Common Core Doesn’t Seem to Be Working; That May Be Just Fine

This article appeared in Forbes.com on October 18, 2018.
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This week the latest in what have been a series of disappointing standardized test reports came out. This time it was ACT scores for high school seniors who graduated in 2018. The average composite score, and scores in all subject areas, fell from 2017, and were the same or lower than in 2014. This follows dropping scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2013 and continued mediocrity on international exams. Which makes one wonder: What good has come from the Common Core curriculum standards, which were apparently so promising that supporters used the federal government to coerce their installation?

The answer is no good, at least discernible through test scores. It is impossible to conclusively lay the blame for testing futility on the Core—myriad variables ranging from student motivation to the national economy can matter—but we certainly haven’t seen major improvements several years after the Core was expected to be implemented.

Part of the problem could be that Core implementation became a shambles as people vociferously objected to it in the midst of installation. Much of the culpability for that belongs with Core advocates themselves, who used Washington to coerce adoption before the standards had even been completed, much less widely and publicly debated, using a relatively small bit of the gargantuan anti-Great Recession “stimulus.” Never letting a good crisis go to waste resulted in the public not finding out about the Core until suddenly they and their school districts were confronted with the need to conform their curricula to standards they had never heard of, and that sometimes did not seem to make much sense.

But bad implementation is hardly the only reason—if it is a reason at all—that the Core seems to have been impotent. As Theodor Rebarber and I discuss in a new Pioneer Institute paper—Common Core, School Choice and Rethinking Standards-Based Reform—the Core’s content may be unable to deliver on its promises. It is not well benchmarked to the standards of top-performing countries, promises notwithstanding, and is pedagogically questionable, focusing, for instance, more on talking about mathematical reasoning and less on actual computation.

My guess is that the Core’s content may indeed be part of the problem. But much more is going on. Foremost, despite decades of reforms focused on standards and tests, Americans aren’t nearly as geared toward academic achievement, especially, perhaps, as measured by standardized tests, as people in other countries. And that may be just fine. While our scores languish, emerging research suggests that they may be poor predictors of future success. Meanwhile, countries that dominate international exams are often searching for ways to enhance attributes possibly crucial to economic growth that are not easily captured on standardized exams—that may even be antithetical to them—such as creative thinking. Those are attributes that America’s relatively free-wheeling, entrepreneurial culture definitely has.

The system of education best suited to a dynamic, innovative society is a decentralized one, grounded in autonomous educators and freely choosing families. Embracing freedom is how we enable new ideas, and different and innovative ways of thinking, to be developed and nurtured while minimizing the risk of pathbreaking notions that turn out to be wrong inflicting harm on large swaths of children. It is also a system, Core fans, that would allow educators committed to the Core to faithfully implement it with families also committed to it, rather than trying to impose it on everyone and seeing it hobbled by non-believers.

Alas, as Rebarber and I explain in the paper, nationalized standards are a huge threat to such a system, even to private schools with no connection to government. If all public schools—roughly 90 percent of the K-12 market—are forced onto one standard, textbook publishers and test makers will move onto that standard, kneecapping the ability of private schools to find something different. More directly, voucher programs—but largely not scholarship tax-credits—often impose testing mandates on participating schools.

Thankfully, the Core War may not have been in vain. While the degree to which states have moved off the Core, and how much Washington loosened the reins with the Every Student Succeeds Act, are contentious, there is little question that scads of policymakers have felt the need to at least appear to move away from standards-and-testing, and the Core itself. Indeed, that the education system is less fixated on raising test scores might be a reason the scores have dropped. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book "Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education."