The Core Between the States

Peter Wood

“Common Core” is the name attached to 12 standards for mathematics and English Language Arts/Reading that 40-plus states have now adopted. These standards are to guide the development of common assessments and curricula for these states. A good many colleges and universities also use the name “common core” for the mandatory part of their curricula, but the capitalized Common Core is very much its own thing.  

I have a general interest in these standards as a citizen who cares about the reform of public schools, and a more specific interest in them because they will surely have consequences for higher education. Standards for public education inevitably influence the college curriculum, and beyond that, the advocates for “Common Core” have their eyes on higher education too.

This is the first of several posts I intend on the topic—though not necessarily in an uninterrupted sequence. In this lead essay, I want to establish what the Common Core is, where it came from, who supports it, and in what ways it has become controversial.

A National or a States’ Initiative?

Its full name is “The Common Core State Standards Initiative.” It is, in its own words:

a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.

This is accurate but also, I think, misleading in a variety of ways. Efforts to use the powers of the federal government, especially through the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), to impose more rigorous intellectual standards in American schools span several decades and the terms of both Republican and Democratic presidents. These efforts have been more or less well-funded (think of No Child Left Behind-NCLB) but all of them ran into a wall. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t give the federal government any direct role in K-12 education, and, according to both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, USDE’s 1979 enabling legislation and NCLB, it is against federal law to have national standards or a national curriculum. Historically, the states have all developed their own regulations over public schooling. For decades, we had 50 different sets of curricular standards, 50 different sets of teacher standards, and 50 different state education bureaucracies, none of which are eager to cede control to Washington. And then, of course, we have local school boards and teachers’ unions.

Nonetheless, for decades it has been the dream of many reformers—left, right, and center—that the United States would move towards a more nationalized vision of grade school and high-school education. Other nations have such unified curricula. One can walk into any classroom in France and find the same material being taught in the same way to students in a particular grade. Why not the United States?

The Common Core can thus be seen as another attempt to circumnavigate the constitutional obstacles of federalism. First, its proponents proposed “common” or national standards with common tests based on these standards, and then a “common” curriculum under the cover of the states voluntarily adopting it on their own but in concert. That’s the meaning of privately and publicly unaccountable DC-based organizations such as the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) taking the ostensible lead in developing the Common Core.

“Ostensible” is the key word. But before we get to that, it is important to acknowledge that my contextualizing the Common Core as a successor to earlier movements to impose national control on the K-12 curriculum is strongly disputed by the Common Core State Standard Initiative. Under its FAQs, for example, one finds this:

Q: Is having common standards the first step toward nationalizing education?

A: No. The Common Core State Standards are part of a state-led effort to give all students the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. The federal government was not involved in the development of the standards. Individual states choose whether or not to adopt these standards.

This is technically true but again, I think, misleading in at least three ways. First, the goal is still uniform national standards. Second, the Obama administration supports that goal and has found several ways to pressure the states into adopting the Common Core. Third, the states didn’t actually lead the initiative: It is well-known that the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation has planned (in concert with the USDE) and funded all the development, review, and promotion of this initiative, including the selection of most of the personnel on the various standards development committees.

Funding to the states through the Obama administration’s signature school reform initiative, Race to the Top (RTTT), is effectively tied to state’s adopting Common Core, and along with this carrot has come the stick of threatening to deny funding through Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), to states that fail to adopt “standards that prepare students for ‘college and career.’” (Common Core is the only game in town, so the generalized language is beside the point.) President Obama floated that idea in a White House meeting with the governors, February 22, 2010, and it has since become a major talking point for those who favor the Common Core. For example, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which backs the Common Core, argues that the reauthorization of ESEA (which includes the No Child Left Behind program) should “Expect states, as a condition of Title I funding, to adopt rigorous (i.e., ‘college- and career-ready’) academic standards in reading and math (either the Common Core standards or equally rigorous ones).”

Who Supports Common Core?

