Common Core's Rickety Gates

In 2006, resident education policy expert at the D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Rick Hess wrote in his book Common Sense School Reform about a conversation he had with a school leader:

I told him that the first steps in real improvement had little to do with instruction and a lot to do with sensible management… and that no amount of new spending, professional development, or instructional refinement would change that…. These truths went overlooked year after year because reformers kept approaching school improvement as a matter of educational expertise rather than common sense.

Common Sense School Reform draws broadly on the experience of successful education organizations. Hess promotes reforms that drive educators toward constant improvement through management structures that include incentives for good performance and disincentives for poor ones. This is inarguably a “common sense” approach.

In his latest volume, Common Core Meets Education Reform: What It All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling (Teachers College Press, 2014), co-edited with Michael McShane, Hess turns his eye toward the increasingly controversial national standards effort and the looming challenges of nationwide implementation.

Common Core Meets Education Reform merits praise for digging into the details of implementation. That said, where Hess and McShane come up short is the book’s overarching framework that selected a narrow range of authors and its exclusion of key topics that significantly shape implementation. On the crucial questions of which topics to include and whose expertise to consider pertinent, the volume is myopic and rather D.C.-centric.

Common Sense of the Authors

The book is the outcome of a 2013 AEI conference on the impact of Common Core. Participants included researchers, advocates, teachers, principals, state education leaders, and union representatives. Unfortunately, for this published volume, few state-level or experienced district practitioners were involved. While there are useful observations, the lack of common sense here oddly parallels the development of the Common Core standards themselves.

The editors explain that the authors were not chosen based upon their support for the Common Core, but they do seem a rather homogenous group. Of the 12 contributors, eight work within the Beltway, five are affiliated with a university, and only one mentions implementation or standards in his author biography. None have state-level experience with standards or tests.

While the book’s chapters present questions and implementation pitfalls, three main areas that will heavily affect Common Core’s implementation are not addressed: legality, cost, and, significantly, the academic quality of the standards.

Common Core’s Questionable Legality

By narrowly focusing on the ways that Common Core will interact with current policies, the book avoids the more pressing issue of how the standards will interact with current law. Three federal laws explicitly prohibit the United States government from funding, directing, validating, or controlling any nationalized standards, testing, or curriculum. Those laws are the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, the General Education Provisions Act (GEPA) of 1970, and the legislation that established the United States Department of Education (USED) in 1979. It’s worth noting that two of these three laws were signed by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

In a 2014 interview with PBS, educational historian and former USED official, Diane Ravitch, commented that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went too far both in pushing states to adopt Common Core and then providing federal funding for the two national testing consortia. Ravitch noted that “The law is very clear that no agent of the U.S. government may do anything to direct, control, or supervise curriculum and instruction.” She followed with the comment that while testing is not curriculum, “What is tested is what gets taught.”

Devan Carlson addresses this in Chapter 5: “Common Core Standards are not in any way designed to dictate the content that teachers should teach or the manner in which content is taught. Rather, they are solely intended to identify the body of knowledge and skills that students need to be successful in the modern economy.” But applications for federal funding from the two testing consortia tell another story. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) are directed to develop national tests, as well as curricular and instructional materials.

The Race to the Top, a federal education grant competition that dangled $4.35 billion in stimulus money in front of states, favored applications from those that adopted Common Core and would use nationalized student assessments to evaluate teachers. The USED subsequently awarded $362 million to PARCC and SBAC to develop national assessments and a “model curriculum” that is “aligned with” Common Core. In Chapter 4, Lake and Moss explain, “…the rigor of the Common Core Standards is entirely dependent on what the test score items will be… the tests being developed by PARCC and SBAC will really define what schools must focus on.” Since it appears that these consortia are illegally funded by the federal government, it is irresponsible to ignore the issue of Common Core and national testing’s legality when constructing a guidebook on the standards’ implementation.

Common Core’s Weaker Academic Quality

Hess and McShane eschew any discussion on the academic quality of the standards themselves explaining, “We will leave curriculum and pedagogy to those who know more about it.” Given that the book is billed as a guide for troubleshooting Common Core implementation, wouldn’t common sense suggest having a chapter discussing the academic quality of the standards and implementation conducted by a couple of experienced academic content experts?

In fact, any discussion of academic standards must start and end on their academic quality, especially given that Common Core will impact the intellectual development of 40-50 million schoolchildren. Although debate on Common Core’s academic quality began with the validation rather than the implementation stage, it does not mean that academic quality should be absent from a discussion about implementation.

The book treats teacher and school official objections as a political conflict that needs to be managed rather than observations that need to be weighed on their merits. But teachers and parents dissatisfied with the academic rigor of Common Core are posing a major implementation hurdle. While parents and teachers had little voice in the creation, validation, or adoption of Common Core, research showing that the standards lack sufficient academic rigor is fueling public pushback during implementation.

The reality is that the now widespread and nationwide parent protests against the quality of the standards are rooted in research findings that Common Core standards are not internationally benchmarked, research based, or better than what high standard states like Massachusetts, Indiana, and California already had.

