Tag: common core

Not Quite Blowing Up the Death Star, but…

For two years the national curriculum blitz has been rolling through states unabated, with “Common Core” standards now fully adopted in all but five states and development of national tests continuing. Of course all of this has been done with heavy federal air support, including making adoption of Common Core crucial for states wanting to access Race to the Top funds, and Washington selecting and funding the national test developers.

Last week, however, national curriculum forces suffered a small but notable setback, with the Utah State Board of Education withdrawing the Beehive State from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the two consortia developing tests to accompany the Common Core. In terms of its on-the-ground impact, it’s not huge —Utah will still have the Common Core standards—but symbolically it could be big, showing that states can undo decisions they may have made in haste, or in pursuit of federal money or favors. And to be honest, it is more official push back than I expected.

That said, the crucial point will still be when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—AKA, No Child Left Behind—comes before Congress for reauthorization. That is when it will be decided whether adopting the Common Core will be necessary for states to get huge amounts of annual federal funding, and whether scores on the national tests will determine whether districts, schools, or children get rewarded or punished. If those measures are included—especially the high-stakes testing—then it is game over: we will have an indisputably federal curriculum, and no state will dare resist it. They simply won’t be willing to jeopardize billions of annual dollars.

Until then, national standards opponents can take heart in Utah’s small act of defiance.

NCLB Is ‘Voluntary,’ Too

Why the big concern about the Common Core? For many it’s about the quality of the standards, which is a topic well worth delving into. But the real problem is that – continued protestations of supporters notwithstanding – adopting the standards has been anything but truly voluntary, and they are very likely to lead to complete federal control of education.

First, the sham voluntarism of today. Did your state want federal Race to the Top money? It had to adopt the Common Core to be fully competitive. Did it want out of the irrational, failed, No Child Left Behind Act? It had to have signed on to the Common Core to have a decent chance. Oh, and the tests that will go with the Common Core? The consortia creating them were selected by the federal government, which is also paying the bills.

And here’s something interesting: States didn’t technically have to sign on to NCLB, either. They “volunteered” to take federal dough and got NCLB with it. So why don’t you hear many people crowing that adopting NCLB was voluntary?

Because they know that it’s almost impossible for state policymakers to turn down hundreds-of-millions of federal dollars. It looks like a whole lot of money to state citizens, and those citizens had no choice about paying the federal taxes from which the money came. So neither signing on to NCLB nor the Common Core were truly voluntary, and the only reason the nation has fallen slightly short of Common Core unanimity is that, unlike NCLB, neither Race to the Top money nor NCLB waivers were guaranteed for every state. Nonetheless, most found it impossible not to take a gamble.

That said, the biggest threat is down the line. With almost all states having adopted the Core, there’s a huge chance that when Congress reauthorizes NCLB the Common Core – and the federal tests to go with it – will become the backbone of federal accountability, with schools rewarded or punished based on how they score on the tests. The rationale many policymakers will offer is easy to anticipate: “States have already signed on to shared standards, so it makes little sense not to base accountability on them.” Classic slippery slope.

From the vantage point of Common Core supporters, that is actually the only outcome that makes sense. As Fordham Institute folks have complained on numerous occasions, the vast majority of states will not on their own raise standards and maintain strict accountability. But if states won’t do it, the federal government – their boss – must.

But even if Common Core supporters achieve that which is the logical end of national standards and testing – federal control – it almost certainly won’t give them the educational outcomes they want.

Ultimately, the groups that have the most influence over any government policy are those most directly affected by it – they are the most motivated to be politically involved – and in education that’s the teachers and administrators whose very livelihoods come from the system. And because they are normal human brings – no better nor worse than the rest of us – what they ideally want, and fight for, is as little accountability to others as possible. That’s why so few states have ever had much success with standards and testing, and why it’s irrational to think that Washington will do any better. Indeed, at least to a limited extent states compete with each other for residents and businesses – Washington doesn’t face even that minimal upward pressure.

