Common Core and the Underpants Gnomes

It’s amazing how some very smart people can commit billions of dollars and  untold human effort to something like Common Core without having thought the thing through.  How exactly did they think this was going to work?  Didn’t they have meetings?  Didn’t someone have to write a paper articulating the theory of change?  Didn’t any of them ever take political science classes or read a book on interest group behavior?

As I have repeatedly said would eventually happen, the teacher unions are turning against Common Core in New York and threatening to do the same in other states if high stakes tests aligned to those standards are put in place.  And the unions are more powerful, better organized, and even better-funded than the Gates Foundation and their mostly DC-based defenders of Common Core.  So Common Core will either have to drop the high-stakes tests meant to compel teachers and schools to implement the standards, or Common Core will become yet another set of empty words in a document, like most sets of standards before them.

Here is what I expected would happen and I believe is coming true:

As I have written and said on numerous occasions, Common Core is doomed regardless of what I or the folks at Fordham say or do.  Either Common Core will be “tight” in trying to compel teachers and schools through a system of aligned assessments and meaningful consequences to change their practice.  Or Common Core will be “loose” in that it will be a bunch of words in a document that merely provide advice to educators.

Either approach is doomed.  If Common Core tries being tight by coercing teachers and schools through aligned assessments and consequences, it will be greeted by a fierce organized rebellion from educators.  It’ll be Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and their army of angry teachers who will drive a stake through the heart of Common Core, not me or any other current critic . If Common Core tries being loose, it will be like every previous standards-based reform – a bunch of empty words in a document that educators can promptly ignore while continuing to do whatever they were doing before.

This is the impossible paradox for Common Core.  To succeed it requires more centralized coercion than is possible (or desirable) under our current political system and more coercive than organized educators will allow.  And if it doesn’t try to coerce unwilling teachers and schools, it will produce little change.

How did the political strategists at Gates and their DC advocates think this doom would be avoided?  Did they imagine that teachers and schools were starving for a good set of standards and would just embrace them once they were issued from the DC Temple in which they were written?  Did they think teachers and their unions wouldn’t politically resist an effort to compel compliance to Common Core through high stakes tests?  Did they think they could sneak up on teachers and unions and implement the whole thing before anyone would object?

I suspect that their thinking was something like the Underpants Gnomes from South Park whose business plan for  profiting from stealing underpants from kids’ drawers during the night is lacking: “Phase 1 — Collect underpants  Phase 2 — ?  Phase 3 — Profit.”  The Gates/Fordham/College Board plan must have been: Phase 1 — Write standards  Phase 2 — Incentivize states with federal carrots and sticks to engage in the empty gesture of adopting standards Phase 3 — ?  Phase 4 — Learning improves.

Even now I’d love to hear someone try to articulate Common Core’s theory of change.  And it is not sufficient to say that this is just the “hard work” of persuading teachers and schools.  It is also hard work to jump to the moon — so hard that it is impossible.  And I don’t want to hear “Remember: Undoing the #CommonCore would require 46 separate, state-led actions…”  That’s true, but states have many worthless pieces of legislation that do little to change the world.  Thirteen states still have anti-sodomy laws despite the fact that the Supreme Court struck down that type of law .

I don’t think Gates, Fordham, or anyone else really developed a plausible theory of change for Common Core.  Instead, I think they just had the type of magical thinking too common among smart DC policy analysts that if only they had good enough intentions and “messaged” the issue just right, all problems would be overcome.  Tell that to the ObamaCare folks who thought that good intentions and artful “messaging” would somehow repeal the law of adverse selection in who would sign up for the risk pools.  Our technocratic minds cannot control the behavior of other people, just by thinking about it hard, wanting good things, and talking about it a lot.

31 Responses to Common Core and the Underpants Gnomes

  1. The theory of change for standards-based reform in general (and Common Core in particular) is quite clear. It doesn’t include poorly-designed, state-mandated teacher evaluations, which was the huge unforced error here. Drop the dreadful eval policies and that solves the problem on the left. On the right, the problem can’t be solved, because Obama.

    • Do you think teacher and school behavior would change much if the CC-aligned assessments had few or no consequences for them?

