Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards

I have admired Rodin’s statue of “The Thinker” for many years.

Yet the statue is not a man of action.

Too much thinking, too little action is a recipe for fecklessness. Yet too much action, too little thought are ingredients for a potential disaster.*

And this is where the Common Core standards enter the picture.

Exactly how much evidence did policymakers have to justify the crafting and adoption of national standards?  Of that evidence supporting the policy, what part, if any, did research play in making policy? Since evidence never speaks for itself–it has to be interpreted–these are fair questions to ask of any policy but especially one with high-stakes consequences for how teachers teach to the standards, what children and youth study in classrooms lessons, and tests used to measure how much of the standards students have learned.

There have been two major justifications for Common Core standards: (1) raising academic standards across U.S. schools will grow the economy and make the nation globally competitive; (2) higher standards will improve students’ academic achievement. After parsing these reasons for the Common Core standards, I then turn to the evidence used by policymakers and practitioners and where research studies fit (or do not fit) into the policymaking process.

1. What evidence is there that common standards will increase a nation’s global competitiveness?

Answer: None. Zip. Nada.

See here and here.

2. What evidence is there that national standards will improve student achievement on domestic and international tests?

Answer: None. Zip. Nada.

See here, here and even here.

So how can a public policy that has heavy consequences for students, teachers, and public schools have an appalling lack of evidence?

The answer is in what top decision-makers consider as evidence when they determine policy. Or the answer is in the simple fact that policies get made for many reasons, only one of which may be evidence, including research studies. I take up each of these explanations.

First, what do policymakers consider to be evidence? Generally, school boards, state and federal officials, and practitioners–teachers and principals–have a broader definition of evidence than do researchers who rely upon the results of randomized control studies, rigorously conducted case studies, and carefully constructed interventions in schools (see Tseng-Social-Policy-Report-2012-1).

In an ongoing study of school boards’ decision-making, for example, Robert Asen and colleagues found that local policymakers drew from many sources for “evidence.” They relied on first-hand experiences,   systematically collected data on conditions, testimony of authoritative individuals and groups, specific examples that illustrated the policy issue being discussed, and, yes, they used empirical findings culled from researchers. What constitutes evidence to school board members was a broad array of experience-produced and research-produced knowledge, some carrying more weight than others in each policymaker’s mind. Few decision-makers, however, say that research findings guided their actions (coburnhonigsteinfinal-1).

Second, what drives policymaker decisions? Many reasons propel policy and evidence is only one of those reasons. Consider that financial and political pressures push policy without any reference to “what the research says.” When drug abuse or teenage pregnancies rise in a community, parents and politicians lobby school boards to initiate or revamp drug and sex education programs–regardless of what research studies say about the effectiveness of such programs. Or to cite another example, when a program becomes controversial such as “Man: A Course of Study” in the 1970s, studies of its effectiveness are disregarded as pressure groups got school boards to dump the program.

Or consider evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores–one of the public reasons given for Chicago teachers striking this month. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had, at best, contested   research findings a few years ago when he required performance evaluations to be included in state proposals for Race To The Top funds. Or even now. Political considerations mattered, not the amount or quality of evidence.

In an economic recession when state revenues shrink, districts cut staff and programs without checking research studies to determine which programs or staff were effective.

So local, state, and federal policymakers have a broader view of what constitutes evidence–practitioners even more so–than researchers. Research studies play a minor role, if at all, in making most significant policy decisions.

Which, of course, brings me around full circle to Common Core standards which is a train carrying few research studies that has left the station on its way into the nation’s classrooms. Believe me, that train is not carrying statues of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”


*Thanks to Joel Westheimer for sending me the “Thinker and Doer” cartoon


Filed under school reform policies

59 responses to “Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards

  1. Pingback: Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards By @Larrycuban | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Biting Criticism from Larry Cuban on #CCSS: Evidence Vs. Research; The Case of the Common Core Standards | Common Core Online | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: Evidence Vs. Research; The Case of the Common Core Standards ... | Oakland County ELA Common Core | Scoop.it

  4. As someone now aboard the Common Core train, I believe the CCSS effort embodies the “bandwagon effect” at a national scale. In many ways, it parallels NCLB as a cause that at the sound bite level sounds right and just, but at the classroom, school, and district level results in distortions and illogic of staggering proportion. Sadly, such fallacies hypnotize education policymakers into institutionalizing illogic, which takes decades to reverse.

