Common Core: The Day After

Like a dog that finally catches the bus he’d been chasing forever, what happens when opponents of the Common Core State Standards finally succeed in getting a state’s policymakers to “repeal” the education initiative? Early signs from Indiana and elsewhere suggest that the opponents’ stated goals are likely to get run over.

We acknowledge, of course, that Common Core critics aren’t monolithic, even on the right. Libertarians want states to reject standards, testing and accountability overall; conservative opponents urge states to move to what they see as “higher” standards. Both factions would like to remove the taint of federal influence from state-based reform. (On that point, we concur.) On the left, the National Education Association sees an opportunity to push back against a policy it never liked in the first place. The union is using the standards as an excise to call for a moratorium on teacher evaluations as states move to Common Core–aligned tests. Still others worry about the standards being “too hard.” (On these points, we do not concur).

So how’s it going? Indiana has hit the reverse button hardest, enacting a bill that requires the state board of education to adopt revised standards. Oklahoma seems on the brink of doing much the same thing. No state is rejecting standards and testing entirely. That is partially because they would lose hundreds of millions of dollars of federal education funding and partially because few lawmakers trust the education system to do right by all kids once it’s free from external benchmarks and measures. (Sorry, libertarians.)

Will states that reject the Common Core end up with higher standards? Don’t count on it. Indiana’s revised standards were widely panned—by Common Core supporters and critics alike—for somehow managing to be lower in quality than both the Core standards and those that the Hoosier State had in place before. (The old ones were good—we evaluated them ourselves—although poorly implemented.)

Some Indiana critics are particularly upset that the new draft standards aren’t different enough from the Common Core. But they shouldn’t be surprised. If the goal is to align the Hoosier K–12 system with the expectations of colleges and employers, standards drafters will inexorably come to many of the same conclusions.

What about states that decide to keep the Common Core standards but reject common, comparable, aligned assessments? A report last year from Indiana’s nonpartisan legislative staff predicted tens of millions of dollars in costs to adopt new tests, plus additional ongoing costs to administer them. And a new report out of Louisiana suggests a similar fate for the Bayou State if sudden big changes are made to standards and tests.

Nor do such estimates include the cost to local school districts, which have spent millions getting ready for the higher standards of the Common Core. If states change their standards yet again, many districts will be compelled, once more, to recalibrate their materials and professional development—and teachers will once again have to adapt to a new set of standards. This does nobody any good.

That leaves many elected officials struggling to answer two fundamental questions: Can they change the Common Core? And should they? On the first question, despite the contention by the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly that “states that sign on to Common Core may not change or modify the standards,” the clear answer is yes. Many states have done just that. California, Georgia, and North Carolina, for example, have mandated the teaching of cursive writing. Florida made nearly a hundred changes, including the addition of standards related to calculus.

Is there a better way forward? We’d prefer that states reject outright the arguments of Common Core opponents and proceed apace with implementation. But it’s clear that many policymakers are under pressure to demonstrate that they are hearing and heeding opponents’ concerns. We hope that such leaders also grasp the business case for the Common Core: that we need to dramatically improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools and that strong standards and tests are critical foundations for the education system we need to be competitive in the modern world.

Half measures designed to mollify the critics will not cut it. The best that policymakers can do is to give voice to their concerns and then get out of the way.

-Michael J. Petrilli and Michael Brickman

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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