Tag Archives: common core

A contrary view on the Common Core Standards Initiative

One education reform that most people haven’t heard of is the Common Core Standards Initiative. It’s the latest attempt to improve the educational performance of the nation’s students by establishing legal/administrative expectations of what students learn. In brief, it’s a set of school standards that are coordinated through the National Governors Association, and adopted on a state-by-state basis. Critics argue that this will result in back-door nationalization of what has traditionally been a state-level question.

School Reform News has a short article about the controversy, quoting both sides. Opponents have created a counter-manifesto, titled “Closing the Doors on Innovation.” I’m one of the signatories. You can add your name, too.


Who narrowed the curriculum?

There’s another problem that may be looming in the move across the country for states to adopt to a common set of standards: a narrowing of the curriculum. If you don’t like No Child Left Behind, you should probably not like the common core, which for now, has just mathematics and language arts:

The big problems are that focusing on just two subjects threatens to narrow the curriculum, while dodging essential reading threatens to hollow it out. Do more, though, and Americans might have something of substance to grab onto.

Coming next, perhaps: a national curriculum and national tests. Those may in the abstract be benign ideas. But I’m afraid they would further politicize education, which needs less interference from politicians, more choices for parents, and more freedom for teachers and school leaders.

Massachusetts Think Tank: National Standards Dumb Down Our Own

Are national standards a good thing? Perhaps, though there are many problems with them, as I’ve explained in recent days.

Here’s one other problem I haven’t mentioned: National standards may in some cases be inferior to home-grown, state standards.

Here, for example, is a press release from the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which has just released a report comparing Massachusetts standards with those of the common core:

Even after multiple drafts, Common Core’s final English language arts (ELA) and mathematics standards don’t compare favorably with those in California and what was until recently in place in Massachusetts, according to a review published jointly by the Pacific Research Institute and Pioneer Institute.

In Common Core’s Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade: Why California and Massachusetts Must Retain Control Over Their Academic Destinies, University of Arkansas Professor Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive active in developing California’s standards and assessments during the mid-1990s, write that Common Core’s mathematics standards don’t progress rapidly enough to prepare students to take Algebra I, the key to higher math study, by eighth grade.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt Common Core’s standards on July 21st; California is still considering the national standards.

“Common Core has made strides compared with its earlier drafts,” said Pioneer Institute Executive Director JimStergios. “Its final standards compare favorably with those in a number of states. But Massachusetts is not racing to the top nationally; we’re already there. Adopting the national standards last week slows us in the real competition — the one between Massachusetts and countries with the world’s best education systems.”

“The analyses presented in this White Paper should raise questions about the conclusions drawn by other reviewing organizations—to the effect that Common Core’s standards provide a curriculum framework in mathematics and English language arts that is at least as strong as or stronger than what is provided by the California and Massachusetts standards,” said Lance Izumi, Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Last year, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers agreed to sponsor the Common Core State Standards Initiative and, with encouragement from the United States Department of Education (USDE) and support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop common mathematics and ELA standards that states could voluntarily adopt. USDE subsequently included adoption of the standards among the criteria for states vying to win federal “Race to the Top” education grant funding.

Common Core has developed both “college- and career-readiness standards” for national high school tests that would assess student preparedness for college-level work, and K-12 math and ELA grade-level standards that are the grade-by-grade translation of the college- and career-readiness standards.

The authors find the gulf between Common Core’s standards and Massachusetts’ or California’s own standards particularly large in the following areas:

  • › Coherent grade-by-grade progressions through high school in both mathematics and English
  • › Expectations embodied in the content of Common Core’s standards for Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II that are less demanding than the standards in California and Massachusetts and reflect a less rigorous definition of “college readiness”
  • › Common Core’s replacement of the traditional Euclidean foundations of geometry with an experimental approach to the study of middle and high school geometry that has neither been widely used elsewhere in the world nor considered effective where it has been tried
  • › Common Core’s aim to teach Algebra I only in high school, at least one year behind the recommendation of the National Mathematics Panel and current practice in both California and our nation’s major international competitors
  • › Specificity of literary cultural content in high school English

Adopting Common Core’s standards will have an expensive ripple effect, requiring new professional development for teachers and textbooks be aligned with the new standards.

“Massachusetts taxpayers have spent nearly $100 billion on school reform since 1993. As a result of investing the money wisely, our students now lead the nation and are internationally competitive,” said Stergios. “But the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education put short-term gain ahead of kids when it voted to ditch our nation-leading academic standards for weaker standards in pursuit of a one-time $250 million federal grant.”

