Peter Wood: "The Common Core Is Dead"

Peter Wood

The following are a video and a transcript of Peter Wood's speech at The Heartland Institute in Chicago on April 6th, 2016. In his book, Drilling Through the Core, NAS President Peter Wood discusses the failures of the "one size fits all" Common Core State Standards. 

The Common Core by common consent is dead. But don’t leave just yet. As anyone who has watched a zombie movie knows, dead things can hurt us. Even in the real world. Discredited economic theories can come shambling back, like Bernie Sanders' socialism, twenty-five years after the Soviet Union was finally and unceremoniously buried. Incompetent models of catastrophic man-made global warming can linger long after they have turned graveyard cold by data that contradicts them.

Other terrifying fantasies conjured out of thin air for the sake of advancing the influence of some special interest continue to haunt many people no matter how thoroughly they have been debunked: America is a rape culture; Americans are in a rush to persecute Muslims; opposition to liberal policies is based on hated of minorities.  

A dead idea or a dead policy isn’t always dead and gone. Sometimes it stays around to be annoying. Or worse.

Ask Jeb Bush if the death of the Common Core was neat and tidy. If it had died, say, two years earlier, his presidential campaign might still be alive. The dead sometimes take the living with them.

In some cases that may be all for the better, but sometimes it is genuinely tragic. A few days ago, AMTRAK 89—a train I sometimes take to Washington, DC collided with a backhoe and killed two men. One was a pedestrian trying to rescue the backhoe operator.

The Common Core falls somewhere between the comedy of people inflated with false ideas of their own importance and the tragedy of rescues gone terribly awry, but it has elements of both.

When Common Core was first conjured—which was less than a decade ago—it was meant as a rescue plan. Its first architects, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, presented it as a solution to what’s called “the achievement gap,” i.e., the disparity between the scores on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement between White and Asians on one hand, and Blacks and Hispanics on the other hand.

That original purpose is now largely forgotten. The early supporters of Common Core realized that to sell it to the general public they needed a broader marketing campaign. Ultimately they seized the idea that the Common Core would make all students “college and career ready.”

That phrase deserves a grave marker of its own and I’ll come back to it with marble slab and chisel in hand. But let’s stay for a moment with the original idea. How was the Common Core supposed to cure the Achievement Gap? The answer, if you don’t already know it, will surely come as a surprise. Coleman and Zimba proposed that the way to eliminate the achievement gap was to set the standards so low that everyone could meet them. They announced this in a 2007 white paper for the Carnegie Corporation of New York titled “Math and Science Standards that Are Fewer, Clearer, Higher to Raise Achievement at All Levels.”

“Fewer, Clearer, Higher” doesn’t sound much like “lower, lower, lower.” So what gives? The title was an early example of what became a hallmark of Common Core-speak: using words to mean their opposite. It is worth seeing just how Coleman and Zimba accomplished this trapeze act.

Part 1. They decided on what they called “pragmatic analysis,” which meant ‘don’t bother teaching any math that ordinary people won’t use in their eventual jobs.' When was the last time you used logarithms at work or quadratic equations? Well, that simplifies things.

Part 2. The standards should be chosen—I quote—to “dramatically” raise “the number and diversity of students performing at the highest levels.” So content shouldn’t be determined by the intrinsic importance of the material but by how well it wipes away evidence of demographic disparities.

Part 3. Coleman and Zimba decided that the word “higher” in “higher standards” would refer not to the intellectual content of the standards but the percentage of people who passed them. Since to raise the percentage of those who passed required lowering the standards, “higher standards” was code for lower standards.

Now if you understand this, you understand most of what you need to understand about the Common Core. The mysteries fall away. Sunlight floods in. The Common Core was never intended to raise standards. It was from the get-go a plan to establish a nationwide floor that would also be a ceiling. It was anti-excellence wrapped in the giftwrap and tinsel of excellence.

Of course the history of that gift-wrapping is important, as is the detailed working out of exactly what went into the standards. Coleman and Zimba started with a concept and applied it to math standards. In the end the Common Core provided two streams of standards, in mathematics and English language arts. It went through a prolonged period of development with the involvement of hundreds of supposed experts. It grew not one but two giant bureaucracies of its own. And it became enmeshed in state and national politics.  

But let’s first return to the casket. I started by saying the Common Core is dead. How did it die? It died of parental opposition, teacher opposition, political defection, and perhaps most importantly, flat-out academic failure.