      • Not as much as would be ideal. But I don’t think one has to completely gut accountability to get some reasonably strong reactions. Just roll back the bad teacher policies. We didn’t have state mandated teacher eval of any consequence for the last several decades, and instruction changed a fair amount.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      (sigh) This is exactly why you are unable to persuade critics on the right: you snarkily dismiss their very legitimate concerns as being unreasonable/imagined and having something to do with President Obama.

      That’s how this happened:

      • Neither the principled opposition on the right (which I believe exists, clearly) nor the unprincipled opposition (which I believe makes up a larger proportion) can be be persuaded to support the standards. So, trying is a waste of energy. That’s all I’m saying.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Well it’s still not “because Obama” but your reasons sound more like “because lazy” or “because smug.” There are clearly persuadables on the right (see: Hess, Rick), but CC supporters are losing them because, for the most part, they refuse to seriously address the concerns about the program.

      • We’ll have to agree to disagree on the number of persuadables. I think there are relatively few, you think there are lots.

        As for whether Republican oppo to CCSS has anything to do with Obama, you can’t tell me the oppo would be nearly this strong if we had (god forbid) President Romney. It just wouldn’t. The opposition on the left would be stronger (so I’m not saying Joe-average Republican is somehow worse in this regard than Joe-average Democrat), but it’s very, very obvious that a reasonably large proportion of the GOP opposition to this policy is because Obama pushed it.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Impossible to prove since there’s no counter-factual, but I see many on the right equally upset about Gates and Jeb Bush, so I think it’s plausible to argue that it’s not just about Obama. The right tends to be concerned about government overreach in general.

        But grassroots aside, it’s very clear that the principled opposition couldn’t care less who holds the Oval Office. Given that you’re posting on a wonky blog and not a Tea Party website, the “because Obama” complaint was particularly misplaced.

      • I strongly suspect that the neutering of Common Core will come from the teacher unions and the Left, not the anti-Obama Right.

      • Well, that’s a bit of a non sequitur to my point, which is that even Republican governors can admit the (exceedingly obvious) point that much of the opposition to CCSS on the right is about Obama, not the standards per se.

        As for your point, I agree much of the neutering of accountability (really, neutering of teacher evaluation, which is mostly what they care about) is coming from the union. But it’s hard to look at which states have considered pulling out of the consortia/standards and conclude the left is leading the push away from CCSS (since, you know, they’re basically all governed by Republicans).

  2. Mike says:

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    One-size fits all education. Are teacher unions turning against Common Core?

  3. johnconlin660123040 says:

    We need to change the paradigm. Even the school “choice” folks often continue the top-down, “we know best” structure (like Common Core).

    Freedom is the answer. This country spends around $13,000 per pupil per year. Why not give this money to the parents (in some sort of state-regulated environment) and let them decide how/where it is spend. We’ve had enough with the “experts” telling us yokels what is good for us.

    If parents want to send their children to a Common Core school, so be it. It not, let them decide. This one change, which doesn’t cost an extra dime, will unleash the wisdom of millions.

    That’s what we are trying to do at End the Education Plantation. Please check us out and if you agree, lend a hand.


    John Conlin
    President and Founder
    End the Education Plantation, Inc.

    • JIM says:

      Gosh John Conlin, most parents don’t care about the quality of the school their children attend. This is because parents move to communities which reflects their general social and economic standings. The upper and middle class parents know their public schools are good – many of them graduated from schools just like them. Parents of our urban and rural students also serve parents that know their public schools are of good quality, but they also know that they house the hoodlums they had to deal with when they were in school.

      So your argument that parents need power to make choices is hooey. They already did – they live in a community which more than likely reflects their values.

      Plus vouchers have shown time and time again, especially in Milwaukee and New Orleans, that they are nothing special – and I don’t care about the D.C. voucher graduation rates. Graduation rates are easily manipulated by pulling some strings – test scores too, just not easily.

      • johnconlin660123040j says:


        Your argument is that if parents could control this money they wouldn’t seek value? They would basically just toss this money away and ignore results? I challenge you to find any other area of their lives where they (we) don’t seek value. Few pay $100 for a $50 tattoo. So your argument is based on a fallacy… what you describe doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world.

