Common Standards Aren’t Enough

The 10th anniversary of Common Core’s launch offers the opportunity to take stock of the impact these nearly national standards have had on student learning, as well as their future prospects. In my view, the standards movement in general, and Common Core in particular, have achieved all they’re going to at this point. The impacts from the policy are not nothing, but they’re definitely not enough to solve the problems of America’s K–12 public schools.

What’s more, I’m not optimistic that standards reforms are going to accomplish much more without some serious rethinking of the education-reform agenda. In short, unless policymakers go after the elephant in the room—the outrageously decentralized federalist structures that encourage mediocrity (especially for the most disadvantaged students) and thwart large-scale improvement efforts—they aren’t going to get much more out of Common Core or any other reform policy.

Impact on Achievement

The million-dollar question is: what impact has Common Core had on student achievement? This is not an easy question to answer, although recent evidence has shed some light on it. Two analyses—neither yet published, but both presented at academic conferences—used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, to examine the impact of Common Core (or in one case, “college- and career-ready” standards more generally) on student achievement.

The first and most comprehensive study was conducted by researchers at the American Institutes for Research, which is affiliated with the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning, or C-SAIL, a project that I co-lead. This investigation finds no effects of college- and career-ready standards on 4th-grade math or 8th-grade reading achievement but small negative effects on 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math, as well as some differences across sub-scales in both subjects. Importantly, this was a study of general college- and career-ready standards, not specifically Common Core.

The second study, conducted at Vanderbilt University, focused just on Common Core and also on a shorter time horizon, and found the opposite—modest positive effects on achievement just a few years after adoption of the standards.

What can one gather from these findings? One conclusion seems clear: neither Common Core nor college- and career-ready standards have had big positive impacts on student achievement. There’s no way to read the existing studies, or even to eyeball NAEP trends, and conclude otherwise. Similarly, I feel confident in saying the standards have not substantially harmed achievement. It looks like the pattern is one of no effects to slightly negative effects.

The truth is we’ll probably never know the true causal impact of the standards on achievement, for a number of reasons. First, it’s difficult to define precisely when Common Core began. Was it the day a state adopted the standards? Or when it implemented a standards-aligned test? Or when teachers started using Common Core curriculum materials? Second, the states that adopted the standards may have differed in important ways from states that didn’t adopt them, making it difficult to tease out the discrete impacts of the standards. And third, while NAEP is the best outcome measure currently available, it’s severely flawed for this kind of study, because it’s not clear how well NAEP is aligned to either the Common Core standards or to other state standards. A drop in NAEP scores, for instance, could just be the result of content being moved to different grade levels within Common Core relative to prior standards (for example, content that was typically taught before grade 4 now being taught later). Even allowing for these caveats, the evidence at this point certainly indicates that the standards didn’t produce great positive effects. That’s an important finding.

Implementation Woes

To improvise on a well-known phrase from the political strategist James Carville, when it comes to education policies, “It’s the implementation, stupid.” Evidence from many different studies using multiple methods indicates that implementation of Common Core and other college- and career-ready standards has been weak.

One survey study from RAND found that teachers hold many misconceptions about what the standards are calling for. For instance, many teachers think the standards emphasize students reading at their own individual reading levels, when the standards actually call for students to read challenging grade-level texts. Another RAND study examined the change in teachers’ instruction over the course of the Common Core era and found no evidence that it was becoming more aligned with standards (and some evidence it was becoming less so).

In C-SAIL’s national study of Common Core implementation, we found a number of troubling trends. Teachers were teaching content that had been de-emphasized in the new standards at higher rates than content that had been emphasized. Rural teachers were less likely to cover standards-emphasized content than other teachers were. Teachers of students with disabilities lagged in implementation as well.

Are there implementation bright spots? Yes, there are some. By all accounts, Louisiana is a leader in standards implementation. State officials there have taken an aggressive stance on policy matters such as curriculum materials (all but requiring districts to adopt from a few selected, highly aligned materials) and teacher training (offering curriculum-oriented training at massive scale to teachers and leaders throughout the state). Survey evidence from RAND indeed suggests that teachers there understand the standards better and are implementing them more faithfully.

But in general, standards implementation remains anemic. Why has implementation been so difficult? The U.S. system of public education makes implementation of any policy, but especially one that targets the instructional core, close to impossible. Rather than seriously challenging the structures in the system that get in the way of large-scale instructional improvement, the standards movement accepted the system as it was and tried to work around the problem. It didn’t succeed, and there’s scant reason to think it will succeed in the future.

Staying Power

While it appears that Common Core has had little effect on student achievement, there are two related trends that bear mentioning. The first is that the standards have had remarkable staying power. A lot of states have renamed the standards or even “repealed” them—but in almost every state, what is in place now looks an awful lot like the Common Core as originally written. Even the standards-aligned tests developed by two federally funded consortia, while far from dominant, are still being used in 16 states.