So what will the Common Core most likely get us? Red-tape driven federal control without rigorous standards and testing. It will also move us farther from the reform that actually makes sense: School choice for all, which would overcome disproportionate political power by forcing educators to respond to parents. And that’s not all it would do. It would also give educators new freedom to employ different pedagogies and curricula; enable children with diverse interests and needs to link up with teachers specializing in them; and unleash crucial competition and innovation. It would, basically, stop ignoring the fundamental realities that all children are different, and no one actually knows what are the ultimate, “best” curricula.

Unfortunately, not only are we moving away from what we need, we’re stuck fighting over what really isn’t even a question: Adopting the Common Core hasn’t been truly voluntary at all.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

Common Core Supporter: Maybe Opposition Not Paranoia

Two years ago Fordham Institute President Chester Finn called people like me, who saw the move toward national curriculum standards as a huge lurch toward federal control, “paranoid.” Well it looks like he might be catching a little of the paranoia, too. Or, at least, while still calling Common Core adoption “voluntary,” he recognizes that the Obama Administration keeps on proving that the paranoiacs aren’t really all that crazy:

Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.

(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

When what someone predicted actually occurs, it’s a lot harder to assume him delusional. It’s more accurate to call him “right.” And on national standards, even supporters are starting realize that Common Core opponents have been right all along.

‘Say I Threatened You Again, And You’ll Really Be Sorry!’

Apparently, if you try to undo something the feds want you to do, they’ll slap you around until you confess they’ve never threatened you. At least, that’s how Education Secretary Arne Duncan rolls when it comes to national curriculum standards:

Following is a statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a legislative proposal in South Carolina to block implementation of the Common Core academic standards:

“The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support. GOP leaders like Jeb Bush and governors Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Bill Haslam have supported the Common Core standards because they realize states must stop dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools. In fact, South Carolina lowered the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“That’s not good for children, parents, or teachers. I hope South Carolina lawmakers will heed the voices of teachers who supported South Carolina’s decision to stop lowering academic standards and set a higher bar for success. And I hope lawmakers will continue to support the state’s decision to raise standards, with the goal of making every child college- and career-ready in today’s knowledge economy.”

I don’t really need to go any further than the statement itself to prove that, contrary to “Fat Tony” Duncan’s protestations, it is not a “conspiracy theory” to say that the Common Core is “nationally imposed.” But let’s rehearse the litany one more time:

  • In 2008 the National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc.—the main Common Core architects—called for federal “incentives” to get states to adopt “a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”
  • President Obama’s $4.35-billion Race to the Top required that states, to be fully competitive for grants, adopt national standards.
  • Race to the Top contained $330 million that Washington is using to fund development of two national tests to go with the Common Core.
  • The President’s “blueprint” to reauthorize No Child Left Behind would make national standards the backbone of federal accountability.
  • To get waivers from No Child Left Behind’s most onerous provisions, a state has to either adopt the Common Core or have a state college system declare that the state’s standards are “college- and career-ready.” Of course, this came after almost every state had already adopted the Common Core.

Why is Duncan lashing out? Quite possibly, he’s reacting to a recent spate of research and commentary attacking the Common Core based on its highly dubious legality, quality, and odds of success. That South Carolina is considering backing out—though the Palmetto State effort fell short in a Senate subcommittee—might have pushed Duncan over the edge. I mean, how dare those people try to buck what Duncan and his boss were not in any way trying to get them to do!

Unfortunately, as failure in the South Carolina committee reinforces—and I warned last week—it is unlikely that many states will formally boot what they’ve already adopted. The time to fight to keep the Common Core out of states was before Race to the Top decisions were made, as we at the Center for Educational Freedom did. Of course, it was off most people’s radars during that crucial time because that was exactly what national-standards supporters wanted. And it’s what their ongoing dissembling about Washington’s heavy hand is intended to continue.

