Common Core’s Validation: A Weak Foundation for a Crooked House
By Ze’ev Wurman
Advocates of Common Core’s mathematics standards claim they are rigorous, reflect college-readiness, and are comparable with those of high achieving countries. But five of the 29 members of the Common Core Validation Committee refused to sign a report attesting that the standards are research-based, rigorous and internationally benchmarked. Read more >>
The Common Core State Standards (“the Common Core”) are two sets of K–12 academic standards that outline what students are expected to learn in English language arts and mathematics each year from kindergarten through high school. The goal of this checklist is not literacy, proficiency, or increased graduation rates but to make students “college- and career-ready.”1 The Common Core was written by the National Governors Association (NGA)—an organization of governors, their head staff members, and policy makers—and the Council of Chief State School Officials (CCSSO). States receive Race to the Top (RTTT) federal funding for committing to adopt and implement the Common Core and to collect student data from preschool through the workforce. Read the topic paper >>
The NGA released the Common Core standards on June 2, 2010. Since then, 45 states, four territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Minnesota only adopted the English language arts standards. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia have refused to adopt the Common Core.
As the pedagogical weakness and ballooning implementation cost of the standards becomes evident, many adopting states are scrambling to delay or defund implementation. Read the topic paper >>
Three sets of laws prohibit the federal government from prescribing the content of state curricula and assessments, yet the United States Department of Education has propelled the Common Core more than any other organization and is funding the creation of standardized assessments.2 First, the department conditioned education grants on states’ commitment to implement the Common Core.
Second, the department offered waivers from the most burdensome portions of the No Child Left Behind Act in return for states’ promising to adopt the Common Core’s college- and career-readiness standards and corresponding assessments.
Third, the department awarded millions of dollars to consortia of states to craft the assessments based on the Common Core. Read the topic paper >>
Three philosophical threads weave through the Common Core—statism, moral relativism, and progressivism. The statist goals of the Common Core are implicit in the lockstep uniformity that is the central thesis of the program. Relativism’s influence on the Common Core is evident in the open-ended and research-based assessment questions and the expansive new student tracking systems, ideas which have been strongly promoted by relativist Howard Gardner. Progressive educator John Dewey argued for standardized curriculum to prevent one student from becoming superior to others and envisioned a workforce filled with people of “politically and socially correct attitudes” who would respond to orders without question.3 Workforce readiness is one of the Common Core’s main goals. Read the topic paper >>
The Department of Education has praised the Common Core for its focus on “computer adaptive testing” to supply teachers with data so that they can adjust their teaching styles and provide their students with individualized instruction.4 But in practice, the Common Core's rigid and technology-laden approach to learning makes individualized education almost impossible.
The Common Core standards require students to master a checklist of skills every year.5 Teachers all across the country must teach from the same prescribed list and at the same prescribed pace. This one-size-fits-all approach will supposedly makes children “college- and career-ready,” but will it produce young men and women capable of careers that call for independent analysis and creative problem solving?
