Lessons on Common Core
Critical books offer more folly than wisdom
Over the last several years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time defending the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in my role as a senior fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Now, given president-elect Trump’s pledge to “end Common Core,” which he terms “a disaster,” I expect many more opportunities to defend high standards, at least for the foreseeable future. All that said, while I support the standards, I’m not a cheerleader for them. I could no sooner imagine summoning up a love for (or hatred of) Common Core than for, say, electrical codes or auto-safety standards. I reserve my heated passions for literature, history, and civic education. I will eagerly engage in pitched battles over what students should know, read, and grapple with, but standards? They are dry, dull, and unlovely things.
To be upset by academic standards is to invest them with a power they neither have nor deserve. In my five years of teaching fifth graders, I never—not even once—reached for English language arts standards when deciding what to teach. I would wager that when I. M. Pei was commissioned to design the Louvre Pyramid, his first move was not to reach for a copy of the Paris building codes for inspiration. It should be no different with teaching. First things first: What is it you want to teach? Which stories, poems, or novels are worth your students’ precious time? What do you want students to know and understand about art, science, history, and literature? Answer those questions, then reach for the standards and build your lessons and units “to code.”
Suffice it to say that Common Core’s many and vocal critics, perhaps including our president-elect, do not agree.
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Six years after Common Core’s debut, these critics have produced enough books to collapse a sturdy bookshelf. Few of them make any earnest attempt to persuade readers to reject Common Core on its merits or lack thereof. Some barely take up the content of the standards at all. Instead, they mainly traffic in fear mongering and paranoid conspiracy theories about corporate greed.
For instance, the teacher and activist Kris L. Nielsen announces on the very first page of his book Children of the Core: “Throughout this book, you will see me referring to something called the ‘Common Core Network.’ I use this phrase to describe a triad of players, corporations, and institutions that are working together to dismantle public education, as we know it (Common Core proponents, the testing regime, and the privatization movement).”
If you are not prepared to accept his proposition—that there is a nefarious cabal pushing Common Core on a gullible public—you will not find much value in Nielsen’s book or in other similar tomes.
In this same vein, Common Core and the Truth by Amy Skalicky simply asserts as fact that the standards are part of the movement to turn schools not merely into “new markets for corporations” but “centers of indoctrination to create ‘global citizens’ with all the right behaviors, attitudes and beliefs, otherwise known as puppets.” Terrence O. Moore’s The Story-Killers opens with an epigraph from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The title of Moore’s book comes from his belief that the standards are “deliberately killing off what is left of the great stories of Western literature.” Common Core is designed, Moore insists, “to smear the Western and American tradition with the brush of sexism, racism, and all the other charges we have come to expect from the Left against this country’s long history of freedom.” Colorado’s excellent Ridgeview Classical Schools, where Moore was the founding principal, “prides itself on the centrality of Socratic discussions, purposeful discussions of literary texts, conceptual approaches to mathematics and science, and a close scrutiny of primary source documents.” Ironically, so does Common Core.
For Common Core’s excitable enemies, there is no such thing as overreach. Brad McQueen, a teacher and “former Common Core insider” (whatever that might mean), wins the prize for hyperbole by comparing Common Core to the Holocaust in his book The Cult of Common Core: Obama’s Final Solution for Your Child’s Mind and Our Country’s Exceptionalism.
Who are the villains in this anti–Common Core narrative? Why, billionaires, of course—the faceless capitalist malefactors of great wealth. “We are increasingly teaching the skills that billionaires want their workforces to have in order to boost their profits,” Nielsen asserts knowingly. The logic escapes me. Clearly, whatever our schools have been doing for the last little while seems to be working out very well indeed for billionaires. Why mess with what’s working?
Sadly, the paranoia that infuses the anti–Common Core literature is particularly prominent in books written by teachers. On close examination, many of these books are not about the standards at all. Instead, they are broad-brush attacks on ed reform at large. Mercedes K. Schneider, a Louisiana teacher and anti–ed reform blogger, hammers the point home with the subtitle of her book Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, which is riddled with scare quotes and sarcasm.