This is a surprisingly complicated question. Clearly President Obama supports it, but I also just mentioned the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, whose president is Chester E. Finn, Jr., former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, and a member of the National Association of Scholars’ board of advisors. That’s one indication of the complicated politics behind the Common Core. Its supporters can be found across the political spectrum. The National Association of Scholars itself has among its members both prominent supporters and critics of the idea. I count myself among the critics, but I want to be clear that I speaking for myself and not offering anything like my organization’s view.

Gathering in the sheaves of supporters is a large task. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has been appointing advisory committees for several years. Major corporate and foundation sponsors have emerged. Unions have weighed in. And several key education-advocacy groups are devoting themselves to the charge. It isn’t hard to compile the names of all these players, but it can be difficult to figure out which are the primary and most influential.

The Common Core’s committees include:

A. a 29-member Common Core Standards Development Work Group (to develop “college-and career-ready” high school exit standards), consisting chiefly of testing experts and developers;

B.  a three-member writing team for ELA/R and a three-member writing team for mathematics to develop K-12 grade-level standards in each subject. Each is guided by external review groups made up chiefly educators or education faculty;

C.  a 25-member Validation Committee, appointed in September 2009 and made up mostly of testing experts, professors of education, one mathematician, one expert on English and reading standards, and a few school administrators and teachers. These groups included few professors of English, mathematics, science, engineering, or economics, or high-school teachers of mathematics or English. But they were mostly made up of people who work for testing organizations (e.g. ACT, the College Board, and Achieve, Inc.)

If “personnel is policy,” the membership lists of these committees should tell us something, and I have linked the press releases in 2009 that name the initial appointees. But I’ve not been able to figure out from Common Core’s Web site or other sources who actually appointed these committees or who, for example, collected the video testimonials from various eminences that also appear on the Web site. From the latter, we know that the president of State Farm Insurance; the governors of West Virginia, Michigan, and Vermont; the president of the American Federation of Teachers; and a teacher from Wisconsin and another one from Illinois think well of the Common Core.

But where does this initiative actually come from? Whose idea was it?

I don’t have an answer, and I’d welcome some clarification. But I have some threads. The most important of these is the organization Achieve, Inc. Achieve was founded in 1996
“by the nation’s governors and corporate leaders,” according to its Web site, to help “states raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments and strengthen accountability.” Its prominence in Common Core can be gauged in a number of ways. For example, 8eightof the original 29 members of the Common Core Standards Development Work Group were associated with Achieve.

Achieve also presents itself as a founding father of the Common Core. It explains:

Through such efforts as the development of the American Diploma Project benchmarks (expectations in English and math anchored in college and career readiness often considered to be the pre-cursor to the Common Core State Standards), the Alignment Institutes (through which 22 states brought teams together to align their high school standards with college- and career-ready expectations), and the ADP Assessment Consortium (a group of 15 states that came together to develop common mathematics exams), states in the ADP Network have in many ways helped drive the nation towards understanding the value and necessity of having common expectations for all students. To that end, Achieve is now strongly committed to:

Common Core State Standards: Achieve in partnership with the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has developed K-12 standards in English and math that are internationally-benchmarked, college and career ready, rigorous, clear and focused, and grounded in research. Forty-eight states signed on to support the process, nearly all of which have already adopted the new standards. The final standards were released in June 2010, and Achieve is now supporting states as they move from adoption towards implementation.

But knowing that Achieve is a key player with Common Core doesn’t tell us all that much. The president of Achieve is Michael Cohen, who with no disrespect could best be described as a professional DC-based educrat. Early in his career he worked for the National Governors Association; later he “held several senior education positions in the Clinton Administration.” Exactly how he has come by his outsized influence on America’s public schools, I am not sure. The staff of Common Core may all be perfectly competent people, but their names probably won’t register with many readers.

