A Modest Proposal on State Standards

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(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago while serving as a VP at the Goldwater Institute I received a request to come out hard against the adoption of Common Core standards in Arizona. I didn’t know whether it would have mattered or not but the request originated from people who I continue now to hold in a great deal of respect. I considered the matter very carefully.  I had deep misgivings regarding Common Core at the time, the most serious of which was the governance of the standards over time. At the time I was of the opinion that unless Ben Bernanke took up the task of governing the standards that it would inevitably follow that Common Core would eventually result in the Great American Dummy Down.

Nevertheless in the end I decided not to oppose Arizona’s adoption of Common Core standards.  Regardless of how bad Common Core started out or later became, Arizona simply had nothing to lose.  Arizona had just about every testing problem you could imagine- dummied down cut scores, massive teaching to test items, and something at least in the direct vicinity of outright fraud by state officials regarding the state’s testing system. Our state scores had “improved” substantially through a combination of lowered cut scores and teaching to the test items, but NAEP showed Arizona scoring below the national average on every single test and precious little progress. The status quo was worse than a waste of time.

I spent some years repeatedly pointing out this enormous flaws in the Arizona testing system. I was not willing to turn around and wrap myself in the Arizona flag to pretend these tests and standards were somehow sacred because they were developed out here in our humble patch of cactus. Now if I were living in one of the states with high and rising NAEP scores with cut scores near NAEP proficiency, my calculus would have been quite different. I would have died on a hill fighting the adoption of Common Core.

Very few states however qualify for this lofty status. Most state standards and tests qualified as meh or worse than meh. I decided that if I were to draw up a list of the top 10 education problems facing Arizona, that Common Core adoption wouldn’t make the list.

Arizona adopted Common Core as a direct response to the prospect of getting Race to the Top money which we did not ultimately win. Common Core remains however the default, and quite frankly, the main arguments being made against it these days are not compelling enough to make many reasonable people want to reject it. To briefly summarize:

1. The United States Supreme Court Decision on Obamacare fundamentally altered the odds of a “lock in.” A few years ago murmuring in Washington raised the eery prospect of making major federal education spending programs like Title I contingent on Common Core adoption. Not only did this not happen, the Supreme Court enormously complicated the already dim prospect for such a move. My understanding of the Obamacare decision would in fact make it unconstitutional to deny Title I funds to a state choosing not to participate in Common Core.

The Congress could in theory come up with a new funding stream for purposes of bribing/incentivizing state action or could even perhaps pass a tax upon the citizens of states not adopting Common Core a la the individual mandate. Let’s face it though, one can only describe the prospects of either of these things happening as quite dim-somewhere in the vicinity of an extinction inducing asteroid strike in the short to medium term.

States therefore remain free to drop Common Core at their leisure. The dozen or so states having won RTTT money might face some delays in doing so, but Common Core is hardly an issue that any President is likely to call out the National Guard over.  States voluntarily joined (albeit with many seeking RTTT money) but they also remain free to withdraw. This is fundamentally different from the old “Fiscal Blackmail” scenarios of 55 mile per hour speed limits and 21-year-old drinking ages. States can leave Common Core without federal penalty.

The Obamacare decision also largely addresses the chief concern that I have expressed: a great national dummy down of the Common Core. If it happens, states can leave. It’s not clear whether the threat of states leaving will lean against the dummy down.

2. The latest fad to sweep the Common Core debate involves horrified concerns that Common Core is going to drive literature out of schools. I don’t however presume to know the “right” balance of fictional and informational texts and like most scare stories there is less to this one than meets the jaundiced eye seeing everything as yellow.

People do have varying preferences over such things though, making these sorts of disagreements inevitable. Still, nothing close to compelling enough to make me want to switch Arizona back to the failed AIMS regime.

Common Core opponents therefore have a fundamental problem: Common Core is now the default in 45 states and superficial scare stories may be jolly good fun to spread but aren’t likely to prove to be of much utility. Common Core opponents therefore should consider a new strategy. I suggest a Constructive Vote of No Confidence.

Common Core opponents have painted themselves into a corner of being defacto in favor of preserving joke standards and tests, including some that you can pass by signing your name while blindfolded. The way to escape this trap is not just to be against Common Core but in fact in favor of something else. Something better.

In short, if I were sitting on the State Board of Education in Arizona and someone brought a motion to pull Arizona out of the Common Core effort in preference to our bad joke status quo, I would vote no. If however the suggestion was that we pull out of Common Core and instead adopt the Massachusetts standards, I could very comfortably vote yes.

Mind you, it would be a struggle to adopt MA standards in AZ, and we might not prove up to the task. The same it true of Common Core. Plus the MA standards are battle tested and I would prefer to have a group of people running the show that I can actually talk to, beat up in the press and vote against. Democracy has it’s faults, but I’ll take my chances with it.

Regardless of which side of the Common Core debate you stand on, you should not labor in defense of the indefensible status-quo of many state testing regimes. Last year for instance, the Mississippi legislature debated charter school legislation. Suburban superintendents were able to exclude their districts and then ultimately kill the legislation based upon the rather incredible notion that their fantastic districts did not need charter schools. Suburban Mississippi imagines itself to be in possession of “good schools” which would be threatened by charters, you see.

