Stay the Course on National Standards

As an early Common Core booster, I had hoped that by now — 10 years after most states adopted the standards—our schools would have logged tangible improvements in teaching and learning that resulted in higher student achievement. As Tom Loveless and Morgan Polikoff argue so effectively, there’s little evidence such progress has happened at scale.


That one small word lies at the crux of the matter.

I now realize that supporters of Common Core were naive to think that the shifts associated with the new standards could happen in just a few years. As even we standards hawks have long recognized, standards are just words on paper. To put them to work, to make them effective requires aligned assessments and high-quality instructional materials, and those resources took a half decade or more to build. It is only very recently—since 2018 or so—that most states have had the full combination of higher standards; aligned, tougher, and stable tests; and up-and-running accountability systems. And it is only very recently—also since 2018 or so—that local school districts have had the time and money to adopt new, Common Core–aligned curricula.

Now the real work begins. And that work is extremely challenging, for it involves encouraging more than three million teachers across a vast continent to improve their instructional practices.

What Is Common Core?

In its simplest terms, Common Core is a set of standards in English language arts and mathematics that 46 states adopted in 2010 to replace their own sets of expectations for what children should learn, grade by grade, from kindergarten through high school. The standards themselves are essentially lists of what students should know and be able to do as they progress through primary and secondary school in the major domains of each subject.

But that, of course, was not the whole ball game. We advocates wanted to dramatically raise the expectations of schools and teachers—to aim for the lofty goal of “college- and career-readiness” for many more students. The Common Core itself was explicit that young people who met its expectations would indeed be ready for what comes after high school.

That goal represented a huge change from the focus of K–12 education in the 1990s and early 2000s, which was on getting all students to basic levels of literacy and numeracy. Under what you might call Accountability 1.0, both the standards in place in most states and the end-of-year assessments set a low bar for proficiency. Nothing in the accountability model incentivized continued progress for kids who had already mastered low-level standards. But studies would eventually show that the approach largely advanced its mission: The performance of the lowest-performing students rose dramatically from the 1990s into and through the 2000s. Those students were achieving two to three grade levels above their predecessors. It was historic, life-changing progress. (The booming 1990s economy and big spending increases into the 2000s were probably at least partly responsible for this good news.)

But big problems remained. Perhaps most significantly, the low-level standards and tests in place in most states were sending the wrong signal to parents, educators, and taxpayers: that vastly more students were on track for future success than really were. Students were easily passing the state tests and graduating from high school, but only 30 to 40 percent of these graduates were truly ready for what was next. These indicators of student performance had merely created the illusion of proficiency.

With many fits and starts, these concerns eventually paved the way for Accountability 2.0. This recalibration included much more demanding academic standards that were aligned to readiness for college and career. The launch of the Common Core led to higher-quality and more rigorous assessments, such as those developed by the Smarter Balanced consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and their successors. Finally, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 brought about fairer and clearer accountability systems, with more states moving to A–F or five-star rating systems for schools. These systems are easier to comprehend than the “continuous improvement” kinds of labels often used before.

A renewed commitment to capacity building accompanied this second wave of standards-based reform. In earlier eras, the mantra was “autonomy in return for accountability.” But as my colleague Robert Pondiscio has argued, what we discovered was a stunning lack of know-how in many American schools. Educators wanted to help their students meet standards, but many didn’t know how, nor did they have the basic tools, such as standards-aligned materials, with which to do it. Under Accountability 2.0, at least some state officials would put serious effort into helping their local counterparts on key instructional issues, especially when it came to vetting curricula (see “Louisiana Threads the Needle on Ed Reform,” features, Fall 2017).

The mass adoption of the Common Core helped to supercharge these developments. It’s possible that states would have moved in this direction even without the standards, eventually, but there were few signs of that at the time. Multiple studies by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which I now lead, found lackluster progress in the quality or clarity of standards over the 2000s. As for the level of rigor in the state assessments, most states defined “proficiency” at rock-bottom levels, up and until the adoption of the Common Core, and especially the creation of aligned assessments, as the analyses of Paul Peterson and colleagues have illustrated in these pages (see “After Common Core, States Set Rigorous Standards,” features, Summer 2016).

Most encouraging, it appears that the emergence of Common Core has prompted the adoption of significantly better curricular materials. The standards’ originators had hoped that by creating a national marketplace for textbooks, digital resources, and other instructional materials, common standards could usher in a sea change in the quality and alignment of what teachers use in the classroom. (That shift doesn’t require a single, much less a national, curriculum, but it does imply many fewer choices than teachers have traditionally had to navigate.) And sure enough, reviews by the curriculum-evaluation website indicate that the quality of materials on the market has been getting better and better, especially over the last few years. This is an important change from the days of uninspiring textbooks, or the all-too-common practice of teachers looking for lesson plans on Pinterest.

Building better instructional materials, though, is just the beginning. These resources must be adopted, and then implemented, to have a positive impact. Yet by some estimates, just 10 to 15 percent of schools have adopted Common Core–aligned curricula. Surveys in the early 2010s found that many teachers misunderstood the standards or their intent. Until very recently, teachers didn’t have instructional materials that made the standards real. Even today, most teachers still don’t have access to these essential tools.

Helping teachers use the new curricula effectively will also take time—time for planning, collaboration, and coaching, and time for teachers to get better, year by year, at refining their technique and making the “instructional shifts” the standards call for.

The Work Ahead

To recap: Common Core was part of a larger strategy to shift schools’ expectations significantly higher. State assessments that were aligned to more challenging standards, and that set passing scores at loftier levels, help to make these expectations tangible. Curricular materials aligned to the standards provide a daily road map for teaching the standards in the classroom. This full package has only been in place for a couple of years. (The political tussles over Common Core, and the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, surely slowed everything down.)

The undertaking ahead is huge. In raising standards for what it means for a student to be “on track” or “on grade level” in the quest for college- and career-readiness, most states have had to declare 50 to 60 percent of their students to be behind in their learning. In many classrooms—especially in high-poverty communities—it’s not unusual for most children to be two or three grade levels behind. Figuring out how to help these kids catch up, while encouraging their higher-achieving peers to continue making progress, is extraordinarily difficult. It will likely require new teaching strategies, the use of digital resources that allow for greater personalization, and other approaches that nobody has yet dreamed up.

Will this go well everywhere—and anytime soon? Surely not. Does that mean policymakers should revert to state standards that were mediocre, unclear, and targeted at basic literacy and numeracy? Return to state assessments that tested low-level skills and encouraged low-level teaching? Blow up the national market for curricular and digital products that has been created, painstakingly, over the past 10 years?

No. The smartest path forward is to follow through on the Common Core initiative. That will require states to take on new roles, especially in vetting curricular products and encouraging schools to adopt them, if not demanding they do. Overhauling teacher prep should be high on the to-do list, too. The federal government can help by investing in research and development around thorny implementation issues, such as how to help low achievers, English language learners, and students with disabilities make rapid progress toward the higher standards. Driving state and local dollars into instructional materials, teacher planning time, and coaching will also be important. It’s fair to expect that states and districts that have been making these moves should start to see improved achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other measures by 2021 or 2023 at the latest, compared to those who stick with business as usual.

Going backward will accomplish nothing. So would resigning to a futile sense that no progress is possible until we blow up our educational system, which has proven remarkably resilient for a hundred years. It will require patience and fortitude to stay the course, but that is what the nation’s children and the country itself need right now.

This piece is part of a forum, “A Decade On, Has Common Core Failed?” For alternate takes, please see “Common Standards Aren’t Enough” by Morgan S. Polikoff, 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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