Why Common Core Standards Will Succeed

Even though there is little evidence that state standards have increased student academic achievement since the 1980s, the District of Columbia and 45 states have embraced the Common Core–(see here and here).

Even though there is little evidence that countries with national standards do not necessarily score higher on international tests than nations without national standards, many states have already aligned their standards to textbooks, lessons, and tests– (see here and here).

Even though there is little evidence Common Core standards will produce the skilled and knowledgeable graduates that employers and college teachers have demanded of public schools, most state and federal officials have assured parents and taxpayers that the new standards and tests will do exactly that–(see here and here).

Even though there is little evidence that state and national officials have resolved tough issues in the past when it came to curriculum standards (e.g., supplying professional development for teachers and principals, appropriate instructional materials, determining whether teachers altered their practices) much less reduce the inevitable problems that will occur in implementing the Common Core standards (e.g., resources for computer-based testing), cheerleaders  continue to beat the drums for national standards–(see here and here)


butterfly image standards

With all of these “even though”s  (and there are more), Common Core standards will succeed. How can that be?

The short answer is that evidence of success doesn’t matter much to those who make policy decisions. Oh sure, decision-makers have to mention evidence along with research studies and they do but not much when it comes to Common Core standards. Instead what they talk about are failing schools, the low-quality of teaching and how unless academic standards are raised–drum roll here at mention of Common Core–the economy will sink under the weight of graduates unprepared for an information-based workplace. Getting everyone to go to college, especially minority and poor students is somehow seen as a solution to economic, political, and social inequalities that have persistently plagued the U.S. for the past four decades

Reform-minded policy elites–top federal and state officials, business leaders, and their entourages with unlimited access to media (e.g., television, websites, print journalism)–use these talking points to engage the emotions and, of course, spotlight public schools as the reasons why the U.S. is not as globally competitive as it should be. By focusing on the Common Core, charter schools, and evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, these decision-makers have shifted public attention away from fiscal and tax policies and economic structures that not only deepen and sustain poverty in society but also reinforce privilege of the top two percent of wealthy Americans. Policy elites have banged away unrelentingly at public schools as the source of national woes for decades.

National, state, and local opinion-makers in the business of school reform know that what matters is not evidence, not research studies, not past experiences with similar reforms–what matters is the appearance of success. Success is 45 states adopting standards, national tests taken by millions of students, and public acceptance of Common Core. Projecting positive images (e.g., the film Waiting for Superman, “everyone goes to college”) and pushing myths (e.g., U.S schools are broken, schools are an arm of the economy) that is what counts in the theater of school reform.

Within a few years–say, by 2016, a presidential election year–policy elites will declare the new standards a “success” and, hold onto your hats, introduce more and better and standards and tests.

This happened before with minimum competency tests in the 1970s. By 1980, thirty-seven states had mandated these tests for grade-to-grade promotion and high school graduation. The Nation at Risk report (1983) judged these tests too easy since most students passed them. So goodbye to competency tests. That happened again in the 1990s with the launching of upgraded state curriculum standards (e.g., Massachusetts) and then NCLB and later Common Core came along. It is happening now and will happen again.

Policy elites see school reform as a form of theater. Blaming schools for serious national problems, saying the right emotionally-loaded words, and giving the appearance of doing mighty things to solve the “school” problem matter far more than hard evidence or past experiences with similar reforms.


