December 3, 2013;Stateline

Though frequently mentioned in the press coverage of education reform debates, the “Common Core” is probably not well understood. Adrienne Lu has a helpful Q&A on the Common Core education standards at Stateline containing some important points:

  • The Common Core State Standards were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and a Washington-based nonprofit called Achieve. According to its website, Achieve “provide(s) technical assistance to states on the design, development, adoption, implementation, and communications of their college- and career-ready standards, assessments, curriculum, and accountability systems.” Achieve’s board is half governors and half business executives, the latter including representatives of Prudential Financial, Intel, IBM, and Battelle. Education reform critic Diane Ravitch has frequently noted the strong support of Common Core from corporate America—for example, citing the full-page New York Times ad taken by 72 corporations in support of New York state’s adoption of Common Core standards as indicative of corporate enthusiasm for the program.
  • Although the Obama administration’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan is an enthusiastic backer of the standards, recently describing opposition to the core coming from “white suburban moms,” a shift from his previous description of opposition as Tea Party types, the Common Core standards are not a federal mandate. Rather, states could voluntarily adopt the English and math standards if they wanted; Lu reports that 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted both, while Minnesota has adopted only the English standards. Alaska, Texas, Virginia, and Nebraska are the holdouts, though some states such as Indiana and Massachusetts have recently slowed down some aspects of the implementation of the Core standards.
  • The Common Core standards do not come with predetermined standardized testing, but they lead in that direction. Lu reports that “two groups of states are developing standardized tests which will be rolled out in 2014-2015.” At a business conference in 2012, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, an enthusiastic backer of the Common Core standards himself, predicted, according to Thomas B. Fordham Institute blogger Terry Ryan, “that the more rigorous Common Core standards, if backed by equally rigorous assessments, will show that only one in three children in America qualify as college or career ready…[which] will trigger serious political backtracking.” The testing, in Bush’s view, will compel education leaders to double down on the Common Core standards. Lu writes that the Obama administration has “poured $438 million of economic stimulus funding into developing standardized tests aligned to the Common Core and has strongly encouraged states to adopt ‘college- and career-ready standards’ in the competitive grant program Race to the Top and through No Child Left Behind.”
  • It shouldn’t be surprising that there is significant debate as to whether the standards will really impact student achievement. Some critics believe that the need is for quality teaching, not common standards, to improve students’ school achievement. There are also concerns about the standards themselves. Stanford University math professor James Milgram, once a member of the committee to validate the Common Core, says that the math part of the Common Core standards is actually insufficient, leaving American students two years behind their peers in most high-achieving countries by the end of the seventh grade. “I think the original intent was to raise outcomes, but I think the leaders got tied up in the issue of buy-in,” Milgram is quoted to have said. “I think they made choices that would make it easier for states whose expectations in mathematics were not all that high to buy into Core standards.”

Describing herself long as agnostic about the Common Core standards, Ravitch came out against them earlier this year. Ultimately, her opposition is somewhat less concerned with the specifics of the standards and more on how they were developed and sold. She suggests that there was minimal public engagement in the development of the standards and no real testing of how they would work. Rather, they were promoted by the National Governors Association and Achieve, both well funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which gave Achieve, for example, $12.5 million in 2008, $9.3 million plus another $3.5 million in 2012, $4.1 million in 2004, and $2.1 million in 2005, plus smaller amounts in 2009 and 2011), and frequently linked by school reform advocates such as former New York City education chief Joel Klein (in a report co-authored by Condoleeza Rice) with charter schools and vouchers to counter what they described as the public education “threat to national security.” Although not imposed by the federal government, the Common Core was made virtually essential for successful state government applicants for the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funding from the Department of Education. Fundamentally, she questions whether the testing that will go along with the Common Core won’t simply exacerbate disparities between the haves and the have-nots, between native English speakers and those who speak English as a second language, between schools with sufficient resources and those with less.

The jury is still out, even for Ravitch. “I hope for the sake of the nation that the Common Core standards are great and wonderful,” she wrote earlier this year. “I will continue to watch and listen. While I cannot support the Common Core standards, I will remain open to new evidence. If the standards help kids, I will say so. If they hurt them, I will say so.” Now we have to listen for the evidence, not the exhortations of ideological advocates, to see if the Common Core standards are really going to help.—Rick Cohen