This testimony was presented before the Education Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives by Williamson Evers, Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, on November 20, 2013.
I am a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. I was a member of the California State Academic Standards Commission in late 1990s and again in 2010, when the Common Core national curriculum-content standards were under consideration. I was administrator, together with others, of the school system in Iraq in 2003. I was the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for policy, from 2007 to 2009.
What are content standards? Curriculum-content standards lay out what students are expected to know, and the students are tested on this material (as part of a system of standards and accountability). To repeat, curriculum-content standards set forth the academic content to be learned, and, in the words of Diane Ravitch, historian of American K-12 education, the purpose of standards is to “create a common curriculum.” National standards do this at a national level.
National Math Standards
Let’s look at the national math standards. They are sloppy and inadequate. Many topics are missing or not developed – for example, the area of a triangle, the definition of pi, and, most importantly, fluency with representation and conversion of percentages, fractions and decimals – a topic identified as essential by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.
The Common Core prescribes that in geometry classes ”similar and congruent triangles” are to be taught not using the standard Euclidean approach of side-angle-side and angle-side-angle, but rather using the idea of rigid motion (an approach that is experimental and has a track record of failure for K-12 education). The Common Core prescribes at times approaches that are a simply not mathematics. When it comes to testing the hypothesis of equality among sample means, the Common Core prescribes a method that in the words of Jonathan Goodman, professor of mathematics at New York University, has “no basis in statistics.”
Sometimes the Common Core prescribes having students invent their own algorithms and, quite often it prescribes teaching and learning “multiple strategies” – a confusing approach for students.
Whereas the top-performing countries in the world have Algebra I in 8th grade (or the equivalent to this), the Common Core prescribes Algebra I in 9th grade and the national tests will be aligned with an expectation of Algebra I in 9th grade.
Thus, the Common Core national math standards are not “internationally benchmarked” (though proponents have advertised that they are), not world class and competitive with the best (though advertised to be), and not “second to none” (though advertised as such when announced).
R. James Milgram, Stanford mathematics professor emeritus and member of the Common Core validation committee, described Common Core math (by the end of seventh grade) as “roughly two years behind” high-achieving countries.
Here is what Prof. William McCallum of the University of Arizona, one of the three writers of the Common Core math standards—and the only mathematician among them—said about the Common Core math: The overall standards are “not… high, certainly not in comparison [with] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.” I was in the room when he said this to a joint conference of professional research mathematicians.
There is no reason in principle, if a state like Ohio wanted to go beyond the Common Core, why Ohio couldn’t create better standards than Common Core and have them certified by Ohio’s colleges and universities. A quick but careful fix could be done by taking Ohio’s old standards and one of the high-quality old state-level standards (like those of Massachusetts, Indiana, or California) and blend them. Massachusetts’s standards are not under copyright, and California readily grants free permission for use for non-commerical purposes.
Will National Standards Boost Student Achievement?
Looking at other countries in general, the countries that do better than the United States in international comparisons have a national curriculum, but so do countries that do worse than the United States. Thus whether or not a country has national standards cannot be what determines success.
The United States is an exceptional country and has much more freedom and a much more decentralized government than many other countries. But two countries that are culturally similar to the United States–Australia and Canada—set their curriculum at the provincial level and do better academically than the U.S. Thus, there is no reason to believe that national standards are necessary for international math prowess.
In September 2010, the Department of Education awarded $330 million for the creation of national tests. Both the testing consortia that received federal grants included commitments in their proposals that they would develop national curriculum materials. Key writers of the national standards were subsequently retained to develop the national tests.
Progressive educators, particularly advocates of “authentic assessment” and “performance-based assessment,” had been hoping to use national tests to influence the curriculum and teaching. They envisioned project-based tests that use “open-ended performances” in which students develop solutions, write explanations, or evaluate potential strategies.
At least a portion of the national test problems will be project-based, designed to evaluate such skills as “complex problem-solving” “high-order” and “critical” thinking, and communication – all buzz words of Progressive Education in our time. Such testing is deliberately intended by the test-writers to encourage the use of discovery-learning techniques in the classroom.
