(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.