Examination of the studies comparing NAEP and state tests however shows that you can pass the Mississippi 4th grade reading test as “proficient” with a score the equivalent of 163 on the NAEP. This score is far lower than the lowest recorded NAEP score in the recorded history of the troubled Washington DC district (179) which is itself unbelievably pathetic.  The Mississippi testing system is not only failing to produce improvement, it can be best understood as a gigantic fraud in which taxpayer dollars are actively used to deceive Mississippians into a false sense of security.

Common Core is hardly an ideal strategy to deal with this problem and there are any number of ways that it could fail. Opponents should not mistake the fact that horrible state tests and standards represent a very real problem. A constructive vote of no-confidence has the potential to create a respectable alternative to Common Core which in fact would fulfill the main purpose of Common Core.





16 Responses to A Modest Proposal on State Standards

  1. This is a false choice, Matt. People don’t have to be in favor of Common Core or defend their state’s lousy standards and tests. If we want better state standards and tests can’t we just advocate for them in each of our states? What is the advantage in advocating for the same improvement as every other state?

    The downside of making it uniform is very clear. With Common Core we lose the opportunity for a laboratory of the states — each competing with and learning from each other. And despite your reassurances, there remains a very real danger of the federal government controlling this whole process. After all, it is the feds developing and paying for the Common Core instructional materials, developing and paying for the new tests, etc…

    Lastly, standards changes are difficult and expensive — both financially and politically. Once state enter Common Core, they can’t so easily withdraw.

    • allen says:

      The flaw in your reasoning is that the states will compete with each other.

      They don’t now with the edu-crats who encumber Mississippi less concerned with raising their state in the NAEP rankings to the lofty position enjoyed by Massachusetts then they are with coming up with artful excuses for their current, embarrassing location on the ranking. It’s not like those Mississippi edu-crats have anything personally at stake, their continued employment *not* contingent on performance, so why would they exert themselves unduly to raise the state in the rankings?

      It’s the state’s, and district’s, independence that insulates those entities from worrying abut the competition. There is no competition because there’s nothing to lose. Or to win. How’s competition work when there’s no goal and no reward for reaching the goal first?

  2. matthewladner says:

    I’ll address your last point first by noting that states rather casually joined Common Core, so it seems to follow that they could withdraw as well. Given the experience with RTTT it would seem to follow that some future administration could offer up a few billion dollars to adopt the old Massachusetts standards and states would fall over themselves to adopt them. Then we could all read about a MA conspiracy to take over the country 🙂

    More broadly, if you look at this from the standpoint from a State Board of Education member who must decide whether to adopt CC or not, the question of “if not” must be considered realistically. Right now for instance your choice in Mississippi seems to be either CC or let’s just call it NAEP 163.

    If you are skeptical about CC but even more dubious about NAEP 163 then a “Plan C” is something important to have.

    • Greg Forster says:

      If you address the last point first, does that mean you’re going to address the first point at some . . . point?

      I do think it’s unfair to associate opposition to CC with support for the status quo. You wrote your post as if no CC critics were offering constructive alternatives, but many are.

      On another topic, won’t it be difficult to push for adoption of Massachusetts standards in other states now that Massachusetts has dropped them? I mean, isn’t there kind of a built-in argument against it that’s hard to deny?

      Even if I concede that federal coercion is no longer as much of a threat as it was (I have to agree that the Obamacare decision does mitigate it), the damage done by federal coercion up to this point is extensive. The world does not begin anew every morning.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        We could indeed advocate for good state standards state by state and it is what a constructive vote of no confidence strategy would entail. It isn’t what we see going on now.

        I think that the fact that MA achieved the highest NAEP scores in all four main tests with their standards and tests is enough to make it obvious that the state made an odd choice in choosing to discard them.

  3. MG says:

    Matt: not so fast. We in MA want to charge royalties to the other 49.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      And thus begins the conspiracy theory! Just remember- there are other states with good standards/tests so don’t get too greedy. 🙂

      • MG says:

        I read “Winner Take All Economy” a long time ago back in the day. People will pay a premium for #1 baby.

  4. Dave Saba says:

    I was going to comment but then, ever so suddenly, I realized that those against will always be against and those for will always be for – and no amount of reasoning, logic, data or common sense will ever sway one side to see even the most remote chance of success for the other.

    So in keeping with the holiday spirit – regardless of your standards – lets just focus on a great 2013 for students!

    Now off to find a decent single malt and a great cigar. Cheers my friends!

  5. […] as of the rest of society). As Foundation for Excellence in Education research czar Matthew Ladner noted earlier this week in his own piece on Common Core, reformers should not “labor in the […]

    • Jim says:

      As usual, Ladner the Jeb-usite is just whoring himself for the paycheck. Jebbie-poo snaps his fingers and Ladner says “yes, master…of course I will carry your Common Core standard” and abandons what he said at many a drinking binge were his values. Ladner is for hire…no messy principles worth standing up for to the Jeb that holds his leash.

  6. […] Matthew Ladner wrote a guest post at Jay P. Greene’s blog today that lays out a false choice either support the Common Core State Standards or support status quo where in some states their standards were a joke. […]

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