Common Core-aligned textbooks and teacher professional development have been fulfilling the vision of pro-Progressive Education test-writers – their vision of a test-driven nationwide turn toward inquiry-based learning. These tests are deliberately designed to cause “teaching to the test.”
Is Common Core Compatible with Our Madisonian System of Federalism?
What is federalism? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a recent case that the allocation of powers as set forth in the Constitution sets legal “boundaries” between the federal government and the states and provides a way for each of them to maintain their “integrity.” But, just as importantly, having a system of federalism “secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.”
We can see that the debate about federalism continues in America. In another case, the U.S Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare, the court said that the federal government cannot use the threat of cutting off federal spending to coerce states into expanding Medicaid. (This decision may or may not apply to Common Core, but it shows the continuing importance of federalism.)
Content standards, tests, and curriculum that had been provided by the states — thus far — will now because of Common Core be provided by federally-endorsed national curriculum-content standards, federally-funded tests, and curriculum (some of it federally funded) based on those tests and curriculum-content standards.
The Common Core national standards had their origins in several Washington, DC-centric lobbying and policy-advocacy groups (namely, the NGA, the CCSSO, and Achieve Inc.). But shortly after the Obama administration came to power, it adopted and endorsed the national standards. It used competitive grants to coerce states into adopting Common Core. It paid for Common Core national tests and intervened in the test-creation process. It created a panel to oversee and monitor the national tests. It granted states waivers from the burdens of No Child Left Behind conditional on continued adherence to Common Core or a federally-approved alternative.
To some extent, federal officials have commandeered state curriculum-content standards and tests and substituted national standards and tests; to some extent, some state officials embraced the national standards-and-testing cartel as a relief from political pressure within their state and a relief from competitive pressure from other states. In any case, national standards and tests will change curriculum content, homogenize what is taught, and profoundly alter the structure of American K-12 public education.
Nationalizing standards and tests would, according to this analysis, eliminate them as differentiated school-reform instruments that could be used by states in competition over educational attainment among the states. Sonny Perdue, governor of Georgia at the time Common Core was created, did not like it when the low-performing students of his state were compared with students in other states that had different standards from Georgia’s. He became the lead governor in bringing the NGA into the national standards effort.
Federalism is not only distinction and rivalry between the federal government and the states; it is also rivalry among the states and among local governments within the states. As economist Richard McKenzie writes, the Founders sought to disperse power “among many different and competing governments – at the federal, state, and local levels.”
The insight of competitive federalism is that fifty-one state school boards are better, than a single federal Executive-branch office. Fifteen-thousand local school boards are better than either fifty-one state school boards or a single federal office.
As political scientist Thomas Dye puts it, “intergovernmental competition” was seen by the Founders as an “auxiliary precaution” against the “monopoly abuse of power by a single centralized government.”
Competitive federalism encourages innovation, allows movement between jurisdictions that enhances liberty, and permits a better match between policies and voter preferences. Common Core’s national uniformity runs counter to competitive federalism.
Data about Ohio students will flow to the U.S. Department of Education through PARCC, the national test consortium to which Ohio belongs. In return for the money it received from the federal government, PARCC has to provide the U.S, Department of education with its student-level data. Ohio can do nothing about this as long as it is in a federally-funded national test consortium. It would have to leave PARCC to block this process of data transfer.
This issue is of personal concern to me. When I was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, the student privacy office was part of my portfolio. Until December 2011, the U.S. Department of Education interpreted the student privacy protections in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) strictly, but reasonably.
But in 2011, the Obama administration turned those protections upside down. The Obama administration reinterpreted technical terms and provisions of the law to allow access to student personal data to non-education government agencies and to private vendors and contractors. It removed requirements that parents had to give consent if third-parties were given access to student personal data. The Obama administration made this change, in large measure, to facilitating workforce planning by government agencies.
We live in a time of concern about abuse of data collection and data management — by the NSA, the IRS, and other agencies. Ohio policymakers should be concerned about the privacy of student personal data and its possible misuse.
I hope that you have found my research findings of interest and that they will inform your deliberations. I will be glad to answer any questions.