Common Core and the Impact of National Standards

Ohio State Legislature
Rules and Reference Committee, on HB 597

Mr. Chairman, honorable members of the committee, thank you for providing us with the opportunity to speak with you today about this important issue. My name is Jason Bedrick and I am an education policy analyst at the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a nonprofit, non-partisan, public policy research organization. My comments are my own and do not represent any position of the institute.

I have been asked to briefly discuss the research on the impact of national standards, as well as the effect they may have on private schools, especially those participating in Ohio’s school choice programs, which currently mandate the Common Core tests.

In the education policy world today, there are two major ideas of reform. One favors greater centralization, standardization, and uniformity. The other favors greater decentralization, innovation, and diversity. The former, embodied by Common Core, empowers unelected bureaucrats and treats all children as essentially the same. The latter, embodied by Ohio’s school choice programs, empowers parents to choose the education provider that best meets the individual needs of their individual children.

Though some want to combine these two ideas, they are incompatible. A system designed to regulate a monopoly is inappropriate for a market. As University of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene noted recently:

With top-down reforms the people selecting the standards, designing the tests, setting the cut-scores, devising consequences for performance, writing the curriculum, and picking the instructional methods have to get it just right … for many different kinds of kids who may need different approaches. And they have to be right over and over again as circumstances and information change.1

That’s a nearly impossible task even before special interests attempt to block, dilute, or co-opt such measures. Moreover, a parent seeking to change the system is, at best, merely one out of tens of thousands of voters at the local level or one out of tens of millions at the state level. In a state that adopts Common Core’s national standards, a parent’s ability to affect systemic change is practically nil.

Additionally, the conformity induced by Common Core undermines the very diversity and innovation that give parental choice its value. While Common Core does not directly mandate a specific curriculum, its testing regime will drive what is taught in the classroom, when it is taught, and even how it is taught. For example, Common Core tests algebra in 9th grade, which has already induced states like California to abandon their previous practice of teaching algebra in 8th grade. Had they not conformed, their students would likely have scored lower when being tested on material that they had not covered in a year.

The Common Core tests would also drive how concepts are taught in the classroom. As Dr. James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute, a former school teacher, has written:

The fact is that curriculum standards don’t tell teachers how to teach in the same way that a high jump bar doesn’t tell a jumper how to jump. You could theoretically jump over a high jump bar in whatever way you would like; but because of how the jump is structured there is a clear advantage to doing the old Fosbury Flop.2

While the costs of national standards are apparent, the benefits are dubious. Advocates of Common Core often point to the fact that many of the nations that outperform the United States on international standardized tests, like the Programme or International Student Assessment (PISA), have national standards. However, as my Cato Institute colleague Neal McCluskey detailed in his report Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards, it is also true that most of the nations that underperform the United States have national standards. There is no correlation between having national standards and producing high-performing students. Moreover, most of these nations are much smaller and more demographically homogenous. Indeed, the only two large and diverse nations to consistently outperform the U.S. are Canada and Australia, neither of which has had national standards (though Australia is now in the process of developing and implementing them).3

By contrast, there is compelling evidence that educational freedom and choice improve student outcomes. Domestically, 11 of 12 random-assignment studies—the gold standard of social science research—found that educational choice programs, like Ohio’s school voucher programs, improved outcomes for some or all categories of students.4 Globally, my boss Andrew J. Coulson has examined the results of over 150 international, statistical comparisons of education systems. His study found that private-sector schools consistently outperform government-run schools, and that the most market-like and least regulated education systems performed the best.5

Educational choice fosters innovation and diversity by putting parents in charge. That gives space to providers to develop new ways of educating diverse children that might not fit the pre-existing mold. Parents can choose schools offering an education that is traditional or progressive, content-rich or skills-based, STEM-focused or liberal arts. They can choose schools that offer Saxon math or Singapore math, that are Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, and so on. Parents can then evaluate which approaches work best for their children and which do not. Over time, as Coulson’s evidence suggests, this market process weeds out ineffective approaches and encourages the proliferation of more effective approaches.

All children are unique. There is no reason to expect that all students who happened to be born in the same year should proceed at the same pace in every subject. Moreover, there is no single best way to educate a child or to measure educational progress. The absence of government-imposed standards does not imply a lack of any standards at all. Rather, it would create space for competing standards.

Mr. Chairman, honorable members of the committee, if you want to foster diversity and innovation in education, the answer lies not in greater standardization and conformity, but in greater freedom and choice. And if you want to strengthen accountability, the best form of accountability is directly to parents who are empowered to choose the education providers that best meet their children’s needs—and leave those that do not.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.


1Jay P. Greene, “The Political Virtue of Choice,” Jay P. Greene’s Blog. May 13, 2014. http://jaypgreene.com/2014/05/13/the-political-virtue-of-choice/
2James Shuls, “Constructive Criticism for Common Core Constructivism Deniers,” Jay P. Greene’s Blog. March 21, 2013. http://jaypgreene.com/2013/03/21/constructive-criticism-for-common-core-constructivism-deniers/
3For a break down of the testing data, see Neal McCluskey, “Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards,” Cato Policy Analysis no. 661, February 17, 2010, pp. 8-9.
4Greg Forster, “Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. April 17, 2013.
5Andrew Coulson, “Comparing Public, Private and Market Schools: The International Evidence,” The Journal of School Choice, Vol. 3, 2009, pp. 31-54.