Why Common Core Standards Will Fail (Jay Mathews and Chester Finn)

Jay Mathews is the Washington Post senior journalist on education. He writes frequently about school reforms. This article appeared February 23, 2012; Chester Finn writes often for Education Gadfly. He wrote about Common Core on March 1, 2012.

Jay Mathews:

Virginia, take a bow.

While Maryland, 44 other states and the District are spending billions of dollars to install new national standards for their schools, Virginia has stuck with the standards it has. Mounting evidence shows Virginia is right, and the others wrong.

Common Core standards are the educational fashion of the moment, but your child’s teacher can name many similar plans that went awry. I was impressed at first with the brain power and good intentions behind the Common Core standards, launched by nongovernmental groups with the support of the Obama administration and governors of both parties. I thought the change would elevate instruction and end the distressing difference between what defined student proficiency in Massachusetts (pretty high) compared with Mississippi (quite low.)

But I have been talking to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, a national expert on this topic, and read his latest research paper: “Predicting the Effect of Common Core Standards on Student Achievement.” He reviewed the research. He assessed the chances of the Common Core standards making a difference. It turns out this is another big disappointment we should have figured out long ago.

As Loveless notes, there are three main arguments for having all public schools teach the same subjects at the same level of rigor and complexity. First, students will learn more if their learning targets are set higher. Second, students will learn more if the passing grade for state tests are set higher. Third, students will learn more if lesson plans and textbooks are all made more complex and rigorous through required high standards.

Loveless analyzed all available research and found that none of those arguments holds enough validity to risk all that money and effort.

The notion that high-quality standards correlate with higher student achievement was disproved long before Loveless wrote his paper. His Brookings colleague Russ Whitehurst showed in 2009 that states with weak content standards, as judged by the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (not ideological bedfellows), had about the same average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as states with strong standards. Loveless investigated the possibility that strong standards might predict future achievement gains. They don’t.

Similarly, states that required students to have higher scores on their state tests in order to be judged proficient did not have stronger NAEP scores than states that grant proficiency status even to students who miss half of the questions….

The idea that common standards might create efficiencies and motivations that raise achievement is disproved by what has happened in the many states that created their own standards. Those states still have some schools scoring very well and others scoring miserably. That variation has not declined, defying happy talk from Common Core advocates….

I have interviewed hundreds of teachers who significantly raised student achievement. Not one has ever said it was because of great state learning standards. Good curriculums help, but high-minded, numbingly detailed standards don’t produce them. How teachers are trained and supported in the classroom is what matters, even in states as enlightened as Virginia.

Chester Finn gives six reasons why critics attack Common Core standards, a reform he endorses. It is the last reason, blurring “national” with “federal” standards that he fears will destroy it.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

 Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

For readers who would like a veteran teacher’s  perspective, see Steve Davis’s comments on the Common Core Standards.



Filed under school reform policies

21 responses to “Why Common Core Standards Will Fail (Jay Mathews and Chester Finn)

  1. Gary Ravani

    Common Core alone has about the same chances of raising student achievement as the last set of standards adopted by CA (or any other state for that matter).

    This is what Diane Ravitch pointed out in her book. Standards, accountability, and choice were all based on the “gut instincts” of neo-con/neo-liberal, self-styled “reformers.” There was never any real empirical research to support those concepts, but there is a real cult status to the idea of the power invested in getting all teachers, in all subjects,and at all levels doing the same things at the same time.

    The arguments both pro and con on “standards” and the rest of the reformy litany just dodge the real issues of poverty, labor, and social policies. To bring those up triggers knee-jerk sloganeering about “status quo” and “making excuses.” As the late Gerald Bracey used to say, “Poverty is not an excuse. It’s a condition, like gravity.”

    Schools in the US with low poverty are some of the highest performing in the world. A solution to “low achievement?” Create conditions where all schools are low poverty. Coleman told us this in the mid-1960s. That, however, is an uphill climb for the US because in the top 32 economies rated by the OECD, the US has the 31st highest rate of childhood poverty. You aren’t supposed to mention that because someone is likely to get the notion that we should actually do something about poverty.

    Eric Hanushek once (more than once actually) said something curious about the US. In a forum on “value added” Hanushek stated we must raise US international test scores to the level of countries like Finland. An audience member confronted him with data about Finland’s support systems for children and families, as well as it’s extraordinarily low levels of child poverty. Ah, we cannot address poverty, said Hanushek, that’s because in this country education is our ONLY policy lever. That, to me, would seem to be a policy choice, not a policy given.