“The American education system is not evidencing the ‘crisis’ that modern corporate-minded education ‘reformers’ are pushing as the very foundation for promoting CCSS and its assessments,” she writes. Chapter titles include “Achieve: Who’s Your Daddy? Why, IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, Jr.” and “Bill Gates Likes the Idea.” Schneider’s true intent is not to evaluate the standards but to expose the “power grab” behind education reform. The roundup of usual suspects includes Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, the testing company Pearson Education, and even the Fordham Institute.
If teachers such as Schneider, Nielsen, and others are feeling put upon and use Common Core as a target for spleen venting over the excesses of ed reform, it is not entirely without reason. But it is entirely unpersuasive. Their books are not the stinging exposés their authors imagine, but hymnals from which the converted sing. Their obsession is self-marginalizing, doomed to be met with anger by the already angry and a shrug by the vast majority of noncombatants—parents and taxpayers alike—who simply want a decent education for their kids.
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If anyone has earned the right to vent her spleen over Common Core it’s Sandra Stotsky, who played a leading role in Massachusetts’s adoption of some of the nation’s strongest pre-CCSS academic standards, along with associated curriculum frameworks and teacher-licensing regulations. Massachusetts has long been the state to which others look with envy for its record of academic accomplishment, a record of which Stotsky can be justifiably proud. If she’s upset with Massachusetts turning its back on her work in favor of Common Core, she’s not easily dismissed as a woman scorned.
Stotsky is the primary contributor to Drilling through the Core: Why Common Core Is Bad for American Education from the Pioneer Institute. This collection of essays from the Boston-based think tank is the best of the anti–Common Core books, a serious tome by sober and principled observers, including Mark Bauerlein, R. James Milgram, and Williamson Evers, in addition to Stotsky.
The introductory essay by Peter W. Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars, immediately dismisses Common Core’s conspiratorially minded critics. Wood “puts up a fence” between his critique and those who suggest “that the advocates of the Common Core are acting in bad faith: that the proponents of the Common Core know that it is bad and want to impose it on the nation anyway out of self interest.”
Wood’s critique revolves around the standards’ development by private, nongovernmental bodies, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the heated rush with which the standards were adopted by states hoping to win federal funding under Race to the Top, which functionally demanded adoption of Common Core as the price of admission to the competition.
At nearly 100 pages, Wood’s takedown notes that Common Core critics cannot agree whether the new standards are too rigorous in K–12 or not rigorous enough, leaving students underprepared for college. “The standards are vague and ambiguous and invite manipulation by those who are charged with filling in the details,” he writes, noting Common Core is “ripe for hijacking.” Common Core also “takes control of our schools away from parents and communities,” leaving schools vulnerable to “a curriculum that has been profoundly shaped around the tests and teaching materials” of the two CCSS testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC.
Stotsky’s redoubtable thumbprints are evident on several of the volume’s essays, including ones lamenting the “fate of history” under Common Core; another on the “fate of poetry”; yet another on math, co-authored with R. James Milgram; and the volume’s lead essay, with Mark Bauerlein, titled, “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.” Like Stotsky, the Pioneer Institute has earned the right to be deeply aggrieved by the Bay State’s adoption of Common Core. The logic of standards-based reform should dictate that other states should be adopting the Massachusetts standards and playbook, not vice versa. Pioneer is a leading intellectual center for reform thinking in the state. The Institute has a right to fear that its efforts to “make historic strides in improving its schools and establishing the highest performing charter sector in the nation,” to quote the book’s preface, are at risk of being diminished and diluted.