The Common Core’s required expansion of statewide longitudinal data systems to include assessment and homework scores means that students will spend more time using computer-based learning programs and less time interacting with their teachers, while teachers will use printed-off data analyses to make pedagogical decisions. Read the topic paper >>
In the United States, experimenting with centralized reform has done almost nothing to improve the performance of students. From 1971 to 2008, American students’ scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) mathematics assessments have only improved 3.4% and reading scores just 1%, despite billions of federal education dollars spent.6 In 2011, the Cato Institute found that the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds has not improved since the beginning of federal education spending in 1958.7
On the other hand, deliberate decentralization of education in Finland has produced one of the foremost systems in the world, with Finland’s students ranking at the top of international assessment charts in 2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009.8
The success of homeschooling in America offers domestic proof of the benefits of decentralized education. In 2013, Robert Kunzman of Indiana University and Milton Gaither of Messiah College reviewed 10 independent studies that found that homeschoolers outrank their traditionally schooled counterparts in collegiate grade point average, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and strength of religious and political views.9
The evidence indicates that the designers of the Common Core have chosen the worst possible approach to make students “college- and career-ready.” Read the topic paper >>
The Common Core will impact homeschools and private schools in at least three ways. First, designers of the expanded statewide longitudinal databases fully intend to collect data about homeschool and private school students. Second, college admissions standards will be affected: Common Core standards for college readiness will be used by institutions of higher learning to determine whether a student is ready to enroll in a postsecondary course.10 Third, curriculum and standardized tests are being rewritten to conform to the Common Core. Read the topic paper >>
The consortia receiving millions from the federal government to write standardized assessments for the Common Core are also being paid to produce curriculum guides for their combined 42 member states. The Performance Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium is developing “model instructional units” for teachers, and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) promised to build “curriculum materials…to support states’ transition to the Common Core State Standards.”11 The efforts of the federal government to develop curriculum models confirm the analysis of two members of the Common Core Validation Committee who refused to sign the standards: the Common Core is “a laudable effort to shape a national curriculum.”12
Implementation instructions for the states written by the authors of the Common Core suggest that a national curriculum is the goal of the standards. NGA recommends that “States and districts…share the costs of developing new curricula and instructional tools and not each develop their own at greater expense for each.”13 The groundwork for a national curriculum is also being laid by groups of states and private organizations—such as the Gates Foundation and Achieve—collaborating to develop common curricula. Read the topic paper >>
Proponents of the Common Core, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, emphasize the need to imitate some countries with high-ranking education systems by creating consistent assessments across the country that measure student progress through open-ended and research-based questions.14 This has spurred the federal government to fund a set of nationalized tests aligned with the Common Core. Two consortia of states—PARCC and SBAC—received $170 million and $160 million from the Department of Education to craft standardized assessments.
Additionally, the SAT, ACT, and GED will be redesigned to align with the Common Core, and the latest version of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills is based on the Common Core.15 Combined, the new assessments and revised tests will create de facto national testing. Read the topic paper >>
All 50 states have had statewide longitudinal databases in place to track their students’ scores on assessments for the past decade. Yet the authors of the Common Core are clear: the success of the standards hinges on the increased collection of student data—including demographics and postsecondary education performance—from preschool through the workforce.16 States that have adopted the Common Core to receive Race to the Top funding and states that are members of the assessment consortia have committed to expanding their data collection.
Additionally, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor announced $12 million in grants for states to build longitudinal databases linking workforce and education data.17 And in 2013, the Department of Education unilaterally altered the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) so that any government or private entity that the department says is evaluating an education program has access to students’ personally identifiable information without parental notification.
The new data systems are not confined to public school students. FERPA does not currently protect homeschooling families in states where families must submit documentation of intent to homeschool.18
Massive new databases are already being built. In 2012, the Gates Foundation used $17 million to launch inBloom, a company that has built a $100 million database to track students from kindergarten through college.19 The databases identify students by name, address, and sometimes Social Security number. Combined with the changes to FERPA, the implementation of the Common Core is unleashing what is arguably the most comprehensive tracking of citizens that America has ever seen. Read the topic paper >>
The support of liberals such as Joel Stein (former chancellor of the New York City Schools) and Michelle Rhee (former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools) for the Common Core is not surprising. But several prominent conservatives are also backing the Common Core.
Supporters of the Common Core such as Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Institute, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie contend that the Common Core will rebuild state standards that crumbled under the No Child Left Behind Act.20 However, almost no independent evaluations of the Common Core by education experts have praised the academic rigor of the standards.
Backers also use the mobility argument, summarized by the NGA: “When a student moves from Utah (a member state of SBAC) to Arizona (a member state of PARCC), parents and teachers need to be confident that the understanding about a student’s knowledge and skills gleaned from the state test means the same thing in both places.”21 A devastating flaw in this argument is that it banks on the unstated premise of a national curriculum: gaps in education when a student transfers from a school in Vermont to a school in Texas can only be avoided if the same things are being taught at the same time across the entire nation.
