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School & District Management Opinion

Gates’ Common-Core Mea Culpa and the School Reform Divide

By Rick Hess — June 08, 2016 5 min read
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Over the past few weeks, the world of “school reform” has been consumed by a heated back-and-forth over whether the left-leaning majority is trying to shove right-leaning types out of the tent. The debate has swirled mostly around questions of race, but those can distract from more fundamental philosophical differences. After all, progressives tend to assume that ambitious programs and policies are the engine of social progress. Conservatives tend to be more concerned about the limits of social engineering, unanticipated consequences, and the unintended damage that well-intended efforts can do. Conservatives believe meaningful social progress tends to be incremental and gradual, the product of local communities, private associations, dynamic markets, and individual initiative. This is why folks on the right get irate when progressives launch a passionate crusade, sow conflict and division, trample on communities, expand bureaucracies, and then, when things don’t work out, plead unforeseeable complications.

A nice illustration has been unfolding in real time. Just days before the left-right imbroglio blew up, Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann used her annual letter to issue a much-discussed mea culpa regarding the Foundation’s efforts on behalf of the Common Core. Desmond-Hellmann explained that the Common Core’s rocky path had been a surprise to the Gates team and “a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.” Kudos to Desmond-Hellmann for her honesty.

Missing, however, was an acknowledgment that some observers were not, in fact, blindsided. Conservatives expect these problems, look for them, and anticipate them. In fact, my AEI colleague Mike McShane and I were among those who publicly and repeatedly tried to call attention to these issues early on, only to be dismissed or ignored by Team Common Core. I’ll offer a few examples of what I have in mind because the easiest way to demonstrate that something was foreseeable is to show that people foresaw it (recall that the Common Core standards were introduced in 2010 and most states started implementation in 2011). Some of the stumbles and miscalculations, Desmond-Hellmann writes, have included:

A lack of engagement. Desmond-Hellmann relates that the Foundation has learned that “deep and deliberate engagement is essential to success.” In 2011, I observed, "[Common Core] success in all the miles ahead will depend crucially on the breadth, depth, and stability of public support.” In 2012, I noted, “The early success of the Common Core was remarkable, but proponents failed to recognize that this quick success meant few voters or legislators really understood what was involved.”

Failing to support teachers. Desmond-Hellmann explains that Gates has realized that “rigorous standards and high expectations are meaningless if teachers aren’t equipped to help students meet them.” In 2013, McShane and I wrote, “The National Council on Teacher Quality recently reported that the vast majority of education schools are not preparing new teachers to teach the Common Core. Right now, school districts, states, and Common Core advocates don’t have an answer for any of this.”

Underestimating the requisite resources. Desmond-Hellmann observes, “Our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.” In 2011, I noted, “In my experience, most state policymakers—who have been busy slashing outlays and who are eyeballing several tough budget cycles ahead—have no idea that supporting Common Core standards means that they’re signing up for large new outlays for implementation and assessment.”

Not effectively making their case. Desmond-Hellmann laments, “We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators - particularly teachers - but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.” In 2011, I cautioned, “Common Core advocates accomplished a remarkable feat in getting 40-odd states to adopt the new standards . . . [But if advocates] believe that early success means they can stop making the case for what they’re doing, I think they’re making a huge mistake.” In 2012, I wrote, “Proponents exhibited little interest in making the case for its merits, responding to critics, or explaining what was in store.”

Inadequate instructional materials. Desmond-Hellmann notes, “Far too many districts report that identifying or developing Common Core-aligned materials is a challenge, meaning that teachers spend their time adapting or creating curriculum, developing lessons, and searching for supplemental materials.” In 2013, McShane wrote, “Pretty much anyone can slap a Common Core-aligned sticker onto a textbook, professional development module, or supplemental resource. ...Without some meaningful vetting process, all of the benefits of the nationwide market for new tools will be washed away in the flood of misaligned materials.”

It’s reassuring to see Desmond-Hellmann acknowledging missteps and blind spots and pledging that the Foundation will do better. I admire people who are willing to revisit their assumptions. And the point here is not that “some of us told you so.” We all make our share of mistakes and miscalculations. The point is that the problems were predictable and foreseeable.

Given that the problems were predictable, why did they catch so many advocates off-guard? Part of it is that Common Core advocates were in such a hurry to do good that they just didn’t show much interest in hard questions or uncomfortable cautions. Having lived this, I can safely say that they mostly talked to each other, reassuring one another that any problems were the product of malicious politicos, ignorant Tea Partiers, and misinformed parents. Skeptics, even reasonably sympathetic ones, were greeted only with quiet intimidation or public ridicule. For one thing, conceding the legitimacy of the concerns might have argued for pursuing the enterprise in a less sweeping and more incremental fashion. Advocates opted for another route.

This is the way these things routinely go. Conservatives raise concerns about how things will play out, focusing on the immutability of human nature, institutional constraints, and all those forces sure to frustrate ambitious plans. Progressives get annoyed that conservatives don’t understand why dramatic structural reforms are so urgent, and for not grasping that they would work if everyone would just join the team and put their shoulder to the wheel.

I suspect this dynamic is the reason many hell-for-leather reformers are so ready to elbow conservatives aside. Even when you tell conservatives how much injustice there is to combat and how many societal ills there are to cure, they resist sweeping plans for social betterment. They are those dreary bores who suggest that your ambitious, well-meaning plans may do more harm than good. If things do go awry, they may even look at you like you should have known better. Who wants people like that around, anyway?

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