06/23/2014 09:41 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Not So "Common Core": The Reforming of Educational Reform

From 2009 to 2013, there was a rush to develop, embrace and implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for K-12 education. Since then, there has been a rush to reject, resist and rewrite the CCSS.

The rush to judgment in both instances was and is probably misplaced. It's time to take a deep breath and put this attempt at meaningful educational reform into perspective. Or, as Simon and Garfunkel might say it, "Slow down you move too fast. Got to make the standards last now."

The Council of Chief State School Officers states that CCSS are a "set of high quality academic expectations in English-language arts (ELA) and mathematics (math) that define the knowledge and skills all should master by the end of each grade level in order to be on track for success in college and career."

According to the official Common Core website, "The state-led effort to develop the CCSS was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education...through their membership in the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers."

Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post recently reported, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) provided significant financial support and resources to facilitate this "state-led effort". Ms. Layton notes that the Gates Foundation spent more than $200 M not only to help develop the standards but also to build "political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes."

As of December, 2013, 45 states had fully adopted the CSSS. (The five states that didn't adapt the standards are: Texas, Nebraska, Virginia, Alaska and Minnesota which adopted the ELA but not the math standards.)

As of June, 2014, the adoption number had shrunk to 42 states as Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma opted out of the standards. This is where the plot gets interesting.

There has been some opposition to CCSS the beginning. The reasons for resistance to or revision of the standards fall into three broad categories:

  • Political: the standards have been supported by the Obama administration and as such represent an attempt to federalize education
  • Educational: there is little to no evidence to support that standards improve educational quality and the emphasis on testing to the standards is misdirected
  • Parochial: the standards need to be tweaked to make them work within the context of existing state rules, guidelines and budgets
It's not certain how many states will finally abandon the standards. What is certain is the push back at the state level has been driven primarily by "conservative activists" who resent the federal government's intrusion into the state's educational space. Reid Wilson reports that in the past year about "100 bills to slow, stop or reverse common core requirements" have been introduced by those activists.

Moving from the opposition on the political side to that on the educational side, Tom Loveless, senior fellow from the Brookings Institution and author of the annual Brown Center Report on American Education (2012 Brown Center Report) published by Brookings, has been a leading and continuous critic of the utility of standards as performance enhancers.

In an article for Education Week in April 2012 explaining the findings regarding the standards in the 2012 Brown Center Report, Loveless observes "The quality of standards has not mattered. From 2003 to 2009, states with terrific standards raised their National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores by roughly the same margin as states with awful ones."

In March of 2014, after reviewing NAEP gains in mathematics comparing states "with varying degrees of CCSS implementation" for the period from 2009-2013, Loveless reported mixed results. In his conclusion, however, he reiterated the assessment from the 2012 Brown Center Report, "that the CCSS will have little to no impact on student achievement."

The flip side of the standards argument within the educational community is the relevance of testing as a tool for improving student performance. The debate regarding testing began with the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 which put a strong focus on annual testing directed at promoting academic progress within schools and including penalties if performance was not satisfactory.

Due to very poor results on these tests and for other reasons, No Child Left Behind has essentially been left behind but the emphasis on testing to the new common core standards has been carried forward. That's because the federal government has provided over $350 million to two consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (covering 14 states at present) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (covering 21 states at present) to develop new on-line standardized exams to measure progress against those standards. The hope is that these online assessments will enable better testing not only of students' knowledge but also of their creative and critical thinking skills.

There are numerous opponents of what has been called "high stakes testing". Probably the most well recognized one is Diane Ravitch, an educational historian at and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993 who was originally a strong supporter of No Child. She has soured on it -- explaining why in a book she wrote in 2010 titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education.

Ms. Ravitch was never a strong supporter of the CCSS. At the beginning of this year, she gave a speech at the Modern Language Association providing her assessment and a detailed critique of Common Core including its misplaced focus on testing, ratings and rankings.

In her speech, she emphasized that, "...when it became clear that there would be no field testing, I decided I could not support the standards. I objected to the lack of any democratic participation in their development; I objected to the lack of any process for revising them, and I was fearful that they were setting unreachable targets for most students."

While Loveless, Ravitch and others object to Common Core on educational grounds, many elected officials in states are pragmatic in their resistance. Education Week maintains a website to track bills to pause or review the Common Core standards. That site lists 14 states that have introduced bills.

The reasons and actions proposed in these bills vary greatly. For example, the bill introduced in Illinois calls for delaying implementation until a study is done to determine the costs to the states. Bills passed in the houses in both Maryland and New York do not call for delaying implementation of the standards but do call for delaying their use in teacher evaluations.

The combination of these political, educational and parochial barriers to common core have unraveled what at one time appeared to be a tightly knit package. This may not be altogether bad.

Don't take that as our opinion. Take it as that of Vicki Phillips, director of education for the Gates Foundation, which provided much of the funding to drive the standards development and adoption.

On June 10, Ms. Phillips released an open letter suggesting that significant actions tied to testing, such as teacher evaluation and student promotion be pushed back by two years. In her letter, Ms Phillips commented, " evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it's hard to be fair in a time of transition. She noted, "The standards need time to work. The teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests and offer their feedback."

The proposed breathing room seems like a good thing. That's because the CCSS are neither a magic elixir nor a poisonous substance.

Indeed, they are a means and not an end. They provide the context for doing other things such as teacher preparation and development; improving curriculum; enhancing school and classroom learning environments; and addressing inequality of educational opportunities that will produce the desired outcomes of better overall student performance and progress.

We believe that most of the proponents and opponents of the common core standards have one thing in common. That is a desire to do what is right and best for students. Their opinions on what exactly that is differ.

What has happened because of this debate and the reforming of this reform with its various permutations across our states is that we see democracy and serendipity at work. What was a blanket has become more of a patchwork quilt.

That quilt provides the basis for quasi-experimental design and gathering evidence to determine the impact of the various approaches to standards. That evidence can be used as part of a learning and continuous improvement process.

Continuous improvement is the hallmark of healthy organizations and systems. The common core standards are directed at improvement of student, teacher and school performance. By devoting the same attention and rigor to improving the standards themselves, we can ensure that they evolve in such a way as to deliver the maximum benefit to all concerned.

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