    For what its worth, I find the use of “research-based” in education as more of a code word intended to signal the efficacy of a new policy, process, program, and etcetera irrespective of its applicability, reliability, or validity. Once “research-based” has been uttered, all questions or doubts about the effort must not be spoken; otherwise, whomever does so must not be a team player, or worse an idiot. Used as such, it tends to silence dialog that could improve implementation or outcomes.

    Lastly, as a former engineer, the validity of most education research seems questionable at best. While controlling for factors other than the unit of research is necessary to demonstrate statistical reliability, the dizzying, diverse nature of classrooms defies the direct application of most research. The simplest of pedagogical, environmental, curricular, or other “research-based” adaptations consume colossal amounts of time, effort, and energy with little to no measurable results mostly because it is nigh impossible to implement the adaptation, much less measure its results, in an effective manner without introducing, intentionally or not, confounding variables that nullify the adaptation. This is not to say that education research is a waste of time, for sound methods and improvements may arise. However, their application needs to determined by a professional practitioner, and not a professional politician, political appointee, or administrator, whether experienced in a classroom or not. The circumstances of each classroom are so individualized and situational that any broad brush efforts are doomed to failure.

    • larrycuban

      All I can say, Dave, is that your comments on Common Core standards and educational research resonate with me and what I have been posting. Thank you for taking the time to write.

    • As a high school math teacher and Ph.D. in physics, I can only say that I agree with Dave’s comments above. I am still waiting for the evidence that indicates that CCSS are a good idea, and that they are anything other than a money-making scheme for testing companies.

      I am currently reading Daniel Willingham’s “When Can You Trust The Experts”, on educational research. Seems to resonate well with what I read here on Dr. Cuban’s site and elsewhere.

  5. Mary

    A couple questions about Common Core –
    What about Ed Hirsh and Core Knowledge? Aren’t the Common Core standards based on the same idea, the advantage being that when students change schools they are not complete lost?

    What about teaching more to mastery rather than exposure? It’s my understanding that Common Core Standards requires mastery at grade level, rather than assuming if students don’t get it this year maybe they will next year.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Core Knowledge schools–almost 800 across the country–founded by E.D. Hirsch do focus on all students having access to the same content and skills for half of the school day. From their website: “Across the country, hundreds of schools are committed to the idea that academic excellence demands a solid, specific core curriculum. They agree that educational equity and fairness requires a strong foundation, sequenced grade by grade. They understand that the key to improved literacy is a core of knowledge, shared across grade levels, school districts and the nation. They are Core Knowledge schools.” See: http://www.coreknowledge.org/about-core-knowledge-schools
      On the second question, I do not know the answer.

    • Steve Davis

      One of the things that is evident in Hirsch’s Core Knowledge and lacking in the Common Core is a truly common curriculum. i.e., common content. While teachers love to have academic freedom, this freedom prevents all students from having the broad background knowledge to access the diversity of texts they are likely to encounter in highly academic environments. For example, the ELA Common Core standards give recommendations of texts to be read at each grade level, but stops short of mandates such as every twelfth grade student has to read Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

      I use Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy as a daily warm-up in my 10th and 12th grade English courses. While some say that it’s trivial to know mere “facts” like what the Tower of Babel is, it’s uncanny how often I am able to connect just about anything we cover in Cultural Literacy back to the non-fiction and fiction texts that we cover in class or to what students may be learning in social science or science.

      Furthermore, as someone well-versed in the CA ELA content standards, I can tell you that the Common Core is merely a paring down of what was already in place that allows old potatoes (eyes an all) to be resold in new burlap bags.

      • larrycuban

        As you point out, Steve, the Common Core standards are technically not a curriculum but, operationally, it becomes one in practice although the common content you mention is missing. Core Knowledge has that common content when the K-8 school day contains 50 percent of Core Knowledge curriculum.

        Vivid metaphor, Steve.

  6. Jane Gangi

    The emperor–David Coleman, “architect” of the common core–has no clothes.

