Politics & Policy

Common Core’s Five Big Half-Truths

For starters: What does “evidence-based” really mean?

School is back in session, and debate over the Common Core is boiling away in key states. As governors and legislators debate the fate of the Common Core, they hear repeated five impressive claims that Core advocates lay out: that their handiwork is “internationally benchmarked,” “evidence-based,” “college- and career-ready,” and “rigorous,” and that the nations that perform best on international tests all have national standards.

In making these claims, advocates go on to dismiss skeptics as ignorant extremists who are happy to settle for mediocrity. The thing is, once examined, these claims are far less compelling than they appear at first glance. They’re not false so much as grossly overstated. Herewith, a handy cheat sheet for putting the Common Core talking points in context.

Internationally benchmarked: Advocates tout their handiwork as “internationally benchmarked.” By this they mean that the committees that penned the Common Core paid particular attention to the standards of countries that fare well on international tests. It’s swell that they did so, but benchmarking usually means comparing one’s performance with another’s — not just borrowing some attractive ideas. What the Common Core authors did is more “cutting-and-pasting” than “benchmarking.” Some experts even reject the notion that the standards are particularly good when compared with those of other nations. Marina Ratner, professor emerita of math at the University of California, Berkeley, and winner of the 1993 international Ostrowski Prize, has written:

The most astounding statement I have read is the claim that Common Core standards are “internationally benchmarked.” They are not. The Common Core fails any comparison with the standards of high-achieving countries. . . . They are lower in the total scope of learned material, in the depth and rigor of the treatment of mathematical subjects, and in the delayed and often inconsistent and incoherent introductions of mathematical concepts and skills.  

Evidence-based: Advocates celebrate the Common Core as “evidence-based.” The implication is that whereas we used to make things up as we went along, decisions about why students must learn this and not that in fourth grade are now backed by scientific research. In fact, what advocates mean is that the standards take into account surveys asking professors and hiring managers what they thought high-school graduates should know, as well as examinations of which courses college-bound students usually take. The fact is that it’s difficult for anyone to claim that evidence “proves” in which grade students should learn to calculate the area of a triangle or compare narrative styles. Vanderbilt professor Lynn Fuchs has put it well, noting that there is no “empirical basis” for the Common Core. “We don’t know yet whether it makes sense to have this particular set of standards,” she explains. “We don’t know if it produces something better or even different from what it was before.” Looking at evidence is grand, but what the Common Core’s authors did falls well short of what “evidence-based” typically means.  

College- and career-ready: Advocates claim that the Common Core standards will ensure that students are “college- and career-ready.” As former Obama domestic-policy chief Melody Barnes wrote in Politico last year, “Too often, the path to a diploma is not rigorous enough to prepare our graduates for their next steps.” Critics have observed, however, that the Common Core drops certain high-school-math topics (including calculus and pre-calculus, about half of Algebra II, and parts of geometry) and moves other material to later grades. When asked whether this might leave students less prepared for advanced college math, proponents explain that the Common Core is a “floor, not a ceiling.” Achieve, Inc., a driving force behind the standards, describes the “floor,” explaining that the standards are meant make sure students can “succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing postsecondary coursework” in “community college, university, technical/vocational program[s], apprenticeship[s], or significant on-the-job training.” The result adds up to something less than the recipe for excellence that the marketing suggests. 

Rigor: Advocates declare that the Common Core is more rigorous than the state standards that previously existed. It’s actually quite challenging to objectively compare the “rigor” of standards. After all, one could insist that fifth-graders should master calculus, note that the Common Core doesn’t require this, and thus dismiss the standards as too easy — even though such an appraisal might indicate impracticality rather than rigor. The Common Core’s authors judged that the old standards had too much material but were insufficiently rigorous, which tells us that, in their view, we shouldn’t equate rigor with quantity. Thus, the question is how to weigh subtle claims of relative rigor. More often than not, the case for the Common Core’s superiority rests on the subjective judgment of four evaluators hired by the avidly pro–Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute. These four hired evaluators opined in 2010 that the Core standards were better than about three-quarters of existing state standards. Not an unreasonable judgment, but hardly compelling proof of rigor.

Leading nations have national standards: Advocates have made a major point of noting that high-performing nations all have national standards. What they’re much less likely to mention is that the world’s lowest-performing nations also all have national standards. There is no obvious causal link between national standards and educational quality. 

When it comes to the Common Core, the familiar talking points offered up by advocates deserve close scrutiny. Advocates aren’t necessarily lying, but they’ve relied upon half-truths and exaggerations that they’ve passed off as fact. As states reassess the Common Core, advocates should be challenged to offer more than stirring rhetoric and grandiose claims. As much as Common Core boosters celebrate “evidence,” they ought to be able to provide something more than, “We’re smart, and here’s what we think.”

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


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