    We should recall that the reformy methodologies (testing, choice, privatization, limited “accountability”) have been in place nationally for over a decade. In CA for even longer. They have been utter failures. Those methodologies are “the status quo” now. Content standards, Common Core or otherwise, coupled to new performance standards and assessments, can never be more than two legs to the “achievement stool.” Standards of support for children and resources for schools are the only way to stabilize this wobbly social/education structure.

    • larrycuban

      With the market ideology pervasive in school reform, “standards of support for children and resources for schools” are not slogans bandied about now. When you point out that ignoring the outside lives of children before they enter school and while in school is both short-sighted and foolish, to use a favored phrase of edupreneurs–insofar as return on investment, you are correct. Calling for more money for schools is clearly a lost cause now and for the immediate future. So what else can be done beyond pointing out the flaws in current reforms as the Common Core Standards, pay-4-performance, etc. and saying that poverty matters?

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  4. Louise Kowitch

    Brilliant, Larry. From my vantage point of 23 years in the trenches, I’ve seen the number of reforms pile higher and deeper. And yet the best “reform” I’ve seen work in the long haul is to hire high caliber teachers who are passionate about opening the minds of their students, and about nourishing their own practice. Schools that seek out the best teachers, actively monitor their first five years, provide them leadership opportunities, allow them the chance to be creative and innovative, and in turn, treat them like national treasures: this is how to improve student performance and cultivate their talents. Fast-track, couldn’t handle the classroom, Ph.D administrators and ‘experts’ from outside education and their ‘reforms du jour’ , as you have so deftly shown, won’t break the cycle of ‘tinkering toward Utopia’.

  5. Larry, great post. There are many disturbing aspects of the Common Core Standards ‘mandate’. I call it a mandate because the language/actions from Washington are going that way. A state not being eligible for Title1 $$$ unless they adopt the Common Core is like telling an 11 year old they can’t eat any of the food in the house if they don’t make their bed every morning. How else would they eat????

    However, I posted this http://carmenk12.com/2010/05/07/common-core-state-standards-the-effect-on-vendors/ about 18 months ago telling about how the Common Core Standards, in theory, will have a big effect on the private K-12 market.

    If you take away the cronyism (lol), smaller, state-based vendors should be able to play in a much larger market. These small vendors don’t have the money to align their great products and programs to so many different state standards and Common Core changes that greatly.

    Large publishers should be able to greatly reduce the cost of maintenance of their products because there won’t be different standards across 50 states. All of this should be positive for school districts looking for the best, not biggest, vendors and for better prices. Now, add cronyism, and the large publishers will still crush the best solutions and keep charging the same. But, leadership at school districts need to get smarter and tougher with the big publishers in explaining how costs and complexities must be easing due to Common Core Standards.

    Great post, and thanks


    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Carmen, for the comment. Yes, I believe, as you do, about market opportunities will open markedly with the Common Core Standards, especially in online courses. Your point about reduced costs for large publishers, I had not considered. Whether that will help districts look around for better ways to implement standards, I cannot look around that corner yet.

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  7. I think that the fact that teachers who have succeeded never point to standards as a reason for their success is a good point. Here are my opinions as to how we should improve school, and they have a lot to do with compassion for students, not strengthening rigor: http://daisybrain.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/a-teachers-perspective-on-school-reform/

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  9. Daniel in Arizona

    I am a Montessori School owner who is currently attempting to fit the Montessori philosophy into the Common Core Standards for the purpose of a charter school application. This is the proverbial round peg in a square hole. Our Kindergarten class is (according to Common Core) operating on a 3rd to 5th grade level in reading, writing, and math. Our students are of average intelligence and come from a mix of income levels and races. Tell me why is no one paying attention to this success? It is much easier and cheaper, and puts the child’s learning first instead of a bureaucratic lesson plan nightmare. Here is the main problem – The common core standards have nothing to do with learning. I know that might sound strange but they don’t. The common core standards sound like they are programming a computer not educating a human being. The human being is born with all the internal mechanisms needed to acquire skills and knowledge. Maria Montessori figured this out 100 years ago. Our school and 5000 other Montessori schools (in the US) are proving this every day. Yet the standards noise continues to get louder.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on Common Core standards and your experience with Montessori schools.

  10. How is this not human subjects research without consent? There is no data to show these new standards will improve student education. No data to show it won’t harm them. And it is forced on them. Seems to me this violates all sorts of bioethical standards.

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  13. Keri wright

    I am a teacher in MS who is very concerned for our children. I fear that our parents have no idea of what is to come in the future of common core. Where do I start in educating them?

    • larrycuban

      What about your principal? Is he fully aware of CCS? Yourself? If the answer is yes to both questions, then a schoolwide effort to inform parents of CCS makes sense. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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