Testimony

Common Core a Threat to the State, Districts, and Students

Pennsylvania State Senate Education Committee
Public Hearing on the Common Core State Standards

Chairman Folmer, Minority Chairman Dinniman, members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. My name is Neal McCluskey and I am the associate director of 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.

The Common Core State Standards are part of an effort that, if one chose to, could have its origins drawn all the way back to the country’s early republican era. Then, people such as Pennsylvania’s own Benjamin Rush were calling for the creation of a public schooling system that would, “by producing one general and uniform system of education…render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”1 The goal was to create a consistent, values-shaping education for all citizens of the new nation. But this ran up against a much more deeply-ingrained tradition: local — indeed, for a long time family and church — control of education, which more or less held sway in American education until the mid-1960s, when the federal government first became deeply involved in American schooling. Quite simply, until very recently few people would have even contemplated having federally supported, national curriculum standards. Local control is cherished.

It was not until the late 1980s that the federal government began to ask states for evidence about the performance of federally aided students, and not until the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 that states began to seriously comply with the letter — if not the spirit — of federal law by instituting standards, tests, and progress reports. Which brings us to the current drive for national curriculum standards and tests. Almost…

Benjamin Rush, “A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to Which Are Added, Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic. Addressed to the Legislature and Citizens of the State (Philadelphia, 1786),” in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, edited by Frederick Rudolph, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 10.

While few states complied with directives to have state standards and tests, in the 1990s the first Bush administration proposed the creation of voluntary, national standards and assessments, and provided some funding to create the standards. When the standards were eventually released they were almost universally panned, with seemingly all people finding something to dislike. President Clinton also tried — and failed — to create national tests. By the late 1990s the idea of having national standards and tests — especially driven by Washington — seemed dead. People simply did not like the idea of federal curriculum control, nor could they reach any agreement on what standards should contain.

How, then, have we suddenly ended up with 45 states adopting the Common Core?

The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to bring all kids to “proficiency” in math and reading by 2014, but it became clear early on that states — which remained in charge of their own standards and tests — were setting extremely low proficiency bars. It was also clear that the bars — though almost universally low — varied appreciably from state to state. These two things breathed new life into the national standards movement, but with the political lesson having been learned that the standards and tests could not come, at least directly, from Washington. So two non-governmental organizations — the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — set out to create “internationally benchmarked” standards in mathematics and reading.

This effort formally became the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2009, and it is one that has repeatedly been characterized as “state-led” and “voluntary.” In practice, however, it has been neither. The NGA and CCSSO, while organizations to which state-level officials belong, do not represent states. Perhaps more importantly, adoption of the Common Core has not been voluntary.

From the outset of the Obama administration, officials talked about a need for national standards, and under the mammoth 2009 “stimulus” they got a lever by which to push that: the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program. To fully compete for Race to the Top money states had to adopt standards common to multiple states, and only one set of standards fully met the definition: the Common Core. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education earmarked $350 million for the development of tests to accompany the standards, and chose the two entities that would develop them: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Finally, when issuing waivers to release states from the most onerous NCLB requirements, the administration required that states either have adopted multi-state standards — de facto, the Common Core — or have their biggest system of four-year public colleges declare the state’s own standards “college and career ready.”

It has been suggested by some Common Core supporters that the Obama administration’s involvement in pressuring adoption of the Core was unwanted and the goal was to have state adoption be fully voluntary.2 But this is belied by the 2008 NGA/CCSSO/Achieve, Inc. report Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education, which explicitly calls upon Washington to provide “incentives” for states to adopt national standards:

The federal government can play an enabling role as states engage in the critical but challenging work of international benchmarking. First, federal policymakers should offer funds to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five action steps described above [including “adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”]….As states reach important milestones on the way toward building internationally competitive education systems, the federal government should offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey easier, including increased flexibility in the use of federal funds and in meeting federal educational requirements and providing more resources to implement world-class educational best practices.3

Adopting the Common Core was, in principle, no more voluntary than having a mugger take your money — Pennsylvania taxpayer money — then let you “voluntarily” hand him the keys to your car to get the dough back.

But perhaps some good will come of having national standards. Perhaps the ends justify the means.

That seems unlikely. An oft-used argument for creating national standards — when it was even a subject of debate — was that “every country that beats us on international assessments has national standards.” 4 Ignoring for a moment that performance on exams doesn’t necessarily indicate an effective education system, this factoid is meaningless once put into full context. The reality is that most countries — both those that beat us and those we beat — have national standards. It is essentially a non-correlation, and I could just as easily make the argument that we shouldn’t have national standards because almost every country we outperform has them. Of course, that would be hugely misleading, too.

