The Brookings Report Shouldn’t Kneecap Common Core

by Patrick Brennan

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released its annual report this week, highlighting three issues they’d examined before and which remained in the political spotlight. One of them, unsurprisingly, is the Common Core — and one of their findings regarding the new education standards adopted by more than 40 states had standards opponents cheering a little more than they ought to have. “Common Core gets AWFUL review in new study,” the Daily Caller explained.

The Common Core may in fact be awful, but that’s certainly not what the Brookings review said, let alone proved. It had mixed evidence about the effectiveness of the standards: Over the past five years, states with standards most similar to the Common Core standards (as assessed by a 2012 Michigan State paper) saw somewhat weaker improvements in test scores than states with standards more dissimilar from the Common Core. But states that more vigorously implemented the Common Core over the last five years saw their scores rise more than others.

What to make of this evidence? Not much. We really have no idea, in fact, what effect the Common Core will have, or whether it’ll have a positive enough effect to have been worth the effort devoted to it and the diminishing of local control and diversity. It’s self-evidently silly to claim that five years of evidence about test scores based on one way of comparing the new standards with existing standards is going to tell us much about whether the new ones will work.

There is disappointing news here for Common Core supporters, in that Brookings reassesses a key piece of evidence Core and finds it wanting: They analyze a 2012 paper from two Michigan State scholars that argued that states with math standards like the Common Core had higher test scores than those that did not. This finding wasn’t crystal-clear at the time: It was inconclusive until the states were broken down into two groups based on divergent demographics, at which point it looked like there was a significant correlation between having Common Core–like standards and higher test scores (the scores used are from NAEP, a national assessment test).

Between 2009 and 2013, Brookings found, Common Core–like states seem to have underperformed those states with standards least like the Common Core. In addition, they point out that the positive effect the 2012 paper found for Common Core–like standards wouldn’t add up to a very useful boost over time.

But wait — states implementing Common Core less rapidly or not at all performed worse since 2009 than states that are embracing it. Except that it turns out that the data so far on that also won’t add up to impressive gains, either. When undertaking such a massive public-policy effort, it seems like there ought to be a good case for expected benefits, and these data certainly don’t do it. There is evidence that good standards can help learning — and reasons to think more national standards could even boost innovation, an argument Bill Gates made the other day at AEI. But the Brown Center report is right that the evidence for the program isn’t impressive so far.

The Brookings report’s Common Core skepticism, which isn’t new, is based on an argument that good or bad standards can’t have much effect at all, not the idea that the Common Core standards are poor quality, as a lot of conservatives have tried to contend. The standards are certainly rigorous, and set a floor, not a ceiling. People concerned about quality of standards can hardly be satisfied with defeating Common Core: Indiana, which has essentially dropped the standards, is trying out history standards for this year that look to be much worse than what they had before Common Core or when they were moving toward it. Leaving aside the actual state resources spent on raising standards, it’s reasonable to contend that ed-reform political capital may not be best used on standards — the politics of Common Core look to be getting ever more fraught. 

Lest we give the rest of the report short shrift, it had enlightening points about two other issues: They cover the controversy over the fact that the most prominent international standardized-test regime, a test run by the OECD called PISA, allows China to test just its urban residents — Shanghai, specifically – and makes no mention of the fact that the country has a coercive internal passport system that prevents much of the country from accessing Shanghai education in the first place. This comes in for some justified criticism from Brookings (Jason Richwine has made some critiques of PISA on NRO – it’s important to recognize the flaws with it, given the amount of attention and America’s-not-No. 1 handwringing PISA results produce every year).

And second, referring back to Ladies’ Home Journal editor (and grandfather of well-loved Harvard president Derek Bok) Edward Bok’s jeremiad against homework from 1900, Brookings looks at whether American kids are in fact getting more and more homework, as at least the media would have you believe – it turns out the data don’t support this. Statistically, parents are generally happy with the amount of homework their kids get, and are more likely to say it’s too little rather than too much.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.