Filed under school reform policies, testing

41 responses to “Why Common Core Standards Will Succeed

  1. You are especially accurate with the ‘appearance’ statement. Since political bodies seem to have the ultimate control we have to play by their rules.
    Whenever I see the current debate about the CCS I am reminded that we have had several large scale standards in place for a while. The NCTM has at least two generations of them that have been adopted by just about every North American jurisdiction and, here in Canada, we have been using the Pan Canadian Science Protocol (essentially standards) for over a decade. While I find the overall thrust and intention of both projects to be acceptable I have yet to find good hard data that any of it has made a positive difference on either individuals or the system. Note that this is not a negative reflection on the standards themselves but perhaps on the state of research efforts that seem to mostly be looking elsewhere.
    I’m also tempted to go on at length about the sorry state of large scale assessment. At a time when technologies are available for us to broaden the nature of assessment tasks (think of how simulations such as uColorado’s PHET project or immersive gaming environments such as World of Warcraft could be enhanced to subject students to structured but lifelike situations) we seem to be stuck in a rut of just producing better multiple-choice test generating systems.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Maurice, for pointing out the similarities of other standard-setting here and in Canada. Massive assessments, again, will be troublesome for those reformers who still see salvation in such instruments.

    • Martha Toth

      Interesting thought about using immersive gaming environments for assessment. I’ve already seen something similar at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, where visitors can, through “embodied interaction, “feel the magnitude of the impact of climate change” and “experience variability by being a data point within a larger data collection trend.”
      A lecture from the exhibit designer is here: http://www.iit.edu/csl/hum/announcements/2013_digital_humanities_lyons.shtml

  2. Bridget

    You forgot one very important component. That is the teachers. You see, no matter how ridiculous the education environment becomes teachers will continue to teach their students and follow the “rules” of CCSS. We are by nature rule followers. We do as we are told like good citizens. So we will continue to drive ourselves to exhaustion and drag our students over that higher bar set for them, even if it kills us, (and their joy of learning). We refuse to abandon our profession, so we play by their rules while they Rake in their millions at the expense of our children. It’s time for us to take back our profession and play offense instead of defense. Until that happens we are participating in our own downfall by allowing them to call the shots. We don’t have the money they have, but we do have the numbers. How many public school teachers are there in our nation?

  3. This should be required reading for anybody writing about education. Sad to say, media flacks will be the last to read it.

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  5. Larry, I agree with Susan and you, and there are others out there…what CAN we do?
    PS: I would like to “steal” your “theater of school reform” language and use it as a title for next chapter in my next book (a memoir focusing on arts as education (timeline: Late 50s to the present….) If you allow me I will be delighted…and hope to pose some questions to you to include in my book —I am casting as the third and final? book on this drowning subject…
    Best, always
    Jane Remer
    jremer@nyct.net or jane.remer@gmail.com

    • larrycuban

      Jane, there is nothing to “steal” about theater of reform. The concept of reform as theater comes from David Cohen, a colleague from Michigan in an essay he and Bella Rosenberg wrote decades ago. All of us stand on each other shoulders to learn, think, and write.

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  7. Again, Larry, thanks. Excellent summation. I re-blogged with some reflections on our local San Francisco “theater of reform” here. Seems like your writing might be getting a bit more… strident? If so, more power to you. If not, still high up in my RSS feed.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment and the YouTube of Superintendent Carranza’s talk to principals.
      As for my writing “might be getting a bit more …strident,” well, a definition of “strident” is “loud and harsh; grating. Presenting a point of view, esp. a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way.” Perhaps, Patrick, but I do not strive for stridency.

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  9. No offense intended by the choice of vocabulary. My use of “strident” (in quotation marks) was a less than clear homage, an obscure pointer to your economic counterpart in economics commentary, Paul (aka The Shrill One) Krugman. See here how he deals with his strident “shrillness.” His fans, of course, use the term with tongues in cheeks. And I’ll add from a non-historian’s point of view that today’s “excessively unpleasant” is often tomorrow’s “thankfully direct.”

  10. David B. Cohen

    Reblogged this on InterACT and commented:
    Larry Cuban takes a critical look at the Common Core Standards, and the politics surrounding implementation. Read the comments too, in which he cites one of my blogs on the topic, and also the work of the “other” David Cohen. That would be David K. Cohen, a professor and education policy expert at the University of Michigan.
    See: http://www.soe.umich.edu/people/profile/david_cohen/

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  12. Political “success” without educational success (improvement) does seem in the offing unless there is sufficient mass, popular resistance. It may be after this past spring that such resistance is developing: we have an embryonic movement. For more, see http://fairtest.org/spring-2013-testing-reform-uprising, which focuses on opposition to the testing rather than to the CC standards themselves.