In English language arts, Common Core inexplicably emphasizes writing over reading and reduces by 60 percent the amount of classic literature, poetry and drama texts that Massachusetts students will read. The evidence from Massachusetts’ historic NAEP reading performance between 2005 and 2013 illustrates the importance of the superior quality of vocabulary found in classic literature. The Bay State’s example is clear that classic literature is the path to higher literacy results for all students, which both the book and Common Core itself totally ignore.

In mathematics, research also makes clear that students who stick to the Common Core track will not graduate high school prepared to pursue a college science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) major or be competitive with the standards in high-performing Asian countries. Previously, in Massachusetts and California students were prepared for Algebra I, the gateway to all higher mathematical study, by eighth grade. Under Common Core Algebra I is delayed until ninth grade or later, while the math expectations plateau at what Stanford University mathematician R. James Milgram has termed, “Algebra II lite.” These are fatal weaknesses that even Common Core’s math writers and advocates – Jason Zimba, William McCallum, and Stephen Wilson – now concede publicly.

Common Core’s Prohibitive Costs

The book avoids providing any hard numbers on the cost of implementing the structures that will be necessary for success: training for those on the front lines of implementation, assessments and the resources that will be required. Few states projected what implementation would cost and it’s unclear who will bear these costs. Though it seems likely that the states and localities – not the federal government nor the two D.C.-based trade groups that developed Common Core – will be picking up the tab.

The chapter on technology vaguely refers to the cost of increasing bandwidth and connectivity as well as increasing the number of computer testing set-ups, but no hard cost estimate is offered. The only mention of funding is a recommendation that states and poor districts look to the E-Rate program, a federal technology fund. Yet that program only has capacity to fund half of the demand. What of the other half? How much will that cost? In Louisiana, for example, only two districts are resource and network ready, but that is the only state mentioned in this chapter. The chapter does include a gross estimate by Pioneer Institute that pegs the cost of bringing states and local districts up to the standards required for implementing the consortia assessments at $15.9 billion. The authors mention this number, not by discussing concrete plans to cover these costs, but by citing a Thomas B. Fordham Institute study that virtually ignored the largest cost driver in Common Core implementation: the multi-year technology costs.

Regardless of the difficulty of these macro-level projections, the costs are huge, and they present a threat that could derail the entire initiative. However, the authors neglect to provide any concrete suggestions for addressing this crisis or providing the financial resources Common Core and the testing consortia will require for full implementation. Instead, they move on to the valuable but lower-priority discussion of ensuring that technology is focused on improving learning outcomes and instruction options rather than merely meeting the testing requirements. Understanding the full cost and developing a way to pay for the testing is essential to properly and responsibly implementing Common Core.

Another key cost driver, professional development for teachers, should be a vital component of any analysis of the fast-paced rollout of these national standards. However, the history of limited interest in and support for quality teacher training has led to a dearth of research on its effectiveness, and little interest on the part of states in putting the necessary training in place. In Chapter 7, Hochleitner and Kimmel highlight the importance of professional development through workshops and continued support for adapting to new material and teaching methods. Without appropriate state and local government support, or details about how to improve the academic quality, professional development under Common Core becomes yet another federal unfunded mandate for mediocrity.

In connection with the expansion of classroom technology and the requirements for teachers, Hochleitner and Kimmel state, “Common Core will also create a new national marketplace for instructional materials and professional development, encouraging the production of digital content.” In 2010, Professor Sandra Stotsky called this phenomenon, “No vendor left behind.” The prospect of the majority of the country replacing textbook supplies and supplemental learning resources is a very expensive and profitable one.

Unfortunately, the customers for all of these new products will be state boards of education and local school committees. For state departments of education, school districts, and charter schools alike, this is a serious blow to already stretched budgets. Reality and common sense tell us that uniform nationalized standards and tests will create new government-funded monopolies, not new markets.

Gates Funding

Hess and McShane acknowledge upfront that the book’s publication is due to the patronage of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has spent more than $200 million on the development, advocacy, and implementation of Common Core nationwide. And while this doesn’t disqualify Hess’s and McShane’s views, in a 2011 New York Times article, Hess acknowledged that he and others sometimes felt constrained by Gates Foundation funding. He noted, in regard to the balance between funding and research, “as researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct… There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation.” As Hess added, “everybody’s implicated.”

The American Enterprise Institute, for whom both Hess and McShane work, has received over $4 million from the Gates Foundation “to influence the national education debate” and “explor[e] the challenges of Common Core.” In a 2012 New York Times opinion piece “Enforcing Conformity is Risky,” Hess reminds readers of “the golden rule—‘he who has the gold makes the rules.’” Hess’ comment referred to the leverage the federal government has to influence funding school equity; however, it leads one to speculate on similar parallels in the research world.

Common sense dictates that the benefit of this Gates-funded book project may accrue more to its patron than to the public. Seeing as the strategy for maintaining political support for Common Core saturates the authors, the patron’s agenda inevitably also suffuses the content of the whole book.