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A Bureaucrat’s ‘C’

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Grading the Common Core

It wasn’t controversial in the beginning. By 2012, almost every state in the country had adopted the “Common Core” standards for their school systems. Common Core enjoyed the support not only of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but of Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Bill Bennett, and Chris Christie.

It still does. Now, though, it also faces increasing criticism — some of it from the left, but most of it from the right. Many of the conservative critics say Common Core is Obama’s plan for a federal takeover of education. They call it “ObamaCore,” a play on the popular name for his health-care law. They say that far from raising academic standards, as advertised, Common Core will devalue the learning of facts in favor of progressive educational fads.

The critics are gaining ground. The Republican National Committee has passed a resolution condemning Common Core as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Several states with Republican governments have halted their participation.

Defenders of Common Core see the critics as an ignorant rabble. Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times and now a columnist for it, recently called it “arguably the most serious educational reform of our lifetime” and described its enemies as “the very loud, often paranoid, if-that-Kenyan-socialist-in-the-White-House-is-for-it-I’m-against-it crowd.”

Republican supporters of Common Core, while usually more measured in their description of the opponents, say that critics on the right are turning their backs on the longstanding conservative cause of raising standards. They also say that the criticisms are mistaken: The Common Core is not a federal takeover, because state adoption of it is “totally voluntary,” and the standards are academically rigorous.

The argument over Common Core is quickly becoming one of those heated debates in which both sides mostly talk past each other, motives are subject to attack, and little attention gets paid to a basic question: Can it work? Can we help students learn more by getting the states to agree to a uniform set of high standards?

Like a lot of well-intentioned government initiatives, the proposal for a “common core” in state education standards began as an attempt to solve a problem that had been created by a previous well-intentioned government initiative.

In 2002, a bipartisan majority in Congress enacted President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act. Its central provision was a requirement that states, as a condition of getting federal funding for their schools, develop “accountability systems” to achieve goals for students’ “proficiency” in math and reading. An increasing percentage of students was supposed to be proficient each year.

The idea was to strike a balance between the federal and state governments. The federal government wanted to see some results for its spending, but out of deference to local control would allow states to define “proficiency” and determine how to get their students to it.

One way a lot of states chose to reach proficiency was to define it downward. Many states were thus able to post gains in “proficiency” even while their kids’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of a national sample of students, stagnated.

Many people frustrated with the state of American primary education concluded from this experience that all the states needed to be judged against the same yardsticks for what students in each grade should know and be able to do. Again the idea was that there would be a balance, but a different one. The standards would be common but not federal: States would adopt them on their own. And the standards would not amount to a national curriculum: Different states, and different school districts within states, could find their own ways to help students reach the standards.

Conservative proponents of a common core of standards argue that it complements other school-reform strategies, including school choice. Parents will be able to see how well their schools are doing in comparison with other schools in the area. Voters will be able to see it, too, and to compare their states with other states. State governments would not be able to game the comparison. School districts and states, voters and parents, could also learn, by looking at how well the standards were being met in various places, which approaches and reforms worked and which did not.

Another advantage of common standards, especially touted by school reformer Michelle Rhee’s organization Students First, is that it makes life easier for kids who move from one state to another. A fourth-grader who moves from Wyoming to Georgia will know the same things as his new classmates and be ready for the next lessons.

Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation has helped fund the development and promotion of Common Core, made two more arguments for common standards in a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal. First, “it’s ludicrous to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different.” Second, common standards would enable a national market in textbooks that would make them more affordable.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers took the lead in developing the Common Core standards. Janet Napolitano and Sonny Perdue, then respectively the Democratic governor of Arizona and the Republican governor of Georgia, were particularly crucial to the effort.

Under the standards that make up the Common Core these people came up with, a third-grader should be able to “conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic” and “fluently multiply and divide within 100.” A sixth-grader should know that 3(2 + x) = 6 + 3x and be able to “write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.” While the academic quality of the standards is hotly debated, the Fordham Institute, a neoconservative education-policy think tank, has reviewed them and found them superior to the standards of most states and inferior to very few.