That said, even as a supporter of the standards, I would not claim as Peter W. Wood does in the book’s introduction that Common Core is “a far-reaching effort to transform American K–12 education.” However, if one accepts his assertion, then the profound disquiet over Common Core seems not entirely irrational. If the skeptics are right, Wood writes, Common Core “will damage the quality of K–12 education for many students; strip parents and local communities of meaningful influence over school curricula; centralize a great deal of power in the hands of federal bureaucrats and private interests; push for the aggregation and use of large amounts of personal data on students without the consent of parents; usher in an era of even more abundant and more intrusive standardized testing; and absorb enormous sums of public funding that could be spent to better effect on other aspects of education.”
Far more compelling arguments can be made not about how much Common Core matters, but how little. For several years now, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless has examined National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores and argued patiently that Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement. Recently, Loveless wondered whether whatever gains Common Core has to offer have already been realized, thus pushing back against those (including me) who believe Common Core won’t bear fruit until professional development, curriculum, and instruction aligned to the standards take hold. Alas, no one thought to offer Loveless a book contract.
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I remain more sanguine than Loveless, but his sober analysis points to the bald fact that Common Core’s advocates elide and critics ignore: Standards by themselves accomplish little. They set a bar that can only be reached and cleared by means of strong curricula, exceptional teaching, fair and rigorous assessments, and meaningful accountability systems. The challenge, now and always, is not setting standards or even agreeing to them. The challenge is in meeting them. Ultimately, I suspect the primary contribution of CCSS will be not to fix what ails American education, but to reveal a disquieting lack of capacity at all levels of the nation’s K–12 system.
Academic standards cannot create anything close to a uniform experience for students in K–12 education in a country as large and diverse as the United States, any more than building codes force us into identical houses, or USDA standards compel us all to eat boiled eggs for breakfast. All standards can do—and it’s not nothing—is to create something close to uniform expectations. This is no more of a threat to local control of schools than the fact that a computer’s recharging cord can be plugged into a standard wall outlet in every one of the nation’s nearly 100,000 schools.
Principled critics largely concede this point. “Common Core’s English Language Arts Standards could raise literary-historical study to rigorous levels,” Stotsky and Bauerlein conclude in Drilling through the Core. “Much depends on how the states and local districts implement them.” Here, we agree. The great tragedy of the faux “debate” over Common Core is that some of the people most ideally suited to wisely guide its implementation—Stotsky, for instance—have opted instead to endlessly re-litigate the standards, at incalculable cost to students in classrooms today. The nation’s schools are poorer for the estrangement of Stotsky and others.
Notably, the authors of the Common Core ELA standards gave primacy to content, writing in the front matter of the document that literacy depends on students reading widely in history, science, and other disciplines: “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Far from marginalizing teachers in content areas, Common Core establishes them as gatekeepers. Every Common Core critic who frets over loss of local control and nonexistent curricular-content mandates should be holding its authors and implementers to these words. Common Core’s ELA standards do not marginalize subject-area study. The road to meeting the standards passes through subject matter.
In the end, the most lamentable outcome of the overheated Common Core wars has been the estrangement of potential allies in a far more important struggle: the quest for instructional reform. To date, most ed-reform efforts have been aimed at mere structural change—expanding the reach of school choice and charter schools, improving teacher quality, or insisting on test-driven accountability. Yet reformers have tended to lose interest at the classroom threshold: an odd thing, if you think about it. In our zeal to measure educational output and teacher quality—to reward those who do it well and punish those who don’t measure up—we remain resolutely incurious about what exactly kids do in school all day. Unaccountably, those who see first-rate instructional materials and quality teaching as reform levers have been far more likely to fight Common Core than to insist upon it as a means to make instructional reform an education priority, a lost opportunity the likes of which we may never see again.
One can only imagine how much progress we might have made if, instead of attacking the standards, its principled critics had devoted their energies to helping the field choose materials, create curriculum, train teachers, and insist on implementation with fidelity. At a time when the nation’s 3.7 million teachers desperately needed help, when “What should we teach?” was at long last being asked in earnest, the worst of these critics used it as an excuse for bombast and dark mutterings while the best sat idly by, carping on the standards rather than using the occasion to guide thoughtful implementation.
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.