Something historic is happening in education policy. In the past, the U.S. had 50 different sets of education standards, one for each state. But in 2009, a consortium of states decided to organize in a bold attempt to develop shared standards for Math and English Language Arts.
After the standards were agreed upon, each state legislature could vote to adopt the new common standards, or decide to keep their own. Currently, 45 states have passed laws adopting the Common Core State Standards.
This state-led, bipartisan effort is unprecedented in education. Why do we need common standards now? What do the proponents and opponents say? Will common standards improve student achievement?
Why Do We Need Common Standards Now?
Authority to set education standards resides with states. In fact, federal law prohibits a national curriculum.
In 2001, when No Child Left Behind passed, the federal government established for the first time an accountability system meant to get better results for tax payer’s education dollars. NCLB required states to develop their own standards, design tests to measure how well students met those standards, and report publically how each school performed. Schools failing to meet “Adequate Yearly Progress” would face punitive consequences.
How well has NCLB’s accountability system worked? Unfortunately, instead of raising the bar for student achievement, the law created perverse incentives for states to lower standards to avoid punitive consequences. A state with lower standards could celebrate higher percentages of students meeting “proficiency,” while a state with higher standards might have to report lower percentages of proficiency.
Without common standards, “proficient” had 50 meanings. States could game the system and avoid accountability.
To fix accountability problems caused by diverse standards, the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers started the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Common Core was an idea whose time had arrived.
What Do Proponents and Opponents Say about the Common Core?
Education policy today can be confusing because Democrats and Republicans are found on both sides of issues, and this is true with the common standards policy. Here are the main arguments, pro and con.
- Expectations will be clearer: Students, educators and parents will know what students are expected to learn in school to graduate ready for college and the workplace.
- Comparison of student achievement will be easier: Because the common core will have common assessments, apples-to-apples comparisons between students, schools, districts, and states will be much easier. Also, since common core standards are benchmarked to standards of the highest ranked PISA countries, global comparisons will be easier.
- Tests will be fairer: Tests aligned to clearly defined grade-by-grade subject matter decreases the disadvantage to students whose schools, or homes, did not expose them to the knowledge tested.
- Adverse effects of student mobility will be reduced: In the typical school district, students transfer in and out at a rate of about one third. A common core of curriculum means students, parents and teachers can expect more consistency in grade-to-grade subject knowledge exposure when students change schools.
- The marketplace for curriculum materials will allow more innovation: Common standards will simplify the state approval process for textbooks and other materials. Because publishing textbooks is so expensive, in the past the states with the largest markets, Texas and California, had the biggest say about what topics were included or excluded. With common standards curriculum publishers can align materials to the common core, making the approval process through states much simpler.
- A national curriculum is against the law: The common core would weaken the power of local government in education. Even though states created the standards, and they comprise just 85% of the curriculum, the common standards opens the door for more federal control over public education and the flow of ideas.
- Common Core Standards adoption was not voluntary, but coerced by the federal government: Education Department tactics coerced states into adopting the common core. As an example, their “Race to the Top” fund, created with stimulus dollars, gave preferential treatment for grants to those states that adopted the common core.
- Rigorous standards don’t improve student achievement: Data from a decade of standards-based reform shows standards did not meaningfully increase student achievement. This is even true in states with the highest standards.
- Common Core Standards will waste money: Because adopting states have spent a fortune building their own standards and tests, they will now lose the amortized benefit of those tax dollars. Spending more money to implement a policy that hasn’t got acceptable results doesn’t make sense.
Will the Common Core Improve Student Achievement?
Proponents agree that standards, in and of themselves, don’t improve student outcomes. What common standards do is remove barriers to effectiveness in the whole education system.
First, tests are fairer if they align with clearly defined subject matter, something not possible with today’s standardized tests. Second, the accountability system works better if tests are fair, which in turn frees up class time now spent teaching standardized test-taking skills. Third, teacher collaboration advances if grade level expectations are clear. Fourth, when parents know what’s expected, out-of-school learning coordinates better with what is learned in school. Fifth, the education marketplace opens up if state approval processes are streamlined. And finally, comparison of student achievement gets much easier and provides better feedback to students, parents, teachers, principals, districts, states and federal policy makers.
The hope is that Common Core State Standards will start an avalanche of improvements to the public education system.
PCM Background Information:
Common Core Standards and Assessment -Background Papers by the League of Women Voters. Fabulous background information on the questions that drive the Common Core Standards debate.
Conflicting Research on Core Standards, Education Experts Blog, National Journal. Short opinions on the Common Core, given by Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, Congressman John Kline, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Tom Vander Ark, Rick Hess, Monty Neill, Joanne Jacobs, and more.
Why Common Core Standards Will Fail, Jay Mathews, Washington Post, discusses a Brookings Institute study that predicts the Common Core will not raise student outcomes.
Five Myths About Common Core State Standards, Richard Rothman, Harvard Education Letter, debunks the most popular objections to the Common Core.
The Knowledge Deficit, by E.D. Hirsch, a PCM top 10 Influencer, and a PCM Top 10 Book for Parents. Hirsch is at the heart of common core, and this book explains it all. Read this and you will gain such cortical mass, your head might tip.