  13. Your brief account of the history of ed reform would seem to argue the opposite of your title. That is, all reforms are cyclical, thus “this too shall pass.” Do you see the Common Core as somehow different? Or is your suggestion that the CCSS will succeed (by any measure) entirely ironic?
    One important difference is that many excellent teachers embrace what the Common Core asks of students and schools – i.e. increased emphasis on critical thinking – even if many are naturally wary of the massive scale of the initiative, especially when paired with Federal funding and Big Education lobbying. How much does that difference make?
    Teachers are resourceful and adaptable. We’re doing our best in our modest corner to empower teachers to strengthen the teaching of content and literacy. We began that effort before the Common Core and will endure, whatever fate political winds may have for any specific set of policies. Isn’t that kind of spark what ultimately what keeps the profession vital? http://EmergingAmerica.org

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comments and questions, Rich. I do mean to say that the quest for higher curriculum standards is cyclical–meaning that they come back again and again but not the identical to one another in each incarnation. Especially in the past four decades as I indicated in the post. Distinguishing between policy talk, policy action, and policy implementation is the key, I believe, for both teachers and administrators much less parents and taxpayers to sort through the rhetoric and adoption of higher standards over time.

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  16. Excellent post, Larry.

    You are yet another major voice of sanity in all of this madness. If it’s okay with you, may I reblog this on the Ravtich Blog?

  17. Whether it’s state standards, the common core, or a collaboratively developed curriculum document, teachers have to know (and usually do know superbly) what children should know and do prior to making choices about how to teach.

    At least in IL, the CCSS actually reduce the amount of content needed to cover, allowing teachers freedom to pursue concepts more deeply and in ways that are more engaging for students.

    I agree that great teaching and great schools make more of a difference than great standards, but I have to wonder if clarity around the curriculum helps teachers more than it hurts them. Personally, as a teacher, I preferred clarity around the curriculum and freedom within my classroom to implement the curriculum.

    Larry, is your issue with the CCSS more about a simplistic understanding of curriculum that you notice coming out of Washington and the group of people you call ‘reformers,’ or is it about the content and implementation of the standards?

    • larrycuban

      Thanksfor the follow-up comment, Timothy. My argument about Common Core standards is that those who push it is, first, have a “simplistic” understanding of the multi-faceted natureof curriculumas intended, as taught,as tested, and as learned by students. Second, they have a “simplistic”understanding of how a policy travels from state capitol to district school boards to individual schools and classrooms in those schools–in short they reduce putting policies into practice to adopting the policy and let others figure out how to implement it (e.g.,building capacity of teachers and principals,aligning instructional materials to standards, etc.). Third, there is very little evidence–beyond a few correlations–that mandating standards leads to improved achievement, higher graduation rates, college completion, and high salaried jobs.

      • I don’t disagree with you at all that many of the people making curricular decisions have very little understanding of teaching and learning, or of the realities of managing growth and change in a school system at any level.

        What I’d have to wonder about, however, is whether having clarity about learning objectives is truly irrelevant to classroom performance. There is considerable evidence to support that when teachers create rigorous, engaging learning objectives tailored to the needs of students in their room, that students do achieve more (Wiggins, McTighe, Marzano).

        So I’m left to wonder why, if having clarity around learning targets is helpful in our classrooms, developing a common understanding of what a fourth grader in the United States generally ought to know wouldn’t be helpful too.

  18. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    I just now got around to reading this. I hope others who missed it take the time to read it now, because it’s as close to perfect as anything gets. I’m sharing it widely.

  19. Sandra

    Theater underway in Florida with the 3-day Governor’s Education Summit. According to observers, the first day was spent applauding Florida’s initiatives. Today they will talk standards and assessment. Likely make a cosmetic change and conclude all is well.

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