    8 Reasons the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will hurt children, not help them:
    1. The elementary text exemplars are primarily by and about White people, thus privileging White children and marginalizing children of color and the poor. The proficient reader research shows that, to become proficient readers, children must make text-to-self connections. Besides proficient reading, there is also identity. Julius Lester says, “They are asking us who they are and we are telling them.” When we leave out children of color and the poor, we are telling them they don’t matter.
    2. The word “analysis” appears 94 times in the CCSS; the word “emotion” twice in a clinical sort of way, and the word “affect” not at all. For children to care about “facts,” their emotions have to be engaged. The CCSS’s focus on the mind and neglect of the body and emotions has been tried before, and failed. By ignoring emotions, the CCSS ignores decades of research.
    3. The CCSS eliminates reading for pleasure and choice and, although the CCSS claims to be “internationally benchmarked,” does not say which nations. The city of Shenzen, China–a city of 15 million–emphasizes free and pleasure reading and has the highest university pass rate in the country. The Chinese government is, wisely, encouraging the rest of China to follow Shenzen’s lead; the CCSS are leading us down the opposite path.
    4. Music is mentioned once, the visual arts not at all. “Acting out” is okay for enacting vocabulary words. Yet, the arts are powerful ways to foster literacy; the CCSS leave out a V-8 engine for literacy in leaving out the arts. Many educators of color have argued for the inclusion of the arts as a way to actively engage children of color in literacy learning. The CCSS ignore the power of the arts and the concerns of diverse educators.
    5. Informational text is privileged, with the expectation that by the secondary grades the fare will be 75% informational and 25% literary genres. Yet, Adam Jones’s interviews with 57 genocide scholars and human rights activists show that their most powerful experiences were with 75% arts and literary texts, 25% “informational” texts–the exact opposite of the CCSS. A study of 37 biographies and autobiographies of writers shows that the most powerful works for these writers when they were children were 90% literary and 10% informational. Albert Einstein would tell you to read children more fairy tales; Charles Darwin would tell you to read them more poetry (email me for references). The CCSS claims to aim for making children “college and career ready,” yet ignores important research.
    6. Efferent reading (what you carry off, like when you read the directions for your new cell phone) is privileged over aesthetic reading (when you cannot put down a book). By privileging efferent reading the CCSS turn children into information processors, imposing a view of children and humanity many of us do not share. In the CCSS “aesthetics” are not mentioned until 11th grade. Children need aesthetic experiences long before that. The middle and upper classes will be able to get aesthetic experiences for their children outside of school.
    7. “Close reading”–all 13 years–will bore children to death. Children need multiple approaches to text (please email me for research on English Language Learners whose test scores moved from zero to 50% passing in six months through arts-based literacy). To throw out letting children make personal connections to text is a big mistake.
    8. Resources are being diverted from children to testing that won’t help them. Resources need to go to what directly affects children: Schools’ infrastructure, playgrounds, labs, libraries, and professional learning for teachers who teach children not of their own culture or ethnicity.

    • larrycuban

      I am not sure that the Emperor has no clothes. What you say so clearly strikes me as a profoundly different emphasis on the adopted English standards for which Coleman has been roundly criticized (and replied to vigorously). I have no wisdom on which side is correct because the battle is not over facts as much as values in what English teachers should teach and students learn.

  7. As a student teacher, I was stunned to hear in this blog post that the Common Core is not based on research. Everything in my course literature over the last two-and-a-half years points to the importance of research-based theory/practice; it’s explicitly stated over and over again! How, then, can such national standards be developed without any corroborating scientific data?!

    I’m really quite taken aback by all this…

    • larrycuban

      Why not ask your professors, Ryn, about the discrepancy that you identified between what you have been taught and read and what others like myself say about this national policy?

  8. I also got this Rodin’s statue syndrome once in a while.– analysis paralysis, oh dear it’s deadly…

  9. Briel

    Thank you for this post. I feel sometimes that I am alone in my shock at how this has moved forward. It seems that people would love to fight about the minutia of teaching math yet happily accept national standards without question. (I’m not saying that how we teach math is not important, but I think that national standards may be more so…)

  10. Pingback: Research? We don’t need no stinking research! | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  11. The scary thing about this article is that it would take minimal changes to describe the situation that is being imposed on New Zealand education. Another illustration of the international nature of this standards based movement.

  12. Reblogged this on Save Our Schools NZ and commented:
    Why is there so little evidence for National Standards? Read this blog …

  13. Hello, I imagine most of us who read each others’ words in comments sections like these must know that these are programs designed to create a certain kind of human/citizen/slave. There is little concern with learning for any other reason. Informational texts, lack of emotion, mathematics (Morse Peckham has wonderfully shown how, as math is empty of content, it can be made to “say” anything)…sounds like the right kind of affectless being to sit idly by and watch the coming atrocities. “Educating Business Ethics” expands on this: http://wp.me/p1JTwx-17g

  14. I really liked how your article analyzed how public policy is formed. Even though I live in a different country with different approaches to education, it is so apparent that education is subject to knee-jerk reactions and the need for politicians to look like they are addressing weaknesses while appeasing the public in some way. Our curriculum has been overhauled twice in the last 12 years. The second version is vastly different from the first one, which begs the question why they wasted so much money producing a curriculum which was so inadequate. Teachers are suffering from educational reform fatigue-maybe that’s one of the reasons why so many policies fail or fade away. Is it my imagination or are we seeing more constant change in the last 15 years than we saw in the previous 30?

