Politics & Policy

What Ails Common Core

Most of the problems were caused by proponents’ rejecting the principles of federalism.

Earlier this week, Common Core took another blow when the Gates Foundation’s education chief, Vicki Phillips, urged states to wait two years before using Common Core tests to make decisions about teacher performance. In an open letter, Phillips argued, “No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition. . . . Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests, and offer their feedback.”

This news capped a tough couple of weeks for Common Core. South Carolina and Oklahoma have followed Indiana in abandoning the enterprise. North Carolina may be about to join them. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and other one-time supporters have become outspoken opponents. Education Week reports that just 42 percent of K–12 students are now slated to take one of the two federally supported Common Core tests next year. 

The funny thing is that Phillips’s suggestion is a sensible one (aside from the fact that it would throw a wrench in the works in those states that actually are ready to go). In other circumstances, her proposal would have been a boon to Common Core. But the political machinations of the venture’s boosters mean it’s likely instead to be just another in a series of setbacks.

Keep in mind that the Common Core state standards are just a bunch of assertions about what students should know and be able to do, at each grade level, in English-language arts and in math. Those standards matter only when used to devise tests that are then used to judge school and teacher performance — giving schools the information they need to make any necessary changes in teaching methods and texts. The standards and tests were always just infrastructure that could make it easier to compare schools’ performance, figure out what kinds of teaching techniques work best, and allow education companies to spend more time crafting good materials and less time tweaking them to match idiosyncratic state standards.

Framed this way, it’s easy to understand the endeavor’s theoretical appeal. Of course, the reality has been something else. A stealthy campaign that got 40-plus states signed on quickly and quietly, and with little public scrutiny, had unforeseen consequences. The Obama administration made Race to the Top funds and No Child Left Behind waivers contingent on states’ signing on to Common Core, fueling concerns about slippery slopes and ongoing federal involvement. Now, teachers are lashing out, amidst fears that they’ll be evaluated on tests of uncertain reliability and validity in which the various kinks have not yet been worked out.

The timeline for adopting the new Common Core tests never had an educational basis. Rather, it has been driven by promises states made to the Obama administration when seeking Race to the Top funds and NCLB waivers, and by the requirements the 2009 stimulus bill imposed when funding the Common Core testing consortia. At the same time, the Obama administration was also pushing states to adopt teacher-evaluation plans (and plenty more) on a federally mandated timeline. The administration wanted states to change their standards and tests at the same time it wanted them to use those tests to evaluate teachers in order to make decisions about pay and job security.

One needn’t be a union sympathizer to imagine that metrics should be checked out before they’re used to, for the first time, start making important decisions about whether people keep their jobs. That’s why the intuition behind Phillips’s two-year pause is sensible. At the same time, her suggestion that such a moratorium be national reflects the kind of bureaucratic, uniform timelines that have created the problem Phillips is seeking to solve. In fact, such a shift hangs out to dry those education-reform warriors — like New York commissioner of education John King — who have expended enormous political capital insisting that states use the new tests to evaluate teachers in 2015.

This pile-up could have been avoided, if proponents had more respect for federalism. If 15 or 20 states had adopted Common Core without federal encouragement, they could have proceeded at their own pace. If the Obama administration had not bullied states into adopting its preferred teacher-evaluation policies, on its preferred timeline, states could have gotten tests up and running before using them to start firing educators. Alternatively, states might have decided that changing standards and tests seemed less pressing or useful than using the existing standards and tests to roll out aggressive teacher-evaluation policies. In fact, torpedoing efforts to improve teacher evaluation could prove to be one of the unfortunate legacies of Common Core.

Common Core supporters saw federalism as an obstacle to be finessed, rather than a principle to be treasured and embraced. Aspiring technocrats saw an obligation to bludgeon as many states as possible into getting with the program, on their preferred timetable. Can Common Core boosters get things back on track? Phillips’s suggestion may help, but it’s a one-size-fits-all remedy that mirrors the mindset that has brought the enterprise to this pass. For that reason, it may prove a day late and a dollar short.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and coeditor of Common Core Meets Education Reform.


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