On May 9, 1991, I was called to the White House for a domestic policy briefing at which then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander walked administration presidential appointees through “America 2000: An Education Strategy,” President George H. W. Bush’s reform proposal for public education. Secretary Alexander reviewed a set of national education goals, for achievement by the year 2000, adopted by all of the state governors at the 1989 Charlottesville summit convened by President Bush, the first such meeting devoted to education since the Great Depression.
Thus, ironically, I can say that I was present at the beginning of national attempts to reverse the march to mediocrity of public education begun by progressivism and accelerated by postmodern multiculturalism, to which President Bush shaped a national response. Sadly, all of the rhetoric and reform efforts by the federal and state governments, the private sector, and education experts over the past thirty years have not been able to overcome our pernicious academic education monopoly—progressive colleges of education and their indoctrinated teachers and politicized pedagogies; politically correct curricula, content, and texts; faddish consultants and supportive associations; and state and district administrative bureaucracies—sometimes called the “Blob,” which has been responsible for transmogrifying local public education.
In a new series of articles, I will review multiple aspects of the latest effort to reform the academic deficiencies of public education—the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics. The CCSS are contained in a two-volume, 230-page document which specifies the knowledge-based skills that students should acquire in each grade (from kindergarten to the end of high school) to become college- or career-ready. The CCSS are the start of a process to change what children are learning, which will take at least another decade. I will contend that the CCSS are, as Robert Pondiscio has called them, “the defibrillator—our last chance to shock American education back to life.”
The marked deterioration of our state and locally controlled public schools—demonstrated by a sharp drop in 12th-grade verbal scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) between 1962 and 1980—was identified thirty years ago. A scathing report in April 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war….Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.
Public school performance today is even worse than it was before A Nation at Risk even though spending per pupil has doubled. Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz show in The Race Between Education and Technology (2008) that since 1980, American educational attainment (primary and secondary school and college) has declined further and no longer produces enough workers with the basic skills needed to keep up with technological advance.
Virginia English professor emeritus and core-knowledge maven E. D. Hirsch Jr. argues that:
The reading scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] constitute the single most accurate indicator of the effectiveness of our schooling, and as we look at the low reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past few decades of reform, we see no real movement.…
It is no coincidence that…the middle class’s economic woes followed a decline in 12th-grade verbal scores, which fell sharply between 1962 and 1980—and…have remained flat ever since.
My article Middle Class and Governance evinced a like conclusion.
In 1991, taking its cue from the recommendations of A Nation at Risk and of the governors at the Charlottesville summit, “America 2000” proposed the creation of collective state standards and voluntary national tests in core subject areas. It began discussion of the concept of “systemic reform,” the alignment of standards, curriculum, assessments, and teacher training. President Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994 amplified and codified America 2000’s expectations. The core of the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) of 1994 was a grant program to support state development of subject-matter standards and assessments and school district implementation of standards-based reform.
Massachusetts (and a few other states) demonstrated the efficacy of such reform. Its 1993 Education Reform Act established knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to the new standards. Education professor emerita Sandra Stotsky was a key creator of that program. Massachusetts students went from good performers to lead the nation in verbal and mathematics tests. But most other states were complicit in a mistake by the Bush and Clinton administrations: they allowed the education monopoly to develop the new standards. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989, 2000) and English (1989, 1996) issued standards that made even worse the Blob’s misguided teaching by progressive “constructivism,” in which children construct their own knowledge rather than learning it from the teacher.
After taking control of the U. S. Congress in 1995, conservative Republicans began to roll back and defund the federal role in education. A concerned business coalition (the Business Roundtable, U. S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and others) sought another way to advance systemic reform. In 1996, a non-profit organization called Achieve, led by Louis V. Gerstner Jr., former CEO of IBM Corporation, was founded by a bipartisan coalition of state governors and top corporate executives to help states raise academic standards. Achieve joined with the Education Trust, Fordham Institute, and National Alliance of Business to identify the “must have” knowledge and skills most demanded by higher education and employers.
In January 2001, President George W. Bush proposed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, with the purpose of eliminating “achievement gaps” between advantaged and disadvantaged children. That Act was passed by Congress with strong bipartisan support, but was properly opposed by some educationists because of its unrealistic expectations. By 2014, all public school students were to be “proficient” in reading, mathematics, and science. From NCLB, America was to become like Garrison Keilor’s Lake Wobegon, in which all children are “above average.” States quickly came to realize that the only way in which all students could become “above average” was to define “average” down. Thus, states lowered rather than raised performance norms (some high school graduation tests were geared to the eighth-grade level of learning)—a practice exposed by NAEP tests.
