The Common Core Conundrum

Common Core is either meaningless or antithetical to a free and pluralistic society.

That’s the key conundrum that Professor Jay P. Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, identified yesterday during his testimony before the Arkansas Council on Common Core Review, which is currently considering whether to keep, modify, or scrap the standards:

Because standards are about values, their content is not merely a technical issue that can be determined by scientific methods. There is no technically correct set of standards, just as there is no technically correct political party or religion. Reasonable people have legitimate differences of opinion about what they want their children taught. A fundamental problem with national standards efforts, like Common Core, is that they are attempting to impose a single vision of a proper education on a large and diverse country with differing views.

National standards can try to produce uniformity out of diversity with some combination of two approaches. They can promote standards that are so bland and ambiguous as to be inoffensive to almost everyone. Or they can force their particular vision on those who believe differently. Either way, national standards, like Common Core, are inappropriate and likely to be ineffective. If national standards embrace a vague consensus, then they make no difference since almost everyone already believes them and is already working toward them. If, on the other hand, national standards attempt to impose their particular vision of a proper education on those with differing visions, then national standards are oppressive and likely to face high levels of resistance and non-compliance. So, national standards are doomed to be either unnecessary or illiberal. Either way, they are wrong. [emphasis added]

Supporters of Common Core clearly hope it does bend educators to their will induce “instructional shifts” in our nation’s classrooms, but as Greene points out, for Common Core to be more than “just a bunch of words in a document,” it needs some sort of mechanism to coerce schools and educators into changing their practice to align with the Core. Prominent backers of Common Core have long promoted a “tripod” of standards, tests, and “accountability” measures – i.e. rewards or (more likely) punishments tied to performance on those tests.

And that brings us to the second conundrum Greene identified: either a combination of frustrated educators and parents will neuter the “accountability” measures (enter the opt-out movement), or those measures will create perverse incentives that could warp the education system in ways that even Common Core supporters wouldn’t like:

The problem with trying to use PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests to drive Common Core changes is that it almost certainly requires more coercion than is politically possible and would be undesirable even if it could be accomplished. If Arkansas tries to use the PARCC test to impose strong enough sanctions on schools and educators to drive changes in their practice, we will witness a well-organized and effective counter-attack from educators and sympathetic parents who will likely neuter those sanctions. If, on the other hand, the consequences of PARCC are roughly the equivalent of double secret probation in the movie, Animal House, then no one has to change practice to align with the new standards.

And even if by some political miracle the new PARCC test could be used to impose tough sanctions on schools and educators who failed to comply with Common Core, it’s a really bad idea to try to run school systems with a test. All sorts of bad things happen when maximizing performance on standardized tests becomes the governing principle of schools. Schools and educators are likely to narrow the curriculum by focusing on tested subjects at the expense of untested ones. If we care at all about the Arts, History, and Science we should oppose trying to run schools with math and ELA tests. And within tested subjects schools and educators are likely to focus narrowly on tested items at the expense of a more complete understanding of math and English.

So if national standards don’t work, does that mean abandoning testing and accountability entirely? Not at all. As Greene concludes:

The purpose of PARCC is to drive changes in educator behavior in ways that are desired by Common Core. But we should not be using tests aligned with a set of standards to coerce schools and educators to change their practice. What we really need from standardized testing is just information about how our students are performing. This can be accomplished at much lower cost by just buying a nationally-normed test off of the shelf. And lower stakes tests that are primarily about information rather than coercion will produce much less harmful narrowing of the curriculum.

I would add that opposing uniform, government-imposed standards does not mean opposing all standards. Rather, it means leaving space for competing standards from which schools and parents can choose. There is no One Best Way to educate or to measure educational progress, so a top-down accountability system amounts to hubristic folly. Instead, we should employ the market’s “bottom-up channeling of knowledge” that Yuval Levin so thoughtfully described in a recent essay:

… Put simply, it is a process that involves three general steps, all grounded in humility: experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

Markets are ideally suited to following these steps. They offer entrepreneurs and businesses a huge incentive to try new ways of doing things (experimentation); the people directly affected decide which ways they like best (evaluation); and those consumer responses inform which ways are kept and which are left behind (evolution).

This three-step process is at work well beyond the bounds of explicitly economic activity. It is how our culture learns and evolves, how norms and habits form, and how society as a general matter “decides” what to keep and what to change. It is an exceedingly effective way to balance stability with improvement, continuity with alteration, tradition with dynamism. It involves conservation of the core with experimentation at the margins in an effort to attain the best of both.

Supporters of Common Core are right to lament a broken system that produces mediocre results on average, and acts as a slaughterhouse of dreams at worse. But they have misdiagnosed the problem, and therefore propose the wrong solution. The problem isn’t that 50 states had 50 different sets of standards, but rather that a government-run schooling system lacks the ability to engage in the experimentation, end-user evaluation, and consumer-driven evolution that have produced great advances and increased productivity in other sectors. The solution, therefore, is not to grant more power to bureaucrats to remake our education system from the top down, but to support polices that empower parents to remake it from the bottom up.