The academic failure is the most telling. Remember the Common Core was sold to the American public as something that would make high school graduates “college and career ready.” The designers of Common Core thought they could game this by measuring their success on their own custom-made scales. They forgot about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which provides an independent check. NAEP tests randomly selected fourth and eighth graders across the country and examines their performance on reading and mathematics.

The liberal Brookings Institution last month released a study of how NAEP scores line up with the states that went all-in with the Common Core, “strong implementers” in Brookings-speak, and contrasted those states with “medium implementers” and non-adopters. There is plenty of data. Forty-six states initially went into Common Core. Three have pulled out—Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. A few others have made some ad hoc changes in their versions of the Common Core.

What Brookings found is “no evidence that CCSS has made much of a difference during a six-year period of stagnant NAEP scores.” There is, as Brookings also notes, some moderately good news in that finding. The Common Core appears not to be the general cause of NAEP stagnation. Even states that didn’t adopt it stagnated.

Let me pause on that for the moment, because the larger context really does matter. The nation has spent billions so far on developing and implementing the Common Core. One result of that “investment” is no measurable improvement in NAEP scores. States that spent nothing on the Common Core got the same results.

But that does point to the question of why NAEP scores have slumped across the board. What has happened during those six years of Common Core implementation that would weigh against academic performance? I don’t want to give a flip answer. Surely the real answer involves a combination of social and cultural changes. We know a few things that strongly erode the performance of children in schools. The top of the list is single-parent families, followed closely by other forms of family dysfunction. Both of these are closely connected with financial insecurity. Another factor is immigration. Students struggling with English as a second language do not do as well. Increase single-parent families, family dysfunction, financial insecurity, and immigration, and poor school performance will follow as a certainty. Add to this the increasing tax on students’ attention from social media and the increasing use of schools as a way of promoting ideological conformity, and the picture is not bright.

There is no Eureka moment in saying this. The value in reminding ourselves of the obvious is that it gives us the space to recognize the sheer hype of Common Core. Changing the “standards” for K-12 education was never, ever going to change the real level of performance of students. That takes committed parents who have the time and ability to foster in their children a love of learning, a desire to succeed, and the confidence to push ahead. Good nutritious meals don’t cook themselves because you have perfected a list of ingredients. And kids don’t suddenly self-educate because bureaucrats have fine-tuned curricular standards.  

Which is not to say that Common Core in any manner fine-tuned the curriculum. It moved significantly in the opposite direction.

There are other indicators besides NAEP scores that demonstrate this. SAT and ACT scores have dipped in the Common Core era. Aware of the problem, David Coleman moved to the College Board in 2012 with the promise that he would “align” the SATs with the Common Core, and right now the new fully-aligned SATs are being administered. “Aligned” of course is a euphemism for dumbed-down. The Common Core is desperately in need of evidence, even phony evidence, that it does some academic good.

It needs that evidence because more and more data is piling up on the other side. In the English Language Arts, for example, we are watching the decline of instruction in literature and its replacement by non-fiction. Why does this matter? Research on reading skills runs against using non-fiction, or at best fails to support it. But Common Core insists that students learn best from treating everything as “informational texts.” That is, even when students read literature, they are supposed to treat it as primarily information. This is a bit like trying to squeeze propane gas out of an orange. There may be a way to do it, but you’d be far better off trying to collect orange juice.

Our friends at the Brookings Institution wondered whether schools in the states that “heavily implemented” the Common Core really went ahead with this switch, and sure enough they have. In the years since Common Core arrived, in both fourth grade and eighth grade literature has dropped by ten percent or more to be replaced by non-fiction texts. In the non-adopting states, the trend has been the opposite: more literature.

Should we care about this? Americans, after all, are a practical people, and the Common Core appeals to our practical side by insisting it will teach children to excel at the practical skill of garnering information from what they read. Who cares if they can wade though the whale guts of Moby Dick, if they can quickly decipher the informational texts such as BuzzFeed quizzes. Which Disney princess are you?

The practical answer to this is that reading literature is by far the single biggest predictor of long-term academic success. Follow Ishmael on the voyage of the Pequod to the eventual port in Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Or learn how to excel at BuzzFeed quizzes and maybe get a job working for the guy who read Moby Dick.  

Literature matters for a lot of reasons beyond that. It teaches us how to read beyond the literal text: to see analogies, to hear the unspoken, to tease out implications, and to comprehend the whole. Literature is where we learn how to see the forests, and not just the pine needles. The Common Core is taking us way into pine needle territory.