In 2004, Achieve released Ready or Not: Creating a High School Education That Counts, which it said “identifies a common core of English and mathematics academic knowledge and skills, or ‘benchmarks,’ that American high school graduates need for success in college and the workforce.” In 2005, Achieve, the National Governors Association (NGA), and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) launched a college- and career-ready standards effort with thirteen inaugural states. In 2007, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began funding the development of such standards. ACT, the College Board, and subject-area educationists advised the effort. In 2009, Student Achievement Partners was hired to complete the CCSS. In 2010, the final CCSS were released and forty-five states pledged to adopt them. The Fordham Institute has found the CCSS “superior to the academic expectations set by three-quarters of states—and essentially on par with the rest.”
The Obama administration included in The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the stimulus bill) a $4.35 billion educational grant program called Race to the Top to spur improvement of teacher performance and schools, based on the CCSS or equivalent. Moreover, that Act funded the development of assessments of student performance to the CCSS by two consortia, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (with 23 states) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (with 22 other states). Such assessments are to begin in 2014.
The CCSS are appropriately conceived to induce correction of aspects of public education that have not been adequately addressed since A Nation at Risk—the curriculum, its academic content, and the conveyance of knowledge. The CCSS for ELA increase the requirement to read closely for information the kinds of nonfiction that most high school graduates cannot now read adequately in either college or the workplace, which several of my previous articles have illustrated. Classic literature would replace contemporary fantasy fiction. For mathematics, the CCSS would replace a fragmented, repetitious curriculum with a more coherent and rigorous one focused on fundamentals.
Contrary to misperceptions by some on the political right, the CCSS do not impose a “national” curriculum—the particular academic content taught by teachers from lesson to lesson and from grade to grade—though recommending many exemplars of the rich content considered desirable. State and local school systems still need to develop curricula and instructional materials and methods that will enable students to meet the rigorous new CCSS requirements. For that step, a 2009 Brookings Institution paper concluded that:
The effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than for the Obama-favored policy levers.
And a 2012 Brookings paper about curriculum and other factors found that:
There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness.
Most importantly, the CCSS give top priority to improving reading ability and building vocabulary and knowledge, from reading informational as well as literary texts—beginning at the outset of elementary school and increasing in complexity throughout middle and high school—long advocated by Hirsch. That’s why it will be more than a decade before the full benefits of the CCSS can be realized.
Some critics charge that the academic content and level of the CCSS are inferior because they will produce graduates trained only for jobs in the global economy or admission to a non-selective community college rather than qualified to enter any program at a four-year university. I will argue that the CCSS got it right. The CCSS establish a higher floor—not a ceiling—for academic achievement that would end the need for remedial education. The CCSS properly leave decisions about advanced courses (such as calculus) required for some four-year college programs, acceleration, and ability grouping to local school districts and parents, while offering needed guidance.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Hess observes in National Affairs that “the notion of ‘closing achievement gaps’ has become synonymous with education reform.” The Obama administration aims to send everyone to college. But recent, separate studies by Professors James Heckman and Sean Reardon show that children of poorly educated, low-income, often single-parent families have about the same shortfalls in cognitive performance at the end of high school as they did before kindergarten. The question is how much the early-grade knowledge-based education that the CCSS envision can improve that cultural outcome over time. The criterion for the CCSS should be to realize the American ideal of equal opportunity, not, like NCLB, to eliminate “achievement gaps,” which the CCSS assessments will further reveal.
It is not just disadvantaged students whose education requires upgrading by the CCSS. Fordham Institute president Chester E. Finn Jr. points out that “about half of eighth graders with college-educated parents fail to clear the ‘proficient’ bar on NAEP.” The 2012 ACT college-entrance exam showed that 75 percent of students failed to meet college readiness standards. The coming CCSS assessments will generate angst among parents of students at all levels and a likely further political backlash.