        As for middle class kids getting great educations… way does ACT report 75% of incoming college freshmen aren’t prepared for college? Those 75% can’t all be from the ‘hood.

        I wouldn’t even bother addressing the spurious argument that people freely chose where they live and therefore what schools their children attend. There is a little thing called $$.

  4. bullright says:

    Or adopt the Washington political strategy: Announce it with a lot of fanfare, claiming what it will do. Then disclose it is not perfect but that it can be fixed and improved. (i.e Obamacare formula, et al) And, like all education agendas in the post Dewey era,put emphasis on a few outcome-based goals then propagandize it away. Terminating a failed program is still a battle, since that was never an option. Once it has government endorsement failure has no relevance.

  5. allen says:

    The theory of change of Common Core, as Mr. Polikoff so ably demonstrates, is to cast pearls before the swine in the somewhat unreasonable hope that the swine will be elevated in some small measure. If that doesn’t work, so what? We’re swine.

    What’s annoying to me about Common Core is that it’s a reprise of virtually every left-right confrontation I can remember.

    The left proposes some encroachment on liberty, always for the best of all possible reasons, and the right responds by pointing out the obvious defects in the proposal. The right’s always playing defense and, to use a sports metaphor, that’s no way to win a ball game.

    Maybe those who are committed to the reform of education could look past the winning of individual battles to a broad strategy goal?

    I don’t raise the question in the hopes of getting any good responses but just so those who count public education reform noses will push their spectacles up on their foreheads and blink at a future that’s a bit farther out then is measured by the sweep of a watch’s second hand.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Now there’s a rallying cry – Common Core: the sodomy law of the 21st century!

  7. […] Jay P. Greene writes about the not well-thought out plan of Common Core State Standards Initiative by the educational elite (my term).  From Common Core and the Underpants Gnomes: […]

  8. […] Jay P. Greene writes about the not well-thought out plan of Common Core State Standards Initiative by the educational elite (my term).  From Common Core and the Underpants Gnomes: […]

  9. […] Jay P. Greene’s Blog It’s amazing how some very smart people can commit billions of dollars and untold human effort to something like Common Core without having thought the thing through. How exactly did they think this was going to work? Didn’t they have meetings? Didn’t someone have to write a paper articulating the theory of change? […]

  10. Veronica says:

    Good article Jay, but you have neglected the outcry of parents. In my 34 years of teaching, I have never seen such mobilization and parent outcry across the country. We parents are smart and know garbage when we see it. We recognize that the real impetus for these changes is not to benefit our children, bu to line the pockets of Gates and his buddies.

  11. […] students need remediation, something is amiss in the K-12 system. The problem, as Jay Greene noted, is that organizations creating the standards did not think through the end-game.  Changing […]

  12. […] few month’s ago Jay P. Greene wrote about the lack of a cohesive plan for the common core […]

  13. […] few month’s ago Jay P. Greene wrote about the lack of a cohesive plan for the common core […]

  14. […] few month’s ago Jay P. Greene wrote about the lack of a cohesive plan for the common core […]

  15. Sean Crowley says:

    Not sure how Randi Weingarten, firmly tucked into Gates’ back pocket for years and a staunch defender of CCSS is going to drive a stake through anything except the hearts of teachers she’s betrayed over and over again.

  16. […] and advocacy at the Gates Foundation,” the folks pushing Common Core did not anticipate that the Unions would betray them and oppose the implementation of Common Core as soon as it suited their….  They did not anticipate that there was no authentic constituency for the proper implementation […]

  17. Molly says:

    A bit late to this conversation, but I thought the Sidney Harris Step 2 “then a miracle occurs” cartoon would be equally apt to describe how CC supporters thought implementation would go. (Although as an aging Gen X’er, the South Park underpants gnome skit resonates with me a little more).

  18. […] who think that there ought to be nothing controversial about their agenda, are manifestly baffled by this and often seem to be unable to explain it as anything other than mere stupidity or evil. How can […]

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