Common Core English Language Arts has other problems that have not yet, to my knowledge, been subject to rigorous review. It fragments texts; it fights against context and background knowledge; and it turns everything it touches into evidence.

I’ve sometimes said that the Common Core aims to create students who are half-robot and half-lawyer. If Common Core had its way, the robot lawyers would be super-efficient processors of information in a mechanistic way, and they would turn life into a deposition. In Common Core-speak, the standards aim for “greater focus on fewer topics.” Hear how nice that sounds? The Common Core has put a lot of work into smooth marketing of something you neither need nor want. It promises, for example, “coherence” in place of “a list of disconnected topics, tricks, and mnemonics.” I take some umbrage with the idea that education used to be just a random jumble and the Common Core has solved the problem.

As with the deceptive attempt to call lower standards “higher standards,” the translation of “greater focus on fewer topics” is something like this: Our students will know little, remember less, and never race ahead with mental shortcuts. They will instead plod dutifully ahead according to our method.” Because that is what robot-lawyers do.

Of course, I don’t believe the Common Core can actually produce these robot-lawyers. Very few students will sit still for such a stultifying education, and teachers will—and already have—bridled against it too. In that sense, the Common Core’s failure as a curriculum was built-in. There never was going to be a day when students would conform to it. Its educational ideals were unmoored from psychological and educational reality.

But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t do damage. It has enormous opportunity costs for students. What they could have and should have learned they haven’t because Common Core was in the way. My colleague at the National Association of Scholars, Carol Iannone, examined the teacher’s edition of the 11th grade literature textbook, The American Experience, Common Core Edition, from Prentice Hall, and examined the five hundred or so readings. She noted, as she put it, the “blizzard of sidebars and underbars and inserts and various sets of instructions and proposed questions (with proposed answer and assessment measures) and writing assignments and preparation exercises and background information and thought experiments and group discussion ideas and further task suggestions, and more—all in different shapes and sizes and fonts and colors and groupings.”

What happened to standards that are “Fewer, Clearer, Higher?” And what happened, for that matter, to the word “and”? Just as “higher” turned out not mean higher, “fewer” didn’t mean fewer; and “clearer” certainly didn’t mean clearer. What “fewer” actually means in Common Core-speak is that there would be fewer differences among the states, since in principle they would all have the same standards. But the number of standards themselves could be quite large, and the interpretations of those standards in the hands of busy publishers with a buck to turn could be enormous. What “clearer” means in Common Core-speak is everything taught could and should be pinned to an exact sub-sub-sub-standard. There should be no ambiguity about where any stray idea fits into the puzzle palace of Common Core. The whole thing might be a fantastic mistake, but at least we know how every detail contributes to the grand scheme.

The result of this kind of clarity is blinding obscurity. For that 11th grade literature textbook, each reading is subject to a “Text Complexity Multi-Index,” which combines “four comprehensive measures” which “expand upon the Common Core State Standards’ three-part model for measuring text complexity” which in turn combine “qualitative and reader-task considerations“ and are “balanced with quantitative measures to achieve an overall text complexity recommendation.”

Got it?

All this stuff is applied to readings that look, at least superficially, worthwhile. Mark Twain is in there, and so is Herman Melville, and lo and behold the students are reading Moby Dick. Well, actually, they are reading eighteen pages of pre-digested Moby Dick, through the sieve of “pre-teaching” warm-ups and literary analysis concepts and reading strategy; graphic organizer transparencies; activating prior knowledge activities; reading strategy prompts; and whole armies of other pedagogical concepts.

Melville can be a hard read for some students, but burying him between this much apparatus signals to students not that he is a challenge to be met but that he is an impassable obstacle, and the eighteen page excerpt requires a kind of literary hazmat suit.

The “jargon-laden schematization” as Iannone puts it, comes in service to an approach to literature that chops everything into fine pieces and dissolves context. No student will come away realizing “This is why we read Moby Dick” or anything else.

But let’s judge the English Language Arts of the Common Core by the Common Core’s own standards. Is this sort of thing making students “college and career ready”? I know of no college where this destructive sampling of literature would have any value at all. Higher education is desperate for students who have the trained attention spans and independence of mind to read real books and to frame their own opinions. Students on a spoon-fed diet of fragments is exactly what they don’t want.

