The Agenda

Common Core Validation Committee Member: ‘Nobody Thought There Was Sufficient Evidence’ for the Standards

It’s all too common: The backers of a broad-based political movement claim their cause is steeped in evidence, but a perusal of the research reveals more hope than substance. The Common Core education standards are a good example. As I noted last week, George Washington University’s compendium of 60+ research papers on Common Core included just two focused on the standards’ impact on student achievement, and the results were mixed at best.

The people who developed and validated the Common Core have themselves acknowledged its weak evidence base. That’s clear from an article in the November 2013 issue of the American Journal of Education. Written by two UC Santa Barbara professors, Lorraine M. McDonnell and M. Stephen Weatherford, the article features anonymous interviews with Common Core’s leading designers. The article’s purpose is academic — to analyze whether Common Core’s development fits the social-science model for how research affects policy — but it contains a lot of practical information that should inform the ongoing standards debate.

McDonnell and Weatherford are clear that research evidence did play a role in Common Core’s development, but almost all of the evidence was used either to identify problems (such as America’s poor ranking on international tests) or to generate hypotheses (for example, that higher achieving countries have superior standards). When it came time to actually write the standards, the developers could not draw from a large store of empirical evidence on what works and what doesn’t. They had little to go on except the standards of high-performing nations and the “professional judgment” of various stakeholders.

McDonnell and Weatherford give the example of learning trajectories in mathematics. While developmental psychologists have studied how sequencing affects math learning in early childhood, much less is known about learning trajectories in later years. So the standards writers asked for the “best judgments” of people who study math education. Regarding the frequent use of expert judgment in lieu of data, one Common Core developer told the authors, “We wanted to be able to cite non-peer-reviewed research because there’s not enough research available, and often the findings are inconclusive.”

Another developer said that Common Core is, scientifically, merely a work in progress: “If we waited for the perfect research to inform the development of the standards, we would never have the standards today. . . . As we move deeper and deeper into implementation . . . further research will inform future iterations of the standards.”

After the drafting stage, the validation committee also recognized that the standards were informed by intuition as much as real research. According to one committee member:

It was pretty clear from the start that nobody thought there was sufficient evidence for any of the standards. . . . The review process, in short, was inclusive and involved feedback from a lot of different perspectives. This is not ‘sufficient research evidence,’ but it is thoughtful professional judgment, applied systematically. [ellipsis in original]

The Common Core developers were warned by some researchers that the link between standards and achievement was tenuous, and that other reforms (“enabling conditions”) would be necessary to see real progress. But, in the words of McDonnell and Weatherford:

Common Core advocates understood what researchers were telling them about enabling conditions. However, during this stage of the policy process, they chose to downplay them because they would complicate the agenda at a time when a policy window was opening but might not be open for long.

None of this should be taken as evidence of a conspiracy. Common Core proponents believe in their cause and have understandably sought to portray it in the best possible light. And it’s not implausible that the standards could raise student achievement, assuming that strict accountability measures can force public schools to improve. But the truth is that we know little about the connection between standards and achievement, and it will be difficult to justify standards-based reform without knowing more. 

Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

Most Popular

Film & TV

America’s Favorite Movie

For more than a decade, readers volunteering their ratings on the movie site IMDb have declared The Shawshank Redemption (1994) their favorite film of all time. (Number two is The Godfather). Unlike the unholy tablets that are the box office charts, which are strongly linked to marketing budgets and show a ... Read More
Film & TV

America’s Favorite Movie

For more than a decade, readers volunteering their ratings on the movie site IMDb have declared The Shawshank Redemption (1994) their favorite film of all time. (Number two is The Godfather). Unlike the unholy tablets that are the box office charts, which are strongly linked to marketing budgets and show a ... Read More
Media

The Media Owe Senator Tom Cotton an Apology

One of the biggest issues people have with the mainstream press these days is that some of its members are so insulated that they end up buying into and promoting false narratives without actually checking these narratives' veracity. That seems to be exactly what happened in mid February, when major outlets ... Read More
Media

The Media Owe Senator Tom Cotton an Apology

One of the biggest issues people have with the mainstream press these days is that some of its members are so insulated that they end up buying into and promoting false narratives without actually checking these narratives' veracity. That seems to be exactly what happened in mid February, when major outlets ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Welcome Back, Plastic Bags

Single-use plastic bags are a miracle of modern technology. Cheap, light, convenient, and ubiquitous, they provide an elegant solution to a problem. If you recycle them, as most people do, and put your rubbish in them, that creates a net reduction in carbon emissions compared with buying the heavier, thicker ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Welcome Back, Plastic Bags

Single-use plastic bags are a miracle of modern technology. Cheap, light, convenient, and ubiquitous, they provide an elegant solution to a problem. If you recycle them, as most people do, and put your rubbish in them, that creates a net reduction in carbon emissions compared with buying the heavier, thicker ... Read More
U.S.

Some Good News Going into the Weekend

It’s Friday -- although I know it’s getting harder and harder to tell these days. You deserve a respite from yesterday’s gloom. (If you’re hungry for more gloom, there’s always the most recent edition of The Editors podcast -- and thank you, dear readers, for checking on me.) Today’s newsletter ... Read More
U.S.

Some Good News Going into the Weekend

It’s Friday -- although I know it’s getting harder and harder to tell these days. You deserve a respite from yesterday’s gloom. (If you’re hungry for more gloom, there’s always the most recent edition of The Editors podcast -- and thank you, dear readers, for checking on me.) Today’s newsletter ... Read More

The Didactic Plague

There are two Christian concepts on my mind on this Palm Sunday. One is theodicy, the other is the sin of presumption. “Theodicy” means “the vindication of God,” referring to a seeming conundrum that has vexed Christian thinkers since the beginning: How can evil coexist with an all-good, all-loving, ... Read More

The Didactic Plague

There are two Christian concepts on my mind on this Palm Sunday. One is theodicy, the other is the sin of presumption. “Theodicy” means “the vindication of God,” referring to a seeming conundrum that has vexed Christian thinkers since the beginning: How can evil coexist with an all-good, all-loving, ... Read More