Thankfully, that strategy seems to not be working so well anymore.

War Against the Core

With the release of a new Brookings Institution report today, and one from a consortium of groups last week, resistance to the national-standards offensive seems to be mounting. And even though almost every state in the union has adopted the Common Core, and few are likely to formally undo that, the war against the Core can still be won.

Today’s new front comes in the form of the Brookings Institution’s 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, which includes three sections attacking rampant misuse of standards and tests. The first focuses on the Common Core, looking at the discernable impacts of state-level standards on achievement, and finding that (a) varying state standards have no meaningful correlation with achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and (b) there is much greater variation within states than between them, meaning national standards will do little to change big achievement gaps.

The report’s other two sections deal, first, with differences between the Main and Long-Term Trend NAEP – which brings up a central problem of using tests to judge quality without knowing what’s on them – and second, the misues of international exams to tout favorite policy prescriptions. Basically, pundits and analysts love to pick out countries in isolation and finger one or two characteristics of their education systems as key to their success. Some also love to invoke  this stinker that I and others have railed about for years:

In the U.S., advocates of a national curriculum have for years pointed to nations at the top of TIMSS and PISA rankings and argued that because those countries have national curriculums, a national curriculum must be good. The argument is without merit. What the advocates neglect to observe is that countries at the bottom of the international rankings also have a national curriculum.

The report is well worth checking out. The only quibble I have is that it fails to mention what I covered two years ago, when the national standards stealth attack was fully underway: reviewing the national standards research literature, there is no meaningful evidence that national standards lead to better outcomes. It’s great to have more support for this, but we’ve known for a while that the empirical foundation for national standards is balsa-wood strong.

The second report comes from a coalition of the Pioneer Institute, Pacific Research Institute, Federalist Society, and American Principles Project. The Road to a National Curriculum focuses on all the legal violations perpetrated by the federal government to “incentivize” state adoption of the Common Core and connected tests. Much is ground we at Cato have periodically covered, but this report goes into much greater depth on specific statutory violations. It also does nice work debunking standards supporters’ plea that they don’t want to touch curriculum, only standards, as if the whole point of setting standards weren’t to shape curricula. The report goes beyond pointing out just this logical silliness by identifying numerous instances of Education Department officials, or developers of federally funded tests, stating explicitly that their  goal is to shape curricula.

This report is another welcome counter-attack, though it, like the Brookings report, misses something important. In this case, that all federal education action – outside of governing District of Columbia schools, military schools, and enforcing civil rights – is unconstitutional. Stick to that, and none of these other threats materialize.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that many states that have adopted the Common Core – and all but four have – will officially back out. An effort was made in Alabama to do so, and one is underway in South Carolina, but Alabama’s failed and it’s not clear that there’s huge Palmetto State desire to withdraw.  Many state politicians don’t want to miss out on waivers from No Child Left Behind, which the Obama administration has essentially made contingent on adopting the Common Core, and others would rather not revisit the often contentious standards-adoption process.

That doesn’t mean that any state is truly locked into the Common Core. Formally they are, but like so much government does, states and districts could just ignore the Common Core, keeping it as the official standard but doing something else in practice. The only thing that could really stop them is if Washington were to rewrite federal law to make access to major, annual education funding – not Race to the Top or even waivers, but money from a reauthorized No Child Left Behind – contingent on adopting Common Core, and on performance on one of the two federally funded tests to go with the standards. Then the battle truly would be lost, but we are not there yet – indeed, reauthorization doesn’t seem likely until at least next year – so there is plenty of time for the national standards resistance to grow, and to dismantle the powerful, but ultimately hollow, national standards juggernaut.

Little Evidence for Either

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Common Core? NCLB and Common Core? If you look at the evidence, the answer to both questions is “no.” There’s precious little evidence that NCLB has worked, and just as little that national standards will do any better.