So how did the Common Core hit on this formula? Well, first, David Coleman and his colleagues appear to have had it in for literature from the start. They wanted non-fiction informational texts to be front and center, and if states demanded literature be left in, the Common Core cogitators decided that literature would have to be stretched and chopped to fit the Procrustean bed of informational text.

But there is something more. Literature is one of the places in the K-12 curriculum where students come into possession of their own civilization. It is rich with ideals, values, tradition, and imaginative aspiration: the very stuff that the Common Core wards off as dangerously privileged or even elitist. What is education really for? Making students “college and career ready?” Those are not bad things, but what education is really for is developing character. Without it, children learn nothing. Ideally, students develop as whole people: morally-grounded, thoughtful, self-disciplined, creative, hard-working, and mature. We seldom achieve all that but striving towards it gets us a lot closer than sitting back to see what happens.

As the Common Core began to crowd out everything else in schools, an interesting counterpoint began to take shape in the U.S. Department of Education and elsewhere. Afraid that the word “character” might give too much ground to educational traditionalists, the innovation squads reinvented it as the more tough-sounding word, “grit.” There is a movement now in K-12 education to encourage students to develop grit. I won’t go into it except to say that the grit-kickers are kicking against the moral hollowness of the Common Core. They aren’t saying that but it is clear that in the fragmented, chaotic world of Fewer, Clearer, Higher standards, there is a felt need for something that will restore moral agency to students. The robot-lawyer model is losing.

Or to put it another way, the Common Core is dead, and the educrats are trying to figure out what comes next.

I have spent considerable time on the English Language Arts, but the Common Core Mathematics Standards are troublesome too, just in different ways.

First, the Common Core slows down the pace of math instruction. Before Common Core was in place, almost all the states reasonably expected students to master basic addition and subtraction by third grade; Common Core decided fourth grade would do. Same with the multiplication table. Long division was generally a fifth grade skill; Common Core defers it to sixth grade.

These changes may seem small in themselves, but they are large in cumulative effect. At a time when other developed nations are racing ahead in STEM education, the U.S. via the Common Core decided not to accelerate but to move into the slow lane. Because math builds on itself, the slow-down in the early stages means more slowing down later on. Algebra gets kicked up to ninth grade and then the Common Core tapers off. It has no room at all, for example, for the pre-calculus instruction that used to provide the bridge for students headed off to college. Logarithms are barely mentioned. Parametric equations are absent. Arithmetic series are omitted. Polar forms of functions never come up.

Of course, most of us adults live without these pieces of mathematical knowledge. We studied them once and moved on to learn other subjects that didn’t depend on “parametric equations.” What’s the harm of not teaching them in the first place? The harm is that, by not providing instruction to young people at the age in which they can absorb the knowledge, we preempt the whole possibility of their going further. We are effectively slamming the door shut for millions of children on possible careers in the sciences, engineering, and many technical fields where a solid foundation in math is crucial.

This thinning out of math instruction betrays two key promises made by the Common Core’s proponents: first, the one I have mentioned several times, that the Standards would make students “college and career ready.” Plainly they do the opposite in math. They ensure that students who attend schools that rely on the Common Core will not be college ready. They may be career-ready if the career is operating an automated cash register at a fast-food restaurant, but that’s about it.

The other key promise is that the Standards would be “internationally benchmarked.” This mean that they would be at least as high as the standards in countries that excel in math. The U.S. ranked 28th last year, down a notch from 27th in 2012. The top five were Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Finland was sixth; then Estonia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. Only one in four American students does reach the baseline for mathematical proficiency set by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). We are roughly comparable to Hungary, Italy, and Lithuania.

Plainly, the Common Core has done nothing so far to nudge us upward in world rankings, let alone make us comparable to the best. So the Common Core boast that it would set internationally benchmarked standards turned out to mean that, with the aid of binoculars, we can see that bench—on the back of a foreign truck—rapidly disappearing a few miles up the road.

The Common Core defenders have their excuses. The “college ready” part turned out to mean—as one of the Core’s architects eventually confessed—ready for community college. Students who have higher aspirations have to fend for themselves by seeking out tutors or extra-curricular supplementary classes.

Prosperous families will find work-arounds, but for everyone else, the Common Core imposes a low ceiling on what their children will learn in school.

Math instruction goes astray in other ways too. It is infamous with parents for imposing tediously complicated forms of computation on children in primary school. The computations “work” in the limited sense of providing right answers (most of the time) but they also deliberately drive a wedge between parent and child, since very few parents can crack the code.