Adopting Common Core’s standards also provides an opening for those who have long sought weaker teacher licensure tests, such as the many Massachusetts teacher educators and union members who advocate for replacing the Commonwealth’s teacher licensure tests with off-the-shelf PRAXIS tests.

Myself, I’m skeptical of efforts to create standards in the political world. But if we are to have school standards created through politics, it’s better to let states take the lead. Harmonizing standards across states runs the risk of spreading mistakes across the nation rather than confining them to one state. Imagine, for example, if a whole-language emphasis, to the exclusion of phonics, had not been contained to California.

You can always get this or that person, meanwhile, to say that the proposed common core standards are superior to those currently in place in most states. In fact, the Thomas Fordham Institute says such a thing. But government targets and goals are subject to revision (just think back to how the KBOE adjusted its timetable for meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind, to start with). There’s nothing to say that a “good” set of standards today won’t in time become weak or otherwise objectionable.

Should one set of politically-driven standards prevail?

The Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania-focused group, refutes two notions in a recent blog post: first, that only “libertarian nut-jobs” oppose national standards, and second, that conservatives should embrace national standards.

The whole piece takes only a few words to make its points, so it’s worth a read. But here’s an excerpt: “If there has been ‘little outcry’, is probably because that few voters know this is happening. The ‘Common Core Standards’ was buried in the stimulus legislation, and has since been overshadowed by health care, Wall Street ‘reform,’ unemployment benefits extensions, Cap & Trade, and other policy matters.”

Will National Standards Improve Education?

Writing at the New York Times, Neal McCluskey asks, “Will National Standards Improve Education?”, and answers in the negative.

Here’s the crux of his argument:

Public schooling is a government monopoly, and the people employed by it – those who would be held accountable – are the most motivated and best organized to engage in education politics. The result is that sooner or later they get what they want, and what they naturally want is as little accountability to others as possible.

You may object to the word “monopoly,” but he adds that there is “no meaningful empirical evidence” that national standards improve education.

In fact, national standards–whether imposed from Washington DC on down, or created through state-by-state negotiations–run a significant risk.  It’s one thing for your neighboring states to have standards you don’t like, but what if those standards are  centralized.

Meanwhile, over at Education Week, Rick Hess comments on the debate over standards between Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli (pro-common core) and Jay Green (skeptic).

On the pro-national standards side:

Checker and Mike are absolutely correct that the standards were developed by a state-led partnership, are superior to those in place in most states, and that transparency and market efficiency can benefit dramatically from a clear, rigorous, national standard.

Then again,

there’s a huge chance this will dramatically boost federal control of K-12 schooling, that teacher unions and other status quo interests will make their influence felt, and that state and local control will be undermined.

Hess says that the debate reminds him of the early days of No Child Left Behind.  Given that the common core is in part a response to perceived problems that resulted from NCLB (states watering down their standards to make life easier for schools), that’s not exactly good news for the value of the common core standards.

Kansas standards “clearly inferior,” says CC Booster

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a backer of the common core curriculum project, has evaluated the math and English standards of the states and compared them against the proposed core curriculum. You read its report, The State of State Standards–and the Common Core–in 2010, on the institute’s website.

In English language arts, it gives the common core a B+, and Kansas standards a C. The difference is more dramatic in math: The institute gives the common core an A-, and Kansas standards an F. It says of the math standards, “Kansas’s standards are poorly organized and completely overwhelming. (The K-12 standards document is 348 pages long.) There are serious problems with both elementary and high school.”

The institute did Kansas a service by reviewing the standards. But Kansans ought to be wary of adopting the standards, since doing so would run the risk of increasingly federalizing education.

Common Core Standards advance

Is the USA inching closer to a national, standardized curriculum? Perhaps. It’s certainly more in that direction than away from it. Two states, for example, have added the Common Core State Standards to their practices, or will soon do so.

Wyoming has added national standards to its expectations for schools. According to Trib.com,

The Wyoming State Board of Education voted to include the Common Core State Standards in language arts and math in the next round of state standard revisions, according to a memo from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jim McBride.

And according to an AP story published by Macon.com, Georgia’s top education panel is expected to adopt the national standards soon: “Georgia will join 20 other states that have signed on to the Common Core State Standards that detail what students should learn in each grade and should know when they graduate high school. The state school board will meet Tuesday and Wednesday to take up the matter.”

The chairman of the Georgia state board of education defends the standards against accusations that they amount to a federal takeover of education. For an alternate view, see these comments from a teacher in the state. She opposes the “very rich people” who support the standards, saying the result will be “drill-and-kill testing factories.”

What do the standards look like?