This is all the more impressive given the relentless and sometimes absurd smear campaign levied against the standards from both the Right and the Left. While these efforts succeeded in weakening support for the standards, the 2019 Education Next poll found that public approval of the Common Core (and more general support for common standards) has rebounded after a large dip. People like the idea of common standards, and they’re not especially opposed to the Common Core brand.

The second is that the standards (and their meager track record) have led to renewed policy efforts around curriculum materials, which I view as much more promising. This new energy around curriculum has manifested itself in several ways., an organization that compares and evaluates K–12 curricula, was an early mover, recognizing the serious need districts had for high-quality curriculum materials and the failures of the market to give them those resources. Louisiana has led on curriculum, but other states are moving to take a more assertive hand in evaluating materials and providing districts with better options., a New York State initiative that provides educators with tools and resources for effective, standards-aligned instruction, arose from the federal government’s Race to the Top competitive grant program and grew to become one of the most widely used sets of instructional materials in the nation. Funders are also recognizing the importance of curriculum and allocating their resources toward improving the ways curriculum materials are made, adopted, and used. I don’t believe that any of this would have happened without Common Core and the nearly national curriculum market it created.

What’s Next?

The fundamental issues that led to the standards movement in the first place haven’t changed. Schools are plagued by poor overall performance, enormous opportunity gaps and achievement gaps, weak instructional supervision, inadequate alignment among policy instruments, and multiple layers of bureaucracy sending teachers conflicting messages about classroom approaches. Standards-based reforms have been chipping away at this problem for 30 years now. It’s true that outcomes have risen considerably in that time, but all signs point to the conclusion that this particular strategy has run its course. And while average levels of performance have improved, there’s little to no evidence the standards movement has moved the needle on gaps.

It’s time for a new approach. Policymakers should not throw out the goal of improving teaching at scale. Therefore, they would be wise to retain the standards and assessments that are now in place. But if these leaders are serious about that goal, they will probably have to be much more aggressive.

What kinds of policies do I have in mind? First, these leaders could take curriculum more seriously than they have in the past. States could require the public schools to choose from among just a small number of curricular options. Teacher-education programs could train teachers in using those specific curricula, and the state could follow up by giving them ongoing training on those curricula. Teachers could be strongly discouraged, or even prevented, from cobbling together curricula from random, unregulated websites like Pinterest (or at the very least, states and districts could curate these kinds of materials). In exchange for this loss of control, teachers could be given more support to effectively implement their adopted materials—time to collaborate with teachers in their school, observe what’s working and what’s not, and make changes to improve implementation. But the Wild West days of every teacher and every school with their own curricula must come to an end.

A second question worth considering is whether the country really needs 10,000 school districts, 10,000 school boards, arbitrary and segregation-promoting district boundaries, and all the other structures that contribute to a fragmented education system. I am not advocating for a federal takeover of education, but rather for states—which have the constitutional authority and a vested interest in ensuring educational opportunity for all students—to examine how the organization of their education systems exacerbates their core problems. Every state is different, so the reforms may differ as well. The goal, though, should be the same—focusing all structures and systems on clearing out the policy clutter (especially those policies that further disadvantage the already disadvantaged) and directing all elements of the system toward supporting effective, scalable instruction.

But wait, you might say, local control is important, and kids are too different from one another for this kind of centralization to work! Actually, that’s not true. Kids are of course individuals, and individual children do differ from each other. But the variation in students (certainly in terms of achievement, but also in terms of social-emotional skills and other outcomes) lies mostly within classrooms (and certainly within schools and districts)—not between them. And even if one were to assume that there are large differences between classrooms, there’s no evidence that current structures do a good job of matching teaching and curriculum to student need. If that were so, schools would be producing better outcomes than they do.

But wait, you might say, the effectiveness of some schools of choice shows that decentralization is good and off-the-shelf curricula are bad. To the contrary: visit some KIPP or Success Academy charter schools and take a look at their approach to curriculum and to teacher control of it. They are not letting a thousand flowers bloom—they are adopting or creating high-quality materials and then supporting and expecting teachers to effectively implement them. These schools are indeed models in that regard.

As Common Core enters the next decade, education leaders have an opportunity to consider whether standards are going to save America from its educational woes. I don’t think they will. The Common Core standards have done as much as they can with the system that exists. So the choice presents itself: change the policy, or change the system. The system is the problem, and that is what needs fixing.

This piece is part of a forum, “A Decade On, Has Common Core Failed?” For alternate takes, please see “Stay the Course on National Standards” by Michael J. Petrilli, and “Common Core Has Not Worked” by Tom Loveless.

This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Polikoff, M.S., Petrilli, M.J., and Loveless, T. (2020). A Decade On, Has Common Core Failed? Assessing the impact of national standards. Education Next, 20(2), 72-81.

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