Common Core math standards also diverge from parental understanding in more subtle ways. For reasons known only to the Common Core’s architects—who have never had to explain why—they emphasized simple visual models such as number lines in grades one to six. Less easily visualized mathematical concepts such as multiplication and division with negative numbers get put off to later—in this case, seventh grade. Common Core approaches geometry in grades 5-8 as though it is nothing more than measurement, and then it abruptly turns to an effort to derive the rest of geometry from the study of “rigid motions.” It is a way of teaching geometry that has been tried once or twice before, notably in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, where the experiment was deemed a failure and discarded. Why it should be imposed on nearly the whole United States all at once through the Common Core is a mystery.

If you sit down and examine the Common Core math standards in detail you find a system of instruction that internally makes sense. Like the English Language Arts Standards, it works if you grant the underlying premises. If you want robot-lawyers and students frozen into the logic of an inefficient and obscure system of calculation, the Common Core may be just what you are looking for.

But if the question is, “What kind of people do we want our children to become?” The Common Core doesn’t give a very satisfying answer. The answer, to the extent it can be inferred from the Standards, is that the Common Core aims to make children into well-organized utility-maximizers—people who do not waste time contemplating hard problems or dreaming big dreams, but who have a ready means to cut things down to the size they already know how to handle. The perfect job for a Common Core graduate is probably coding. That may be why Bill Gates funded much of the development and promotion of the Common Core—not because he cynically wanted legions of ready-to-work programmers, but because he really thinks that is the best of all possible career paths.

Common Core is, to be sure, on its way out. It is unloved by parents, teachers, and the public as a whole. Designed to reform how schools teach English and math, it demoted other subjects such as history. So what lies ahead will be partly repair and partly restoration.

I have, of course, simplified the story. I’ve said nothing about how the Common Core traveled from a pet project of some state governors to being one of President Obama’s signature projects. I’ve said nothing about the dubious Constitutional and statutorr standing of the Common Core. I’ve passed over the ruckus on data mining. I’ve left the disastrous roll-out of the tests by the two multi-state testing consortia fall by the wayside. I’ve passed over in silence the duplicity that characterized parts of the Common Core movement, and the self-delusion of other advocates who mistook “Common Core” for Hirsch’s core knowledge.

The project sprawls in more directions than I can cover in a short talk, but it probably doesn’t matter. Because the Common Core truly is dead. No state that doesn’t already have it will adopt it at this point, and nearly every state that has adopted it is trying to figure out how to exit at the lowest possible political and financial cost. Major supporters—governors, foundations, think-tanks—have bailed. Some ruefully. “If only…” they say, “if only we had done this or that…”

Of course, every movement has its die-hard partisans. No doubt there are some Common Core-idians who imagine a resurrection. But dead is dead.

And the real questions we are confronted with now are like those that follow an earthquake or hurricane. How will we clean up? Who will pay for it? What comes next? America has invested so much in Common Core that we can’t easily get out. The investments include very large amounts spent on textbooks, computers to support the Common Core tests, and teacher training.

There are also poignant questions for parents who have the choice of waiting out the bad years ahead by moving their children out of public school or staying put knowing that they will have to work extra hard at home to compensate for the Common Core’s poor delivery of essential knowledge and its mischanneling of children’s intellectual development. I don’t have an easy answer to those questions. For my part, I am focused on mitigating the upstream damage to higher education, which is going to be considerable. And one of the battles at hand is fighting the continuing effort of the College Board under David Coleman’s stewardship, to institutionalize as much of the Common Core as possible through the SATs and the Advanced Placement exams. But there’s a topic for another day.

Let me say a last word about the other Davids in the fight against the Common Core. This was an enormously well-funded and politically-wired effort to capture American schools—in effect to wrest power from parents, local school districts, and the states, and to transfer it to private testing consortia, publishers, and the federal government. It failed because of a handful of small institutes and grassroots activists. The Pioneer Institute that published Drilling through the Core and many other papers; the Heartland Institute that week after week, month after month stayed on the story; the American Principles Project; the Eagle Forum; the Constitutional Coalition; and many others are the Davids I speak of. The Goliath of Common Core lies of the ground today because of what they did. And I’m sure many of the people in this room played a part.

If any good comes from this sorry episode in misguided reform of our schools, it will be this proof that we can successfully stop the follies pushed on us by schemers who do not have the best interests of our children or our communities at heart.

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