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.