The reform-bound train has left the station and is rolling across the country. Twenty-eight states have adopted the new “common core” English and math standards and both liberals and conservatives are on board. But there is little evidence in the caboose to support either the policy or its goal.
Even as pundits and policymakers say the national standards train will pick up more states (Virginia, Texas, and Alaska don’t want to get on board now), the sweet promise of that reform to finally end the perpetual (or is it manufactured?) crisis surrounding U.S. schools beckons. But, and you knew there was a “but” coming, as the train hurtles across both “red” and “blue” states, serious questions about adopting voluntarily national curriculum standards and evidence for embracing those standards have to be asked.
Presidents H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have sought national goals such “common core” standards so that the U.S. would be better able to compete with Asian and European for global markets. Now, President Obama has reaffirmed that goal. In a talk to the nation’s governors he said:
“[Asian nations] want their kids to excel because they understand that whichever country out-educates the other is going to out-compete us in the future. So that’s what we’re up against. That’s what’s at stake -– nothing less than our primacy in the world…. And I want to commend all of you for acting collectively through the National Governors Association to develop common academic standards that will better position our students for success.”
The link between more and rigorous schooling–everyone goes to college–and enhanced economic competitiveness is gospel among both political conservatives and liberals. Since the 1970s, The mantra of “human capital” preached by economists and adopted by national and state policymakers of both political parties as biblical truth depends upon correlational evidence–lifetime earnings associated with level of formal schooling. Seldom do the facts of a largely knowledge- and service-driven labor market enter policymaker debates . For example, in a technology-dependent economy, 70 percent of current jobs require only a high school diploma. Twenty percent require a bachelor’s degree and only 10 percent need technical training.
OK, even if a quasi-religious faith in making the U.S. more competitive internationally trumps the facts, what evidence is there of national standards leading to improved student achievement and better achievement leading to knowledgeable and skilled graduates ready to enter college and career? Not much here either. For example, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests for eighth grade math and science, 8 of the top 10 top-scoring countries had national curriculum standards. Yet 9 of the 10 lowest-scoring nations did also.
Moreover, as state curriculum standards swept across the nation in the late 1980s gaining traction with No Child Left Behind (2002), analyses of these standards’ rigor compared to state scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests revealed little to no relationship. That is, some high-scoring states on NAEP had “low” standards and some low-scoring states had “high” standards. Grover Whitehurst concluded: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy.”
So what is going on here when very smart people, both liberal and conservative, push national standards to increase economic competitiveness and then lay out enormous sums of money for policies that barely have fig leafs of evidence to cover their nakedness? Don’t forget that these astute decision-makers repeatedly urge others to use evidence-based “best practices.”
One way of explaining these inconsistencies over the use of evidence among policymakers is to look at how policy is made. For education, foreign policy, health care, criminal justice and other arenas, policymakers focus on solving problems. The proposed policy is closer to a hunch, a conjecture about what it takes to solve a problem. And decision-makers have to adopt and then execute the policy to find out whether the hunch panned out or not. Thus, a policy is both a hypothesis and argument that a particular action should be taken to solve the problem. That action, however, has to be politically acceptable and economically feasible. Policymakers, then, use evidence (e.g., the more education, the higher the earnings) to argue that their hunch (“common core” standards) about solving a pressing problem (becoming more globally competitive) is both logical and compelling. Evidence that contradicts the policy is tossed aside. In short, facts or the totality of available evidence do not determine policy. Evidence is made, not found. Evidence is used to fit the hunch, arguments, and logic of a policy aimed at solving a problem.
And right now the “common core” standards high-speed train, one that is politically acceptable and economically feasible, has left the station carrying baggage filled with far more faith than evidence and hellbent in reaching its destination of U.S. primacy in global markets.