You can see the draft version of the English Language Arts and mathematics at the official site of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Kansas and the Core

Meanwhile, what has the Kansas State Board of Education been up to with regard to the standards?

Concerns and reservations

From the May 2010 minutes, the last month for which minutes are available on the KSDE website [interesting comments put into bold]:

Tom Foster, Director of Standards and Assessments, updated Board members on the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. Matt Copeland and David Barnes, Department education consultants, reviewed information on the additions the Department felt were necessary to create high quality standards and a purposeful transition for Kansas educators and students. They noted that most of the comments and advice from Kansas had been integrated in succeeding drafts of the standards. Discussion and Board questions Tom Foster, Director of Standards and Assessments, updated Board members on the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. Matt Copeland and David Barnes, Department education consultants, reviewed information on the additions the Department felt were necessary to create high quality standards and a purposeful transition for Kansas educators and students. They noted that most of the comments and advice from Kansas had been integrated in succeeding drafts of the standards. Discussion and Board questions followed. Board members expressed many concerns and reservations about the standards. In response to comments about the lack of user-friendliness of the standards, different terminology used, and the importance and cost of professional development to train the field to use them, Dr. Foster explained that the Department would be developing bridge documents to link the new standards to the existing standards and training would be a key element in their implementation. The Department would do everything it could to make the transition for the field as easy as possible.

Another area discussed dealt with how the new standards compared with the existing Kansas standards and whether the state would do better to revise those rather than adopt new ones. There were also several Board members who objected that the State Board was not given the opportunity to be included in the standards initiative from the outset. Some questioned why an independent grassroots undertaking begun by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) was now being tied to the federal reauthorization of ESEA. The tie‐in to the reauthorization could pose a stumbling block for several members regarding their stand on approval of the standards.

Other issues mentioned were the pace of the project and fear it was proceeding too fast for states to keep up with assess the quality of the content of the standards; whether the new standards addressed graduates’ ability to find well‐paying jobs; the possible development of common standards in other content areas; and the standards‐related issue of development of new assessments and the state’s longtime relationship with the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at The University of Kansas. As a follow‐up, the list of Kansas standards review committee members who had been involved with the many drafts of the common core standards was requested.

A Kansas committee to study ESEA and the standards

The board was supposed to talk about the standards at its June meeting, but no minutes are available. The board will meet again on July 13 and 14. The file with background material (PDF–320 pages) for that meeting mentions that the board has directed the creation of a committee, the Kansas Education Commission, to study the issue of the reauthorization of the ESEA, the federal government’s chief law on education.

The commission has, among its other responsibility, this charge:

Kansas was one of 48 states involved in the Common Core Standards (CCS) initiative which resulted in a set of common standards in English language arts and mathematics released on June 2, 2010. While work on the CCS has been underway for over a year, the Kansas Education Commission will be charged with reviewing the standards and assisting KSDE staff in: 1) determining if the standards are appropriate for Kansas K-12 students and, if so, 2) what additional standards, if any, need to be added to fill in any gaps and also give the standards a Kansas flavor; 3) the most appropriate process for seeking adoption of the standards from the State Board of Education; and 4) assisting in determining what professional development will be necessary in order to ensure a smooth transition from the current standards to the CCS.

The materials include a letter, dated 06/24/2010, from Tom Foster to Interim Commissioner Diane DeBacker about the standards. In brief, the memo offers additions that KSDE staff believe should be added to the standards, should Kansas adopt them. The additions don’t address merely what students should know or be able to do, they call for specific approaches to teaching: “We believe in a commonly held approach to English language arts (ELA) instruction that is collaborative, constructive, inferential, process-based, and inclusive of multiple multi-modal texts.” What if you don’t want your child to be taught in such a fashion (assuming you can figure out what that means)? Tough, if that ends up being the official policy. That’s just one example of the problems with top-down standards. While the staff seek to avoid “paradigm wars” such as phonics-versus-whole language, anytime an official agency sets up standards, paradigm wars are possible.

A Debate on the Core

Finally, the Cato Institute offers up a video of a debate over the merits of having a common core. Here’s a link to a commentary by the institute’s Neal McCluskey, which will also lead you to the video, which runs 80 minutes. It features McCluskey, Sandra Boyd (ACHIEVE Inc.), Lindsey Burke (Heritage Foundation), and Michael J. Petrilli (Thomas Fordham Institute). The first 45 minutes are taken up by the four presenters,  while a Q&A session follows.