The principal threat to the successful application of the CCSS remains the education Blob, which must be redirected to the new CCSS expectations—in content, texts, and teacher training. The Blob is attempting to subvert the CCSS, for example, by adding politicized, trivial nonfiction while retaining its politically correct, dumbed-down fiction. Ironically, some conservative critics’ assaults by anomalous anecdotes often wrongly impute to the CCSS the de facto standards and practices of the Blob that the CCSS seek to replace. How states and local school districts manage this interface with the Blob will determine the success or failure of the CCSS reform.
President Obama and the Democratic National Committee planted their “kiss of death” by claiming credit for the CCSS, provoking strident opposition. The Republican National Committee then approved a resolution that “rejects this CCSS plan which creates and fits the country with a nationwide straightjacket on academic freedom and achievement.” Perversely, if unintentionally, the populist right is acting in a manner to empower the Blob rather than the people. Instead, the CCSS should be supported as the unique opportunity that states and communities have long lacked to complement choice and reverse the decline of their local schools over five decades.
Coming full circle, now-Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) again offers a solution, summarized in the GOP weekly radio address on June 15, 2013. He criticized the federal mandates that have made the U. S. Department of Education “a national school board” and offered a Republican plan that ”emphasizes state and local decision making”:
It puts Washington out of the business of deciding whether local schools are succeeding or failing. It…prohibits the Education Secretary from prescribing standards or accountability systems for states. It continues the requirement that states have high standards [including the CCSS] and quality tests, but it doesn’t prescribe those standards….It encourages states to create teacher and principal evaluation programs free of federal mandates.
Alexander’s proposed legislation is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate, but it focuses national attention on the need to correct the ills of NCLB and Race to the Top while enabling the CCSS.
The nation has a compelling interest in finally effecting a dramatic improvement in the quality of public education. The better-though-imperfect CCSS should be implemented and improved, to transmute the Blob’s adulterated public school curricula, content, and pedagogy.
The next article will explicate why we have a literacy problem in public education.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
 Robert Pondiscio, “The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform. Ever.” http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2012/09/20/the-57-most-important-words-in-education-reform-ever/, 20 September 2012.
 National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, U. S. Department of Education, 26 April 1983.
 Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008).
 E. D. Hirsch Jr., “Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 December 2012.
 Lamar Alexander, America 2000: An Education Strategy (Google ebook, 1993). Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945‒2009: A Brief Synopsis, New York State Education Department, http://www.archives.nysed.gov, 2009.
 Sol Stern, “E. D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy,” City Journal, Autumn 2009.
 Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 430‒41. Sandra Stotsky, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012), 54, 60. David Klein, “A Brief History of American K‒12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century” in James Royer, Mathematical Cognition (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2003). George K. Cunningham, “University of North Carolina Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers?” Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, January 2008.
 P. L. 107-110, No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 8 January 2002, www.wikipedia.org
 Sam Dillon, “Federal Researchers Find Lower Standards in Schools,” The New York Times, 30 October 2009.
 Chester E. Finn Jr., “Conservatives and the Common Core,” Education Next, http://educationnext.org, 3 May 2013. Sheila Byrd Carmichael et al., The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010, Fordham Institute, July 2010.
 Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945‒2009: A Brief Synopsis.
 Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Don’t Forget Curriculum, Brown Center, Brookings Institution, October 2009.
 Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core, Brown Center, Brookings Institution, April 2012.
 Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, Controlling Education From the Top: Why Common Core is Bad for America, A Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project White Paper, No. 87, May 2012.
 Rick Hess, “Straight Up Conversation: Common Core Guru Jason Zimba,” Education Week, http://blogs.edweek.org, 11 February 2013. Erik W. Robelen, “Questions Arise About Need for Algebra 2 for All,” Education Week, http://www.edweek.org, 12 June 2013.
 Frederick M. Hess, “Our Achievement-Gap Mania,” National Affairs, Fall 2011.
 The White House, Address to a Joint Session of Congress, 24 February 2009.
 Eduardo Porter, “Investments in Education May Be Misdirected,” The New York Times, 2 April 2013. Sean F. Reardon, “The Widening Income Achievement Gap,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 70, No. 8, May 2013.
 Stephanie Banchero, “SAT Scores Fall as More Students Take Exam,” The Wall Street Journal, 24 September 2012.
 The White House, Address to a Joint Session of Congress, 12 February 2013. Andrew Ujifusa, “Democratic Platform Hails Common Core, Praises Teachers,” Education Week, http://blogs.edweek.org, 4 September 2012.
 Valerie Strauss, “Common Core Standards attacked by Republicans,” The Washington Post, 19 April 2013.