A little more helpful is Achieve’s the list of contributors—the foundations and companies that bankroll the organization:

The Gates Foundation has played the largest role among foundations that back the Common Core. Its support for Achieve, Inc. is but one relatively small part of its investment in the larger project. As reported in the New York Times by Sam Dillon, the Gates Foundation spent $373-million on education in 2009, $78-million for advocacy. Between January 2008 and November 2010, the Gates Foundation had contributed more than $35-million to the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association Center; it gave Achieve $12.6-million in February 2008; and $1.4-million to The Fordham Institute. Those are incomplete figures reported by the Washington Post. But this is surely enough to make the Gates Foundation a hugely influential player in this national debate.

As I have begun to scout this topic a number of other names have surfaced as key intellectual contributors. For example, Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, has come up. As “one of the nation’s 10 most influential people affecting educational policy over the last decade,” according to her own Web site, this sounds plausible, though I am not sure of the precise connection to Common Core. I am told that she is one of the lead persons involved with developing one of the models for national assessments that will accompany the national standards.

We have before us a sweeping reform of America’s public schools. It is past the stage of proposal and well along in implementation. Whose ideas are at the center of it? What do they hope to accomplish?

The Controversy

I come to the Common Core controversy as someone who played a very small role in the school reforms in Massachusetts in the 1990′s. I worked on the social-studies component of that state’s history curriculum framework and got to know some of the people who were much more deeply involved in crafting the state frameworks. It was a significant moment in American school reform, because within a few brief years of the adoption of those frameworks, student performance in Massachusetts vaulted ahead. Math and verbal SAT scores in the state lagged behind national averages, but after the curricular reforms and other new measures, including the adoption of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and new teacher testing, the state turned around. By 2005, it became the first state ever to “finish first in all four categories of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” I am quoting from an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal a year ago written by Jim Stergios and Charles Chieppo at the Pioneer Institute, who are among the harshest critics of the Common Core. What galls them is that Massachusetts, under pressure to join Obama’s Race to the Top, began to back away from its successful reforms.

The concern for Massachusetts—as for a number of other states, including Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota, is that to adopt the Common Core would mean lowering existing standards. Of course, proponents of the Common Core don’t admit this, and have responded with assurances that nothing could be further from the truth. The Common Core State Standards Initiative includes its own answer in its FAQs:

Q: Does having common standards lead to dumbing down of the standards across the board?

A: Not at all. The Common Core State Standards have been built from the best and highest state standards in the country. They are evidence-based, aligned with college and work expectations, include rigorous content and skills, and are informed by other top performing countries. They were developed in consultation with teachers and parents from across the country so they are also realistic and practical for the classroom. Far from looking for the “lowest common denominator,” these standards are designed to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, are learning what they need to know to graduate from high school ready for college or a career.

Frankly, I doubt this. Having seen both the old Massachusetts standards and the new Common Core standards, it is clear that Massachusetts indeed has had to handicap itself to qualify for the federal benefits that flow from adopting the Common Core. I am not alone in my skepticism. Some states that rushed in to adopt the Common Core are already having second thoughts. Education Week recently reported that the New Hampshire legislature is considering a bill to withdraw from the Common Core, and Minnesota and South Carolina are also debating whether to head for the exit.

One of the mathematicians on the Initiative Validation Committee, R. James Milgram, has come forward with a sharp public dissent on the quality of the math standards. He names a number of standards for which he says, “To my knowledge, there is no real research base for including any of these standards in the document.”

The loudest noise, however, is Closing the Door on Innovation: Why One National Curriculum is Bad for America, an anti-Common Core manifesto that has rapidly been picking up new signatories.

I suppose one could make the counter-argument that the nation as a whole will be better off with one set of national standards even if that requires some states to take a few steps backwards. To get Alabama on board, Massachusetts will have to take its lumps. But I don’t think such a “race to the middle” compromise will persuade many people. The advocates of Common Core are pretty much stuck having to defend the proposition that the Common Core is actually an improvement over curricula that claim to set higher intellectual standards.

What kind of improvement might that be? What is the actual educational substance of the Common Core? I leave those questions until the next installment.

This article originally appeared on May 23, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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