  1. McCluskey advances that argument that national standards are undesirable. There is no correlation between national standards and performance on international tests. Any standards that exist will end up serving the needs of teacher unions and administrators, not parents and children. The market should let various non-federal and non-government standards develop, to take account the various interests and needs of children.
  2. Boyd says that “national” are not “federal” and that “standards” are not “curriculum.” She further says that schools set the bar for high-school graduation too low, and that the expectations of colleges and employers are common across the states. The common core draft is superior to anything to anything that exists in states today. Standards are key to academic excellence, but they are not enough, if they are not supplemented by professional development, curriculum, assessments, accountability requirements and other factors. Governors are now looking at how to create common assessments–“the market at work.”
  3. Burke says that standards are the latest effort to entrench the federal government in something that should be a state measure. The common core standards is the Clinton standards redux. There’s a mismatch between what we want out of education and the funding incentives that exist today, and national standards do nothing to fix that mismatch. Common standards remove parents’ power over standards and curriculum, which is one of the few powers they have–the power will reside in Washington, DC. She applauds some reforms in Florida, which show that national efforts are not required to advance student achievement. Common standards will bring a regression to the mean and homogenization.
  4. Petrilli likes the draft standards. He makes four arguments. 1. There is evidence for national standards. 2. We don’t have to chose between standards and school choice. 3. Standards won’t be watered down. 4. Standards won’t lead to further federal control of education.

Common standards = politicized, national standards

There’s a move afoot to create a common set of curriculum standards, spearheaded under the name of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. (Kansas is tentatively on board.)

The Cato Institute’s Neal McClusky points out some downsides of the CCSI in this piece, namely the further centralization of education policy.

CCSI is a project of two more acronyms, the NGA (National Governors Association) and CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers).

It’s being marketed as a state-led effort, but don’t buy it, said McClusky: “to hear NGA and CCSSO officials tell it, the standards are the product of completely uncoerced state cooperation. That is at best a half-truth.”


It’s “budgetary blackmail.”

National standards, he continues, will end up being watered down over time, to placate the interests of people who work in schools.

National standards nonsense

Jay P. Greene calls the idea of national standards “nonsense,” in this essay. He writes, “Yes, the national standards may be better than those in some states, but everyone seems to agree that they are also worse than the standards in some states.”

The problem with government-imposed standards, ironically enough, is that they end up serving not the public, but the regulated industry.

The hard reality is that regulation tends to be captured by the regulated industry (unless there are competing, well-organized interests, which in education there are not).  Education regulations, like national standards and assessments, are at least as likely to be captured by the Edublob as the oil industry is to capture off-shore drilling regulations or the banking industry is to capture financial regulations.

Among governments, it’s better for states to be the regulators than the federal government. Not because states are less likely to be capture, but because if a bad set of regulations get imposed in one state, they can’t (by definition) afflict other states. Pure federalism works as a great defense against bad ideas.

Will new common core standards increase the drop-out rate?

Chester E. Finn Jr., whose Thomas Fordham Institute is a booster of national educational standards, worries that the Common Core curriculum being discussed for 48 states (including Kansas) may be pushing more high-school students to drop out.

I’m by no means the only person with doubts about the wisdom and economic utility of making college universal. My immediate concern, however, is that even as raising the K-12 academic bar does great good for a great many people, it will also discourage others. Faithfully “enforced,” it could worsen the dropout rate even as it better prepares those who complete high school to succeed in college and the more challenging occupations.

He also calls for new, meaningful paths for high school students who aren’t interested in going to college, a situation in which “each path leads to a worthwhile place—but not all of them to college.”

One possibility, he said, is outlined in the report Tough Choices or Tough Times, which has already been adopted in various degrees by six states. I had some favorable things to say about the report back in 2007 (PDF). It’s hard to know, however, whether public schooling as we know it is able to re-engineer itself along the lines that Finn desires.

The college dropout problem

Only half the students who start a four-year college program finish the degree in four years–or even six, according to the New York Times, relying on statistics from the U.S. Department of education. That’s a lot of time and money spent on an incomplete project.

The story reviews the pros and cons of heading to college, which I won’t get into now. Instead, I’ll focus on the need, which the article points out, for people to fill jobs that don’t need the traditional four-year degree: “Yet despite the need, vocational programs, which might teach such skills, have been one casualty in the push for national education standards, which has been focused on preparing students for college.”

For more on that topic, see the new page at Kansas Education on national standards.

Is a National Curriculum Coming to Kansas?

A long time ago I read a statement to the effect that in France, you could know what page of which textbook every student in the country had open on his or her desk. The statement was meant to illustrate the relatively more centralized nature of the French political system compared with the American.

The claim may or may not have been true, but one of the latest trends in education reform is towards national standards, which might lead, over time, to importing the French approach to America. I will be exploring this more in a new page on this site, called National Curriculum Standards.