Some of the critics of Common Core have made wild claims about it. Glenn Beck has suggested that it will lead to mandatory iris scans for schoolchildren. It’s true that three schools in Florida did iris scans as part of an experimental program for school-bus safety; it’s not true it had anything to do with Common Core. Arizona legislators considering Common Core got e-mails saying that it would outlaw private schools and charter schools. This too is false.

Arne Duncan, the education secretary, said in early September that the critics are “lying” when they say that the federal government “developed or mandated” the standards. He urged journalists to call them on it. It is certainly true that the federal government does not mandate use of the standards, and anyone who says otherwise is at least misinformed.

But it’s also misleading to say that state adoption of the Core is wholly voluntary. The federal government has supported Common Core and encouraged states to get on board. The “Race to the Top” program, in which the Education Department gave money to states it deemed to have strong reform plans, gave states points for signing up. Duncan has also given states waivers from the proficiency requirements of No Child Left Behind — thus letting them keep getting federal education money — in return for adopting the Core. The 2012 Democratic platform gave President Obama credit for getting so many states to participate.

The distinction between common standards and a national curriculum is also less clear-cut than the reassuring spin from Core supporters would have it. The more detailed the standards, the more they will specify in what order teachers will teach what topics: In other words, they will be a curriculum.

There are also a range of questions about the benefits of common standards that the debate has mostly not considered. Gates may be right that multiplication is not different across the country; but it’s not different around the world, either, and that doesn’t mean that it is important to set policy for math instruction at the global level. In a 2012 report for the Brookings Institution, Tom Loveless made a number of points that ought to make us skeptical about the benefits that common national standards will yield.

First, differences among state standards are often overstated. States do not, in fact, “treat multiplication of whole numbers in significantly different ways in their standards documents.” Second, variation in educational attainment within states is much greater than variation among states. Third, there is no correlation between the rigor of a state’s standards and its educational outcomes.

The problem that diversity among states poses for kids who move also seems overblown. How many people do you know who say they never caught up in school because of a move or two?

Michael McShane, who studies education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a visiting fellow), is not a foe of the Common Core — but he too raises some doubts about its likelihood of success. It is not clear, for example, that anything close to adequate steps are being taken to make sure that teachers will be prepared for the new standards. Teacher-preparation programs generally emphasize “the development of a worldview” rather than the acquisition of specific skills and knowledge; they may not be a good fit for the new standards. Professional-development programs will have to equip existing teachers for the standards, but there is not much evidence that these programs are effective.

He points out, as well, that any textbook or other instructional material can be labeled “Common Core–aligned” by the company selling it. Schools might think they are implementing the Common Core when they aren’t; and they could then misinterpret test results, for example blaming poor scores on teachers instead of the choice of textbooks.

McShane wonders, finally, if the original vision behind Common Core will prove politically sustainable. What happens when test scores dip as a result of new, higher standards? Will parents and teachers quietly resolve to do better, and will voters push legislators for new reforms that raise scores? Or will school systems and states just lower their cut scores and say that they’re meeting the new standards?

The only way to truly ensure uniformity of standards — uniformity in practice, that is, not just on paper — is to have a central organization in charge of enforcing it. McShane notes that centralization will be needed for other purposes too, such as updating the standards over time. So either the fears of loss of state autonomy that the critics keep warning about will have to be realized, or the benefits that the supporters seek won’t be. Either way, the idea behind Common Core, of state-led uniformity, will disintegrate.

Common Core is not a conspiracy. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It could well end up wasting the time and energy of education reformers for a decade without doing much for students. And it may be that the reformers should face a truth that both No Child Left Behind and Common Core tried to deny: that there just is not much that can be done at the national level to improve primary education.

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