Widgets Magazine


Common Core: An imperfect improvement over the status quo

In my last column, I attempted to clarify misconceptions about the Common Core, promising to take a more evaluative stance on the standards in my next column. This is that column. First, it’s probably necessary to rehash a few key facts. The Common Core is a set of educational standards (not a curriculum, not a standardized test) that was developed by educational leaders from 48 of the 50 states. The federal government did play a significant role in convincing states to adopt “college and career ready” standards like the Common Core, but it played no role in their development.

Although no one knows exactly how rigorous the standards are, a 2010 Fordham Institute Report estimates that the standards are more rigorous than those of about three-quarters of U.S. states. Though Common Core developers did conduct research and consult pre-existing standards, claims that the Common Core is “evidence-based” are probably overblown. Several educational leaders and professors have also criticized the content of the standards.

So where does this set of facts leave us? It leaves us with a set of standards that are imperfect but better than the national status quo. As mentioned above, there do exist critics who argue that the standards are a step backward, and support for the Common Core among teachers and the general public is declining. A few states have withdrawn their adoption of the Common Core in the face of public backlash.

That said, it would be hard to argue that the Common Core is not an improvement over many state standards. A national survey of school district leaders found that 90 percent of surveyed leaders believe that the standards are more rigorous than their state’s previous standards and that more than 75 percent of leaders believe that implementation of the Common Core will “lead to improved skills among students in [their] district.” A recent study from Michigan State University finds that the Common Core math standards are very similar to those of top-performing countries on the 1995 Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), and it also finds a correlation between “proximity of a state’s standards” to the Common Core math standards and math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Although this evidence is definitely not causal, when paired with the survey of school leaders and with the Fordham Institute Report, it at least suggests that the Common Core is better than many pre-existing state standards.

Moreover, even if the Michigan State study’s correlation is a spurious one, and even if the Fordham Institute’s report is, as some claim, biased or overblown, states are free to modify the Common Core or even drop the standards entirely (though states that drop the Common Core do face significant pressure to create new standards very quickly). In essence, then, the Common Core’s primary contribution to American public education is to create a lower bound for academic rigor. Though it may not be a godsend, as some would have us believe, it provides a solid set of standards that any state can adopt and adapt to fit its particular educational needs.

Two other critiques are also prominent in the backlash against Common Core. First, some critics highlight the cost of implementation. While a legitimate concern two or three years ago, at this point, complaining about cost is akin to crying over spilt milk. Implementation is underway nationwide, and although it is quite expensive, undoing the infrastructure that has been created in recent years is, for many states, far too late. It would be far more sensible to modify the standards than to revoke them entirely.

Second, some social justice advocates argue that the Common Core (or at least the tests aligned with the standards) will widen, rather than narrow, the achievement gap. In a certain sense, they are right. Preliminary evidence from Kentucky and New York does show that achievement gaps widened shortly after Common Core implementation. However, the fact that gaps expanded does not necessarily indicate that the standards exacerbate educational inequity. What seems much more likely is that the Common Core has uncovered disparities that already existed. Low standards can mask achievement gaps by making it easier for low-performing students to pass. If this is in fact what has occurred in recent years, then raising standards should, by making educational inequities more apparent, force policymakers to address these issues with greater urgency.

Ultimately, there is very little that is certain with regards to the Common Core. The research base is incredibly thin, and it is therefore impossible to say with confidence exactly how the Common Core will affect educational inequity and student achievement. That said, the evidence that does exist suggests that the Common Core represents a small, if shaky, step in the right direction. Critics would be better off recognizing the Common Core for what it is – an imperfect improvement over the status quo – and supporting its successful implementation than fighting a losing battle to repeal what has become a new national norm.

Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.