A Point-by-Point Rebuttal of Today’s Anti-Common Core Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal

As I’ve said and written about a million times, there are plenty of reasons to be against the Common Core. As with any public-policy issue, there are pros and cons, upsides and downsides—in short, trade-offs.

Still, many of those crusading against the Common Core have been playing fast and loose with the facts and purposefully spreading misinformation—nobody more than the folks at the Pioneer Institute. This is a shame, because they probably have the best argument against the Common Core, at least in their home state of Massachusetts: The Bay State’s standards were already excellent and already getting results. It should have passed on the Common Core. But because it didn’t, Pioneer seems intent on bringing down the whole enterprise, regardless of how helpful it might be for the other forty-nine states.

In that spirit, let me offer this rebuttal to by Pioneer’s Jamie Gass and Charles Chieppo.

Common Core Education Is Uncommonly Inadequate


Massachusetts student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and SATs were unremarkable in the early 1990s. Then, after a landmark educational reform in 1993, state SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years. In 2005, Bay State students became the first to score best in the nation in all grades and categories on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The students have repeated the feat each time the tests have been administered.

Yes, true! And worth emulating in other states!

How to explain this turnaround? The state”s educational success hinged on rigorous academic standards, teacher testing and high-quality tests that students must pass to graduate from high school. All locally developed, these three factors aligned to produce amazing results.

Yes, yes, yes!

Unfortunately, Massachusetts dropped its own standards in 2010 to join 44 other states (and the District of Columbia) in adopting the flawed standards of the Common Core. This is an educational program sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that has been championed by the Obama administration.

We’ll return to the question of whether the standards are “flawed” in a bit. The rest is true. And yes, it was unfortunate that Massachusetts dropped its own standards.

Common Core recycles a decades-old, top-down approach to education. Its roots are in a letter sent to Hillary Clinton by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, after Bill Clinton”s presidential victory in 1992. The letter laid out a plan “to remold the entire American system” into a centralized one run by “a system of labor-market boards at the local, state and federal levels” where curriculum and “job matching” will be handled by government functionaries.

Huh? This seems to refer to “outcomes-based education” and “school-to-work” initiatives. That would be quite disconcerting, if true. It’s not. Without claiming too much credit, I would argue that Common Core’s roots were in the advocacy of groups like the Fordham Institute (in the mid-2000s) as we watched in disappointment as state standards refused to get much better over the course of fifteen years. We called for common standards as a means to get all states to be more like Massachusetts. If Common Core is school-to-work recycled, how does one explain its support from the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a champion for academic content since Gass (and I) were in short sleeves?

Today, many advocates of national education standards embrace these same anti-academic impulses. In a 2011 speech before the National Governors Association, Bill Gates, whose foundation has been Common Core”s major funder, called on states to essentially brush aside liberal arts departments and fund public college and university disciplines based on their job-creation potential.

This is a textbook example of “spurious argument.” Bill Gates also supports charter schools; is Pioneer now against those too? I disagree with Gates about the value of liberal arts in college, but that’s irrelevant to what’s in the Common Core for primary and secondary education. You could certainly argue that if kids were getting a strong grounding in the liberal arts in school, we might feel better about them taking a more vocational path in college. But regardless, this is just silly.

Compared with Massachusetts” former standards, Common Core”s English standards reduce by 60% the amount of classic literature, poetry and drama that students will read. For example, the Common Core ignores the novels of Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and Mark Twain”s “Huckleberry Finn.” It also delays the point at which Bay State students reach Algebra I—the gateway to higher math study—from eighth to ninth grade or later.

False and false. As Gass and Chieppo well know, the Common Core explicitly states that students should continue to read literature in English class. Across the full curriculum (including social studies and science), though, they need to read more non-fiction than is typical today. We need kids reading more (and better) literature and more (and better) non-fiction. And if you study the standards’ list of exemplar texts, you will find wonderful authors including Mark Twain (Adventures of Tom Sawyer!), William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Harper Lee, Edgar Allen Poe…need I continue?
On math, the standards fully prepare students to take Algebra I by the eighth grade. Period.

Stanford University Emeritus Mathematics Professor R. James Milgram—the only academic mathematician on Common Core”s validation committee—refused to sign off on the final draft, describing the standards as having “extremely serious failings” and reflecting “very low expectations.”

Professor Milgram is entitled to his own opinions, but he was hardly the only “academic mathematician” involved in the standards’ creation. Jason Zimba, the lead author of the mathematics standards, is a professor of physics and mathematics, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics (and a PhD in physics). The “work and feedback” committees included more than a dozen mathematicians from elite institutions including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California–Berkeley. This talking point is a half-truth at best.

This academic-lite approach has been tried before—and it failed. In 1998, Connecticut had higher reading scores than Massachusetts. But just as the Bay State was pursuing clearly articulated academic goals, Connecticut chose a curriculum that put soft skills (such as cultural competence and global awareness) on a par with academic content. By 2005, Connecticut was one of seven states that had outsized drops in reading scores, falling by nearly 10 points in seven years.

What evidence do the authors have that Connecticut’s standards and the Common Core are anything alike? In fact, according to Fordham’s expert reviewers, Connecticut’s previous standards were lousy, earning a D for both math and English (versus an A-minus and B-plus for the Common Core). This is a total non-sequitur (to use family-friendly language).

Common Core”s problems aren”t just academic. Three federal laws explicitly prohibit the U.S. government from directing, supervising or controlling any nationalized standards, testing or curriculum. Yet Race to the Top, a federal education grant competition that dangled $4.35 billion in front of states, favored applications that adopted Common Core. The Education Department subsequently awarded $362 million to fund two national testing consortia to develop national assessments and a “model curriculum” that is “aligned with” Common Core.

I’m not crazy about the federal intrusion into this state-led effort, but no court has found that the Department of Education crossed a legal line in incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core. I wouldn’t mind Congress clarifying the point, though, along the lines of Senator Grassley’s proposal.

The standards were generally adopted by governors” offices and state boards of education eager for Race to the Top money. The state legislatures that fund American K-12 education were largely bypassed.

Yet state legislatures rarely get involved in standards adoption. To my knowledge, the Massachusetts legislator wasn’t involved in the Bay State’s standards; that role is clearly left to the state boards of education. But if state leaders don’t support the Common Core, by all means they should pull out. Half-hearted implementation won’t do anyone any good.

Several states, including Texas, Virginia and Nebraska, declined to adopt the Common Core standards. Meanwhile, grass-roots movements in at least 15 other states are fighting them. Common Core has been put on hold in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Michigan”s House of Representatives has voted not to fund implementation.

These grassroots movements are often fueled by lies and half-truths from the likes of Gass and Chieppo. And the standards are hardly “on hold” in Indiana and Pennsylvania. In both states, implementation continues apace at the local level. Michigan’s vote is not law (and the governor has voiced his strong support for the Common Core). Still, if states want to pull out, they should. The effort is voluntary.

The federal government and the D.C. groups behind Common Core don”t have records that inspire confidence. None of them can point to a program of theirs that has clearly improved student achievement in the past two decades. And in Massachusetts, the likely result of the Common Core is that the gains of the past 20 years will slowly but surely recede.

Jeb Bush strongly supports the Common Core, and his record on education is just as impressive as Massachusetts’s. Thankfully, the federal government isn’t driving this one—governors (many of whom take their cues from Bush) are firmly in the lead. As they should be.
By all means, though, Massachusetts should revert to its old standards. Maybe then Gass and Chieppo would stop trying to wreck an effort that could help the rest of the country catch up to the Bay State.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute”s Flypaper blog.

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