The final argument—standardization—hinges on the premise that one textbook, or just a few aligned with the Common Core, would be an improvement over the numerous and varied textbooks available today. William Bennett, secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and founder of K12 Online Learning, adds a sociological component to the standardization argument by presuming that the common knowledge imparted by the Common Core will lead to more fervent national discussions.22 Read the topic paper >>
Education professionals, policy analysts, and government officials center their critiques of the Common Core on four points.
First, the standards are academically deficient. Three of five members of the Common Core Validation Committee who refused to validate the standards have published reports condemning their academic merit. One of the reports concludes that the Common Core English language arts standards do not make students “college- and career-ready,” arguing that the lack of literary material required by the standards does “not ensure…sufficient literary and cultural knowledge for authentic college-level work.”23 It also examines the Common Core mathematics standards, concluding that the Common Core leaves students one or two years behind the National Mathematics Advisory Panel's recommendations, the requirements of some states, and the standards of leading countries by students’ 8th-grade year.24
The second argument against the Common Core is that the standards will not repair the broken education system. Brookings Institute policy analyst Grover Whitehurst observes that high academic standards and high student achievement are not connected.25 Statistics show that states with high academic standards score about the same on standardized assessments as states with low standards.26
Third, critics of the Common Core condemn the way the standards are being implemented. Randi Weingarten, president of the second-largest teachers’ union in America, and Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has pushed for national standards for years, criticize the government’s use of RTTT funding to coerce states into adopting the Common Core.27Critics also point out that states will have a difficult time shouldering the cost of implementing the Common Core. While estimates for implementing the program range from $12 to $16 billion, the federal government has given states only $4.35 billion.28Finally, members of Congress, U.S. senators, and the Republican National Committee oppose the Common Core because it has handed the education authority of the states to the federal government. Lawmakers have raised concerns about the Department of Education’s unilateral revision of FERPA, its push for expanded state longitudinal data systems, and its close involvement in Common Core implementation. Read the topic paper >>
1 “Mission Statement,” Common Core Standards State Initiative, accessed June 8, 2013, http://www.corestandards.org/ .
2 The General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001—specifically bar federal involvement in the details of education. See Robert S. Eitel and Kent D. Talbert, “The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race the Top, and Conditional Waivers,” A Pioneer Institute White Paper no. 81 (February 2012): 1.
4 Arne Duncan, “Beyond the Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments,” Department of Education , September 2, 2010, accessed June 11, 2013, http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/beyond-bubble-tests-next-generation-assessments-secretary-arne-duncans-remarks-state-l .
6See the Long-Term Trend analysis tool at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/lttdata/ , accessed June 13, 2013. This analysis reflects the test scores of 13-year-old students.
7Andrew J. Coulson, “The Impact of Federal Involvement in America’s Classrooms,” Cato Institute, February 10, 2011, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.cato.org/publications/congressional-testimony/impact-federal-involvement-americas-classrooms .
8Samuel E. Abrams, “The Children Must Play,” New Republic, January 28, 2011, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/82329/education-reform-Finland-US# ; The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2000), 69; The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2009), 14.
10Tabitha Grossman, Ryan Reyna, and Stephanie Shipton, Realizing the Potential: How Governors Can Lead Effective Implementation of the Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association, 2011), 19, accessed June 8, 2013, http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/1110CCSSIIMPLEMENTATIONGUIDE.PDF .
11PARCC Proposal for Supplemental Race to the Top Assessment Award (Performance Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, December 23, 2010), accessed June 11, 2013, http://www.edweek.org/media/parccsupplementalproposal12-23achievefinal.pdf ; Supplemental Funding Scope: Overview Table (SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, January 16, 2011), accessed June 10, 2013, http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Smarter-Balanced-Supplemental-Funds.pdf .
12Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman, “Common Core’s Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade: Why Massachusetts and California Must Regain Control over Their Academic Destinies,” A Pioneer Institute White Paper no. 65 (July 2010): iii, accessed June 11, 2013, http://pioneerinstitute.org/download/common-cores-standards-still-dont-make-the-grade/ .
15Tamar Lewin, “Backer of Common Core School Curriculum Is Chosen to Lead College Board,” New York Times , May 16, 2012, accessed June 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/16/education/david-coleman-to-lead-college-board.html?_r=0 ; The GED Test: A Content Comparison (GED Testing Service, 2012), accessed July 10, 2013, http://www.gedtestingservice.com/uploads/files/2487f6e1ca5659684cbe1f8b16f564d0.pdf ; Jason Tomassini, “New College Board President to Seek Common Core—SAT Link,” Education Week , May 16, 2012, accessed June 10, 2013, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/marketplacek12/2012/05/new_college_board_president_has_common_core_background.html ; “Riverside Introduces the All-New Iowa Assessments, Form E: Monitor the Growth and Achievement of Today’s Students,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, accessed June 10, 2013, http://www.riversidepublishing.com/products/ia/index.html .
16 Grossman, Reyna, and Shipton, Realizing the Potential , 10; “Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems,” U.S. Department of Education, accessed June 11, 2013, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/slds/factsheet.html .
17Jason Kuruvilla, “U.S. Department of Labor Announces More Than $12 Million in Grants Available to States to Improve Workforce Data Quality,” United States Department of Labor , February 12, 2012, accessed June 11, 2013, http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/eta/eta20120352.htm .
18“Family Educational Records Privacy Extension Act,” HSLDA, accessed June 11, 2013, http://www.hslda.org/Legislation/National/2011/HR2910/default.asp .
19“Awarded Grants,” Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed June 11, 2013, http://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work/Quick-Links/Grants-Database#q/k=inbloom .
20 Sheila Byrd Carmichael et al., The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010 (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2012), 3, accessed June 12, 2013, http://www.edexcellence.net/publications/the-state-of-state-of-standards-and-the-common-core-in-2010.html ; Jeb Bush and Joel Stein, “The Case for Common Educational Standards,” Wall Street Journal , June 23, 2011, accessed June 12, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304070104576399532217616502.html ; “Christie Administration Takes Action to Implement Building Block of High Academic Standards in New Jersey Schools,” State of New Jersey Press Release , September 13, 2011, accessed June 12, 2013, http://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/news/552011/approved/20110913a.html .
22William Bennett, “‘A Nation at Risk’ 30 Years Later: The State of American Education,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, April 26, 2013, accessed June 12, 2013, http://www.edexcellence.net/events/a-nation-at-risk-30-years-later.html .
25Grover J. Whitehurst, “Don’t Forget Curriculum,” Brookings Institute, October 2009, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2009/10/14-curriculum-whitehurst .
26Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales (Nat—ional Center for Education Statistics, 2007), accessed June 13, 2013, http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/studies/2007482.pdf ; Sheila Byrd Carmichael et al., The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010 (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2012), 3, accessed June 12, 2013, http://www.edexcellence.net/publications/the-state-of-state-of-standards-and-the-common-core-in-2010.html .
27Randi Weingarten, “Common Core: Do What It Takes before High Stakes,” Huffington Post, May 19, 2013, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/randi-weingarten/common-core-do-what-it-ta_b_3300790.html ; Diane Ravitch, “Why I Oppose the Common Core Standards,” Washington Post, February 26, 2013, accessed June 7, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/02/26/why-i-oppose-common-core-standards-ravitch/ .
28Patrick Murphy and Eliot Regenstein, Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2012); Accountability Works, “National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards,” A Pioneer Institute White Paper no. 82 (February 2012).