12/04/2014 03:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beware of Vague CCSS Political Hype

I recently read a curious piece written by former politician and current Wall Street executive Harold Ford Jr. entitled "Why Voters Love the Common Core." In my opinion, Mr. Ford's post is a perfect example of why anything said by politicians and/or Wall Street executives regarding public education should be read with great skepticism, or at least a healthy dose of critical analysis.

I invite you to read the post at The Daily Beast before proceeding here because I encourage you to also apply a critical eye to my analysis of Ford's argument.  In full disclosure, I am not a supporter of the Common Core.  However, I'm not posting this to convince you to join me in my thinking, but rather to point out the dangers of allowing others to do your thinking for you.

Ford's primary claim is that the recent mid-term elections are proof that voters love the Common Core and that this is primarily because the standards are working.  Here's why I don't agree.

In support of his claim, Ford provides the following evidence:

Trailing only the economy, education and classroom issues dominated thinking among voters nationwide. In many states, education was the main driver of turnout.

I am not sure how this assertion is supported.  National exit polls did not even include education as an option, instead listing immigration, the economy, health care, and foreign policy as important issues for voters to choose from. Topics such as executive action on immigration, Obamacare, the fight against ISIS, and debate over economic recovery were far more prevalent issues than education in general and the CCSS specifically.  If you want to point out a "driver of turnout," you might consider the fact that 93 percent of people who voted Democrat said that one reason they voted was to support President Obama, while 92 percent said they voted to oppose him.*

...voters, many of them parents, listened to both sides of the debate and ultimately voted for candidates who supported level-headed policy. In fact, November's results show parents want to continue with implementation of high standards and the results they promise.

This claim is a classic case of rationalization -- a logical fallacy in which someone starts with the conclusion they prefer, cherrypicks premises that support that conclusion, and then "reverse engineers" an argument to support it.  In other words, it is utter nonsense.  There are many other far more valid reasons for the midterm election results such as low voter turnout and opposition to the president.

Education may have played a role in some voters' minds, but even if it did, it would be hard to attribute those votes to support for CCSS.  The most recent poll released by Phi Delta Kappa found that 62 percent of Americans have never even heard of the Common Core and the majority of the 38 percent who have said they were only "somewhat knowledgeable" about the standards.  Besides, of those 38 percent of people who said they were somewhat knowledgeable about CCSS, only 41 percent believe the standards will improve American competitiveness globally, while 56 percent believe they will actually harm American competitiveness.**

Some may consider the results surprising in light of the tireless, and often inaccurate, charges opponents leveled against politicians who support higher standards. Interestingly, some of the opponents--many of whom I believe are genuinely confused about Common Core's development and purpose--assailed the standards as too difficult, not difficult enough, or as a federal takeover of local education. They couldn't decide.

This one is actually kind of funny in a sad way.  Ford claims that opponents of CCSS can't make up their minds about why they oppose the standards.  Are they too hard?  Too easy?  The problem is that we simply don't know because the CCSS were never actually field tested or validated in any way prior to their implementation in schools.  Experts have noted that the CCSS are more difficult than previous standards in some states and less difficult than others. Are the standards an example of federal take over of local education?  Well, given that adoption of CCSS was tied to billions of dollars in federal education grants, one could legitimately argue that the adoption of CCSS is a prime example of federal overreach. Perhaps the reason why opponents can't decide how to criticize the CCSS is because the answer is "all of the above".

And to be sure, classrooms are seeing measurable improvements under Common Core Standards.  For example, in Tennessee--one of the earliest adopters of the Common Core Standards--college-readiness rates among high school students saw the biggest improvement this year since the state began testing. And last year, 4th and 8th grade students showed the biggest math and reading gains in the country.

I'm curious as to where Mr. Ford gets his data to support this claim, given that the tests that were designed to assess student progress on the CCSS (PARCC and Smarter Balance) haven't even been officially given to students yet.  That presents a considerable validity problem.  He might be referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, which do indeed show that Tennessee has improved more than most other states from 2011-2103.  The only problem here is that while Tennessee  may have been one of the earliest adopters of CCSS, the state didn't actually begin implementation until the 2012-2013 school year, and full implementation only occurred that year at the K-2 level.  The first NAEP exam isn't given until the 4th grade, so that doesn't quite compute.   There was one state that fully implemented CCSS prior to the 2013 NAEP exam -- Kentucky.  Unfortunately, their scores actually dropped between 2011 and 2013 and they ranked #39 in the nation in terms of improvement during that time.***  Oops.

The same problem also plagues Ford's claims about "college readiness".  The CCSS weren't implemented in Tennessee until the junior or senior year of the students who are now more "college ready", and during that time the Common Core was only partially implemented up through the 8th grade.  I've heard some fantastic claims about the potential that Common Core holds, but I have a hard time believing that their very presence in the elementary and middle schools in Tennessee somehow made the graduating seniors more "college ready" in high school.  That's some serious educational mojo right there.

Here are some more takeaways from Election Day. In only four states--Arizona, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania--did the Common Core Standards emerge as a major issue, and in three of those races the most supportive candidates won. Twelve incumbent governors who publicly support Common Core easily won re-election.

This looks to me to be some more rationalization.  In Arizona, the most supportive congressional candidates may have won their races, but in the race for State School Superintendent, Diane Douglass a critic of CCSS with a plan to abolish the standards  emerged as the winner.  In Colorado, John Hickenlooper defeated the Republican challenger, yet Hickenlooper doesn't even mention CCSS on the  education section of his campaign website.  In New York, Governor Cuomo placated voters by delaying CCSS test scores for five years in the face of harsh criticism from his opponent.  For every article that claims that supporting the CCSS led to political victory, there are probably 100 others claiming it was something else.****

As presidential campaigns gear up on both sides of the political aisle, candidates, pollsters, pundits and media advisors should take notice: Students are making gains, parents are paying attention, and more and more teachers are embracing classroom standards that make it easier for them to do their jobs.

One poll funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (HUGE supporters of CCSS) found that 68% teachers say Common Core implementation is going well at their schools.  Another poll not funded by the Gates foundation found that teacher support for CCSS has dropped from 76%  in 2013 to 46% in 2014.  I have yet to see a study or poll in which teachers said the CCSS made their jobs easier.  Perhaps this paragraph is full of the vaguest political rhetoric because it is intended for "candidates, pollsters, pundits, and media advisors" -- it is their stock-in-trade after all.

I'm not convinced.

As voters we must be careful about believing the rhetoric of anybody who stands to gain or profit on the backs of our children.   Each of us is responsible for developing a better understanding of why we support or oppose major reform initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards.  There are many well-informed and "level headed" (to use Ford's adjective) people on both sides of the argument who will support their claims with sound logic and concrete evidence.  It is our duty as citizens to seek them out and educate ourselves to avoid falling prey to those who will only tell you enough to get your vote or your money.



*Obama loves the CCSS.

**Research shows that the relationship between standards and global competitiveness is questionable and the relationship between test scores and global competitiveness is non-existent.

***Though Mr. Ford does not mention it, the story is almost exactly the same for the NAEP mathematics exam.

****That's totally a guess. I'm not Googling that.