Despite all the fine sounding talk about the federal government demanding “accountability” and forcing states to improve, NAEP data for long-struggling groups reveals many periods before NCLB with equal or faster score gains than under No Child. In other words, the federal government’s own measure of academic achievement provides no support for the idea that accountability – or anything else under No Child – has translated into better performance.

But hasn’t the problem been the lack of a common measure of “proficiency,” which has allowed states to dodge the hard work of getting all kids up to speed? And isn’t that precisely what the Common Core will fix?

No again. What we’ve learned from not just NCLB, but decades of failed federal education intervention, is that politicians and administrators at all levels will find ways to take federal money while avoiding meaningful consequences for poor performance. And there’s little reason to believe that the Common Core will change that.

For one thing, if the Common Core truly is controlled by states – which, given the Race to the Top, waivers, and federal funding of national tests it clearly isn’t – then states will ignore the standards whenever they’re inconvenient. And if the federal government tries to put the screws to states that underperform? All the teachers’ unions, administrators’ associations, and other groups representing those who would be held accountable will mobilize and have the system gutted. It’s the clear lesson of history.

But isn’t the Common Core so good, and having national standards so important, that we must adopt them?

Yet again, no.

There’s essentially no meaningful evidence that, other things being equal, countries with national standards perform better than those without.  And there is serious disagreement over the quality of the Common Core, including powerful critiques from well known English language arts expert Sandra Stotsky, and the only mathematician on the Common Core Validation Committee, R. James Milgram.

Common Core, No Child Left Behind – both are cut from the same, moth-devoured cloth: top-down government control. In light of decades of costly failure, it is well past time we stop entertaining such fixes and move on to something different. It’s time to focus on fundamentally changing the system so that educators have the freedom to tailor teaching to the needs of unique children, while parents are empowered to hold educators truly accountable. It is time for school choice, which, unlike NCLB and national standards, the evidence very much supports.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

School Snatchers Invasion Confirmed!

The good news: Supporters haven’t been able to completely stamp out debate over national curriculum standards. The bad news: The Invasion of the School Snatchers strategy is real, and it is working! 

Yesterday, I blogged about a letter from Jeb Bush reportedly causing a subcommittee of the American Legislative Exchange Council to table model legislation opposing national standards. Subsequent to my writing that, a follow-up Education Week post reported that debate wasn’t, in fact, quashed by Bush’s letter. Unfortunately, it appears consideration was postponed for another reason: Most state legislators have no idea what’s going on with national standards:

“Legislators have heard of it, but not a whole lot of states engage legislators in discussion of the common core,” said [John Locke Foundation education analyst Terry] Stoops, who describes himself as a common-core opponent. “Some wanted to know more about it, because state education agencies or state boards of education didn’t give them much information, if any, on the common core.”

If this is accurate, it confirms exactly what I’ve been saying for months: Despite being told that the national standards drive is “state-led,” the people’s representatives have been frozen out of it. Worse, it suggests that national-standardizers’ strategy of sneaking standards in is working.

Adding to confirmation of this school-snatcher strategy is a recent blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli. At first I was heartened: Petrilli, a flag officer in the national standards campaign, was renouncing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s intent to make national-standards adoption a requirement to get waivers from No Child Left Behind. Perhaps, I thought, I’d gotten my first taker in the Demand Real Voluntarism Challenge. But then it sank in: Petrilli wasn’t demanding that Washington stop perpetuating the voluntarism sham. No, he was afraid something as un-stealthy as high-profile waiver demands would suddenly direct much-unwanted attention to the school-snatcher invasion:

The only possible outcome of Secretary Duncan putting more federal pressure on the states to adopt the Common Core is [to] stoke the fires of conservative backlash–and to lose many of the states that have already signed on.

Hopefully that is exactly what will happen, and both the unconstitutional waivers, and the snatchers strategy, will get all the negative attention they deserve.