By Austin Block
The era of good feelings in education is long gone. The optimistic, bi-partisan rhetoric that surrounded passage of No Child Left Behind has fallen away, replaced with a weird, difficult-to-parse battle that ignores typical partisan lines. As the mudslinging has escalated, perhaps the most divisive issue has been the Common Core, a set of math and English/Language Arts standards that have been adopted by 43 states, four territories and Washington D.C.
Supporters believe the standards will raise the academic bar by pushing teachers to develop students’ critical thinking skills and to prepare all children, not just the most privileged, for college and career. Critics attack the standards from a variety of angles. Some call them a federal takeover of public education, while others call them confusing, in conflict with child development research and likely to demoralize low achieving students, widen achievement gaps or lead more students to drop out of school. Ultimately, the primary problem in this debate is that hardly anyone knows what they’re talking about. According to a recent poll from Education Next, huge percentages of the American populace (including a good chunk of teachers) don’t know basic facts about the Common Core. Because the facts are so unclear, the goal of this column is not to take sides but to clarify important information about the Common Core standards.
Perhaps one of the most contentious questions surrounding Common Core is whether or not the standards represent national intrusion into state power over education. To a certain extent, both the critics and supporters are right: the federal government did not develop the standards itself, nor did it provide money for their development. However, it did play a role in their adoption. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program granted priority to states that adopted “college and career ready standards,” and it has informally convinced other states to do the same in exchange for relief from No Child Left Behind accountability.
Although states could adopt standards other than the Common Core, it was easier to adopt the Common Core than to develop “college and career ready” standards of their own. And while the Common Core standards are not a curriculum and do not dictate teaching materials or techniques, standards do have influence over what is taught if they affect test design. Since about half of the states have adopted Common Core-aligned assessments, and since teachers have a tendency to teach to the test, these standards are influencing the material being taught in (and the curricula being developed for) American classrooms.
Another contested issue is whether or not the Common Core is more rigorous than existing state and international education standards. The short answer is that no one knows for sure. From an international perspective, Common Core supporters claim that the standards are “internationally benchmarked,” but all that really means is that drafters of the standards consulted other nations’ standards in the process of developing their own. The best information on how Common Core compares to previous state standards comes from a 2010 Fordham Institute report, which found that Common Core English/Language Arts standards were “clearer and more rigorous” than those of 37 states and that Common Core math standards were clearer and more rigorous than those of 39 states. However, the standards are also less rigorous than those of some states, and, as critic Frederick Hess has pointed out, the Fordham Institute endorses the standards. Whether or not Fordham’s endorsement biased the analysis is impossible to know.
The third major debate is over the extent to which Common Core is “evidence-based.” Critics claim that there is no evidence supporting Common Core, while supporters claim that the standards are deeply rooted in research. Unsurprisingly, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In the development process, drafters of the standards did consult some existing research and look at pre-existing standards, and the Common Core development and feedback groups included a wide variety of educators, researchers, administrators and professors.
That said, a large group of experts has expressed concerns that the standards conflict with research on early childhood development, and it is probably the case that some Common Core proponents have exaggerated the research base supporting the standards in order to promote their adoption. Moreover, the research community has such a limited understanding of standards that we’re not even sure how much standards actually influence student achievement. They may have a significant effect on achievement, they may not or they may only have an influence when paired with other education reforms. Therefore, although significant research did go into the development process, Common Core supporters probably promise too much when they wax poetic about the benefits of “evidence-based” standards.
Unfortunately, in recent years, polemical critics on both sides have obscured the legitimate issues surrounding the Common Core. Rather than promote rational dialogue, they have caricaturized the issue, depicting the standards as confusing, developmentally inappropriate and tyrannical on one hand and as near-flawless, research-based brilliance on the other. Ultimately though, as is often the case, truths lie somewhere in the mean between the extremes. In my next column, I will build off of the analysis in this article to develop a more evaluative stance on the merits of Common Core.
Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu