I used a simple fact as the title of this post. The Common Core standards are probably the biggest thing affecting K-12 education since No Child Left Behind. They are in the news and trade press constantly. But something odd is happening.
That the Common Core is a set of standards, which are voluntary, has become less and less evident in debates and discussion. State legislatures are debating whether to pass laws to block the adoption of voluntary standards? Florida, New York, Louisiana, Wisconsin….the list goes on. Louisiana currently is debating four bills about the Core.
An observer just catching up to the issue might guess that the Federal government must have pushed these standards on states and states are pushing back. This is not what happened. The Federal government supported the standards, but provided no funding at all, zero. (They did call for states applying for Race to the Top funds to adopt the standards, a subtle but powerful form of support.) It was up to the states. Ultimately the Gates Foundation underwrote a lot of the effort. Critics see this as an example of ‘corporate reform’ in education. To me, it’s what foundations do. It could have been Hewlett, or MacArthur, or WT Grant. Foundations underwrite innovations all the time, and the Common Core definitely is an innovation.
State policymakers are debating whether to block voluntary standards that, in a sense, they asked for. Why did they ask for them? In 2010, Gary Phillips showed that states with the largest fraction of students scoring proficient on state tests did not have the smartest kids. They had the easiest tests. And as it goes with tests, so too with state standards. The problem the Common Core tries to solve is that states had wildly varying standards. Creating a uniform set of standards was a way around each state having to do its own.
Stated this way, the whole episode could have been seen as just a tedious exercise in the unglamorous work of developing standards. (Having participated in efforts to develop research standards for the What Works Clearinghouse, I can say with confidence that this is not glamorous work.) Here’s an example of a Common Core standard, this one for fifth-grade math: Write simple expressions that record calculations with numbers, and interpret numerical expressions without evaluating them. Generating outrage about stuff like this must take a lot of energy.
And the standards are a floor, not a ceiling. A state can create more rigorous standards if it wants to. But the whole point of creating standards is that states should not adopt less rigorous ones. Reasonable people can disagree on specifics of the standards–maybe they think the math is too conceptual, or not conceptual enough, or that nonfiction reading is overemphasized at the expense of novels. But creating a uniform set of standards means creating one set.
Somewhere on the path to implementation, the public and their elected representatives realized the standards have some bite. The massive vessel that is K-12 education needs to turn to meet the standards. In some states the turn might be quite a few degrees. And there’s the rub. ‘These are our kids, and we are just fine with how they are being educated. We don’t need the Core.’ [Edit: Indeed, on March 25, Indiana’s governor signed legislation opting out of the Common Core, the ostensible reason being the state plans to create more rigorous standards. The governor is quoted saying ‘I believe our students are best served when decisions about education are made at the state and local level.’ But the decision to participate in the Common Core was a state decision. Indiana agreed in 2010.]
States do need the Core. When 20 percent of incoming college students need remediation, something is amiss in the K-12 system. These are the best students. In theory, at least.
The problem, as Jay Greene noted, is that organizations creating the standards did not think through the end-game. Changing curricula and instruction for millions of teachers and students is a huge undertaking. Who likes change?
I hope reason prevails. The Core is a good idea, and I like to think that our system rewards good ideas. Perhaps I am being naive. Education is highly politicized, and political settings and good ideas don’t always get along. But going back to the way things were is not the answer.