I tried taking a break on the blog from writing about Common Core, but the issue keeps popping up. I tried avoiding writing about Common Core because in most ways it just doesn’t matter. Let me try to describe why I think this annoying but persistent issue doesn’t matter (and after that I’ll suggest why it still does matter ):
1) Common Core doesn’t matter because standards mostly don’t matter. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution illustrated this point simply and convincingly in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education. Loveless examines variation in the alleged quality of existing state standards to see if higher quality standards are related to academic performance on the NAEP. They aren’t. In fact, the correlation between the Fordham Institute’s rating of state standards and NAEP performance is -.06. Somehow that fact never seems to come up when Fordham is invoked in defense of the quality of Common Core. Loveless also demonstrates that there is no relationship between “performance standards” (the rigor of cut scores on state tests) and NAEP performance. Loveless concludes:
Don’t let the ferocity of the oncoming debate fool you. The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.
Standards mostly don’t matter because they are just a bunch of vague words in a document. What teachers actually do when they close their classroom door is in no way controlled by those words. Changing the words in a standards document is very unlikely to dramatically change what teachers do. As Loveless puts it:
Education leaders often talk about standards as if they are a system of weights and measures—the word “benchmarks” is used promiscuously as a synonym for standards. But the term is misleading by inferring that there is a real, known standard of measurement. Standards in education are best understood as aspirational, and like a strict diet or prudent plan to save money for the future, they represent good intentions that are not often realized….
The intended curriculum is embodied by standards; it is what governments want students to learn. The differences articulated by state governments in this regard are frequently trivial. Bill Gates is right that multiplication is the same in Alabama and New York, but he would have a difficult time showing how those two states—or any other two states—treat multiplication of whole numbers in significantly different ways in their standards documents…. The implemented curriculum is what teachers teach. Whether that differs from state to state is largely unknown; what is more telling is that it may differ dramatically from classroom to classroom in the same school. Two fourth-grade teachers in classrooms next door to each other may teach multiplication in vastly different ways and with different degrees of effectiveness. State policies rarely touch such differences.
Common Core standards, like other standards reforms, are unlikely to have much of an effect on this enormous variation in what teachers actually teach, how they teach it, and how effective they are. That variation in actual practice is what causes variation in performance, not a bunch of vague words in a document.
2) The Common Core folks hope to address the ineffectiveness of standards by linking those standards to newly designed assessments and then attaching consequences for individual teachers to those standards-based assessments. But the level of centralized control over teaching practice to make this work is a political impossibility. The PLDD crowd may have gotten almost all states to embrace Common Core standards by dangling federal money and regulatory relief in front of them in the midst of a financial crisis since, again, those standards are just a bunch of vague words in a document. But getting states to adopt the newly designed assessments is proving more difficult. And attaching any meaningful consequences for individual teachers to the results of those new assessments is proving virtually impossible.
The success of Common Core depends on building a centralized machine of assessment and consequences linked to the national standards. There is no significant political constituency supporting this effort to make sure it is adopted and sustained over time. Teachers and their unions hate it. Advantaged parents (the ones with political power) also hate it as they see the the schools and teachers they love lose their autonomy and become cogs in a centralized machine unresponsive to the particular needs and interests of those advantaged parents. Other than the PLDD crowd in their alphabet soup of reform organizations, who will advocate for and sustain meaningful performance pay for teachers where performance is defined as compliance with centralized mandates? No one. And that’s why Common Core will be a political loser.
If Common Core is largely unimportant because it is just a bunch of vague words that can never impose the centralized political control to make those words meaningful, why is it still important?
1) Common Core is important because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies. It will probably take about a decade for the failure of Common Core to become obvious to its most important backers. Until that time Common Core is consuming the lion’s-share of reform oxygen and resources.
2) Common Core is inducing reformers to ignore and even denigrate choice-based reforms because they have to deny one of the central arguments for choice — that there is a legitimate diversity of views on how and what our children should be taught that choice can help address. If Common Core folks have any support left for choice it is to allow parents to choose the school that can best implement the centrally determined education content. You can choose which McDonalds franchise you frequent so that they can compete to make the best Big Mac for you, but you are out of luck if you prefer pizza.
3) Common Core enthusiasts support granting dramatically more power to the federal government over education to improve the odds that their centralized machine can be built and implemented. Even after that fails, the precedence for greater federal involvement will remain, further eroding our decentralized system of education that has long produced benefits through Tiebout choice.
4) Common Core is providing license to all sorts of crazy and contradictory local policies. Districts are cutting literature, pushing back Algebra, increasing constructivist approaches, reducing constructivist approaches… all in the name of Common Core. When parents and local voters complain, the schools dodge accountability by claiming (perhaps falsely) that Common Core made them do it. A big danger of trying to build a centralized system of controlling schools is that local education leaders will blame the central authority for whatever unpopular thing they choose to do. It’s like the local Commissar blaming shortages on the central authority rather than his own pilfering. It shifts the blame.
5) Common Core is bringing out the worst in many of its advocates — people who are not naturally inclined to be hypocrites, sycophants, and dissemblers, but who cannot resist becoming so because of the lure of power, money, and the need to remain relevant. If you need examples of this, well, you probably haven’t been reading this blog.