caesar Rodney Institute, with about 100 people in attendance.  Comments about the standards were critical, but seemed generally objective and factual.  Delaware chatter, 7/31/13.

In a subsequent opinion column, a Delaware educator said “a small group of activists in Delaware” had “tried to rally support against the standards, claiming they take away local oversight.”  Delaware Chatter, 8/2/13.

Left unsaid was that the panelists did not simply challenge the proposed use of the CC standards in Delaware (which might be seen as obstructionist); they also suggested some positive and practical alternatives.

As Jim Hosley of the Caesar Rodney Institute explained, DE per pupil costs are high by national standards yet DE public school test scores are low (even in comparison to other states, never mind internationally).  We need to do much, much better!

Teachers are not permitted to fail students (not many of them anyway), the panelists pointed out, so the CC standards would inevitably be dumbed down to accommodate the situation.  Delaware- public schools will remain mediocre unless and until they feel the heat of real competition because parents/students have effective educational options.

Another idea for improving results is to ensure that more of the educational budget gets to the classroom. As SAFE member Jack Wells explained, speaking from the audience, too much of the money is going to support administrative bloat.  Many Delawareans might find his well-documented findings of interest.

It is far from apparent that the CC standards offer the potential for a step change improvement in educational results.

We have not studied the CC standards, let alone compared them to other educational standards, but Side B has identified some significant flaws.  See the Counterpoint examples above, e.g., the gem about first graders being expected to “decontextualize” and “contextualize.”

In any case, the adoption of standards does not determine educational results – as shown by the widely varying results at schools within states with statewide standards.  To change educational results, one must necessarily change how students are taught.  Heartland, op cit. (download PDF).

A series of data analyses from the left-leaning Brookings Institution found no link between high state standards and high student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” says the latest such report.

CONCLUSION: The critics are spot on.  It’s time to give CC standards the boot and get the Feds out of the classroom.

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