More rigorous efforts to pin down the effect of national standards are not numerous, and on the whole are confounded by the need to control for national culture. It could very well be that nations that have a culture inclined to do well in school,  especially on things that are easily tested, like math and science, also have national standards stemming from the root variable — culture. Indeed, when efforts have been made to control for that, it appears that culture may wipe out any seeming effect of not just national standards, but standards attached to tests with high stakes for students, something not generally contemplated under Common Core.5

A review of hundreds of studies by Andrew Coulson reveals that it isn’t greater centralization of schooling that seems to produce better outcomes, but greater movement toward free-market education. This is what treats students as the unique individuals that they are, and fosters crucial competition, innovation, and specialization. Out of 150 statistical comparisons, market-like delivery of education outperformed government monopoly delivery by a ratio of 15-to-1.6 In this regard Pennsylvania is moving in the right direction, with a very robust Educational Improvement Tax Credit that in 2011-12 enabled 45,100 students to attend private schools.

Perhaps you feel locked into the Common Core thanks to receiving a $41.3 million round 3 Race to the Top grant. You could officially unadopt the Core — say “no” to federal coercion — but might have to sacrifice funds that came, at least partially, from state taxpayers to begin with. But that grant as a relative matter — and it is relative that really counts — is infinitesimal. Dividing the grant by its four-year duration is $10.3 million per year. To put that in context, according to the latest federal data, in the 2009-10 school year Pennsylvania public elementary and secondary schools spent $26.5 billion. The grant is a mere .04 percent of that — a speck of dust. Is it worth selling control of what your schools teach for a speck of dust?

Perhaps you think that after the grant expires Pennsylvania could just use the aspects of the Core that meet your needs while formally withdrawing from it. This ability, however, will de facto disappear if the ESEA is reauthorized and performance on common standards and tests becomes key to receiving annual appropriations.

This is not far-fetched. In 2010 the Obama administration released a blueprint for reauthorizing the ESEA that placed “college- and career-ready” standards and common tests at the heart of its accountability provisions, including rewards and punishments for schools, districts and states.7 Moreover, even if the next reauthorization of the ESEA does not include any connection to the common standards — likely because fear of federal control is suddenly front and center — the slippery slope could come into effect in subsequent reauthorizations. The mindset could easily become that almost all states have officially had Common Core standards for several years, so what would be the big change were federal accountability adjusted to reflect that?

One last, major concern: the Common Core standards may be better than Pennsylvania’s current standards. They may be outstanding. But if controlled at the federal level there is a very good chance that no matter what their quality now, or that of federal tests, they will fall under the control of federal bureaucrats, who will make changes to them regardless of what is best for Pennsylvania. Then, unlike when you set your own standards, the Keystone State will be just one of sundry voices decrying mistakes.

In addition, the disease of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs exists at all levels of government, but is worst at the federal level, which is most distant from the people the schools are supposed to serve. Special interests such as teachers unions have the most at stake in education policy — it controls teachers’ and administrators’ livelihoods, after all — and therefore are the most motivated to be involved in education politics. The result is that the people you would hold accountable have the most influence over the accountability system, and because they are rational and self-interested like everyone else, they will try to hollow out the accountability system. Attaching money to children and letting parents choose among autonomous schools is the only way to escape this problem — accountability is then based on consumer choice, not drawn out, cumbersome political processes — but it is reduced the closer the system gets to the people to be served.

In summary, national curriculum standards that the federal government coerced your state into adopting are not the right answer for Pennsylvania. It is not, however, too late to begin rectifying the situation.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.


Notes

1Benjamin Rush, “A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to Which Are Added, Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic. Addressed to the Legislature and Citizens of the State (Philadelphia, 1786),” in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, edited by Frederick Rudolph, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 10.
2 Michael J. Petrilli, Testimony to the Education and Career Development Committee of the Indiana State Senate, http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2013/mike-petrillis-testimony-on-indiana-and-the-common-core.html, January 16, 2013. Specifically, Petrilli  said “President Obama politicized the standards by using federal Race to the Top dollars to coerce their adoption by the states. It doesn’t help that the president took credit for the common standards every time he had a chance on the campaign trail. These standards started out as state standards, and they need to remain state standards. Washington needs to butt out.”
3National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education,” http://www.achieve.org/files/BenchmarkingforSuccess.pdf, 2008, p. 7..
4See, for instance, Randi Weingarten, “The Case for National Standards,” Washington Post, February 16, 2009.
5Neal McCluskey, “Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards,” Cato Policy Analysis no. 661, http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/behind-curtain-assessing-case-national-curriculum-standards, February 17, 2010.
6Andrew Coulson, “Comparing Public, Private, and Market Schools: The International Evidence,” Journal of School Choice, Vol. 3, 2009, pp. 31-54.
7U.S. Department of Education, “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/blueprint.pdf, March 2010.