The Common Core Is in Retreat

A Politico article today declares that the Common Core has “quietly” won the school standards war. It is a headline that would have been accurate several years ago, but today’s headline should be somewhat different:  “Common Core in major – but quiet – retreat.”

The one thing the article gets right is that the Core did, indeed, achieve almost complete domination very quietly. But that was around six years ago, when the Obama administration, at the behest of Core strategizers, slipped the de facto requirement that states adopt the Core into the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, a pot of “stimulus” money the large majority of states grabbed for while the country panicked about the Great Recession. It was also used to pay for national tests to go with the Core. It was, for all intents and purposes, a silent coup.

But then something happened. Around 2011 the public suddenly became cognizant that they’d lost a war they weren’t even aware they were in. After the states had done their part in conforming to the new standards overlords, districts and schools were told, “implement this new set of standards you’ve never heard of.” That’s when the resistance began, and it quickly grew fierce. Indeed, the Core has been on the defensive ever since.

Polling, though subject to lots of variation thanks to wording and other issues, shows the losses the Core has suffered. As I noted a few months ago, more-neutral poll questions tend to show very low support for the Core, but it is a question that is biased in favor of the Core that captures the direction in which the Core has been going: backwards. Defining the Core as standards states simply choose to adopt that “will be used to hold public schools accountable,” the annual Education Next poll found support dropping from 65 percent in 2013 to 49 percent in 2015. Among teachers, the Core freefell from 76 percent support to 40 percent, with 50 percent now opposing.

Capturing how bad things are for the Core, a question in a brand new poll that blatantly spins for the Core, describing it as a “set of high-quality [italics added] academic standards,” elicited only 44 percent support, with only 9 percent saying the standards “are working in their current form and should not be changed.”

Sure doesn’t seem like the Core is triumphant, at least not on the battlefield of public opinion.

Where a better case can be made that the Core is winning is in the official presence of the Core as state standards. That is what the Politico article mainly argues is the evidence that the Core has won the war, but there, too, it is clear that the Core has been in steady retreat.

Of course, some states have officially dropped the Core: Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have joined the four states that never adopted it. And no, their new standards may not be all that different from the Common Core, but it was officially declaring that they would not be dictated to by Washington that was the big victory for anti-Core forces and, of course, federalism.

More substantive, but much less flashy, has been states leaving the tests that would be the linchpins of nationalization. The US Department of Education selected and paid for the work of two testing consortia – the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) – and the tests were to be the keys to making sure Common Core was both truly used – what gets tested is what gets taught – and set nationally comparable performance levels. But the consortia have crumbled.

SBAC, when it was awarded Race to the Top dollars, had 31 states as members. Today, it has 18 member states. PARCC started out with 25 states and DC. It is now down to 11 and DC, with Arkansas, Mississippi, and Ohio officially set to leave even that small group, and PARCC possibly on the ropes in Massachusetts. Adding to the testing woes are massive opt-outs in New York and to lesser extents in other states, and states gaming “shared” performance targets.

Without a doubt, it has been hard to get states to officially dump the Core. They expended a lot of time and money implementing it before the public ever knew it existed, and coupled with de facto federal penalties for leaving – coercion has been more than just Race to the Top – it is understandable that states with even vociferous opposition would be loath to declare, “forget all we’ve spent, not to mention that we’d have to whipsaw kids around – we’re trashing the Core.” No, instead of outright rebellion they’ve often taken a page from Core proponents: wage a stealthy war.

States are taking apart the Core largely by taking apart the tests, and the Core is in retreat.