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Cathy, I do believe that in the past three decades in the U.S.–I cannot speak with any authority about Canada–the pace of top-down reforms has accelerated. The content of that reform has been driven by policymaker beliefs in educational achievement–measured by domestic and international tests are linked closely to the national economy and global competition for markets. Like others, I have written about that wave of reforms since the 1980s in The Blackboard and the Bottom Line.

  15. Pingback: Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) | Scoop.it

  16. Pingback: Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  17. Pingback: Evidence Vs. Research; The Case of the Common Core Standards ... | college and career ready | Scoop.it

  18. Jeffrey Bowen

    I directed “research” for a large state school boards association for more than 20 years, and I would certainly confirm your observations about the relegation of research when politics and finance take the legislative floor. However, there is an important, even a crucial, role for applied research when it comes to lobbying in the legislative arena. I found that survey results, presented either via very simple data analysis or by means of quotes and observations from respondents, could be used to advocate effectively. When one has a corner or monopoly on the available and current research, one has a potential lobbying tool in hand. Again and again, over the years, when the data or results were presented in charts, at hearings, or particularly through the media, it enhanced the credibility of the organization and forced policy makers and politicians to give the state association AT LEAST a seat at the table. Of course, the research was typically labelled as “suspect” given the source, but when no one had anything better to offer, it worked. No surprise here, I know, because this is one of the fundamentals of lobbying — capture the information better than anyone else and present it very publically, or at least threaten to. In my view, the studies had to be conducted evenhandedly using solid methods, but when, for exemple, local executive leaders and school boards were queried, the results tended to speak for themselves without doctoring or distorting.

  19. JK

    Hi Larry,

    I have a quick question about your blog. If you could send me a message to my email, I would greatly appreciate it.


  20. Pingback: Common Core Standards – Links | Robert Ferrell

  21. I won’t comment on whether the Common Core are research-based because we have different opinions on what should be examined. But I can say that as a teacher, I appreciate the new direction. Instead of the cursory and shallow state standards that I had to operate under previously, these standards allow me to go deeply and push critical thinking.

    Perhaps other states allowed teachers to slow down and deeply cover content, but ours rushed us through a serious of superficial check-off tasks at Bloom’s lowest level. For the first time, I’ve explicit permission to bring in art and music to the classroom (e.g. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7), emphasize higher order thinking, and develop Global Competencies (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6). My goal is to engage student interest, model habits of mind, facilitate deep exploration, and empower students.

    Was I doing this before Common Core? Of course — but I was doing it in spite of our state standards.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for pushing back on the post about Common Core standards. Your students were quite fortunate to have you before Common Core was adopted.

  22. The question you’re really asking is, “Do curriculum standards affect student learning?” I haven’t found any research to suggest that curriculum documents (whether they are Common Core or Australian National) impact student learning.

    The bigger issue is teacher isolationism. You can set standards to whatever level you want. But, if teachers do not build capacity to teach to those standards, you can rewrite them and rewrite them and rewrite them and rewrite them forever without seeing student learning progress.

    Be clear about what students need to know and be able to do. The CCSS do a good job of that. Help teachers develop instructional strategies that help learners achieve those standards – whatever the standards may be. Most research points to the fact that the single greatest factor with regards to student learning is teacher effectiveness (however you measure that).

  23. Thanks, Larry, for the comment. I do appreciate your perspective on whether national standards make a difference or not. You’ve definitely got a point — and you’ve made me think. I’m deeply worried about the PARCC & SBAC assessments because we all know that assessment drives instruction; this could be a train wreck.

    Janet’s point is also important: providing teachers with high quality professional development (Garet et al 2001; Gersten et al 2010), time for purposeful collaboration, and the resources necessary for teaching well will no doubt result in more effective teachers. Regardless of what we do, however, I think we must push deeper levels of critical thinking and problem solving, 21st century skills (www.p21.org), and creativity/innovation.


  25. Pingback: The End Might Be Near for Common Core – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER

  26. Pingback: The End Might Be Near for Common Core – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER

  27. Pingback: The End Might Be Near for Common Core | Stop Common Core Illinois

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