Curriculum

How Much Will the Common Core Cost?

By Catherine Gewertz — May 30, 2012 5 min read

States face key spending decisions as they implement the Common Core State Standards, and a new study finds that they could save about $927 million—or spend as much as $8.3 billion—depending on the approaches they choose in three vital areas: curriculum materials, tests, and professional development.

The report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, issued last week, examines the net costs of three hypothetical transition routes to the new standards in mathematics and English/language arts.

The “business as usual” approach, which features buying hard-copy textbooks, giving annual paper-based assessments, and delivering in-person professional development to teachers, is the most expensive. Over the next one to three years, it would cost states $8.3 billion, according to the Washington-based think tank.

That rounded figure represents the difference between the $3.9 billion it estimates states currently spend on tests, curricular materials, and professional development and the $12.1 billion it estimates as their gross spending if they took the business-as-usual approach to those three elements in implementing the common standards.

National Price Tag

A study estimated the transitional costs of implementing the common core in three areas: curriculum materials, assessments, and professional development. It estimated current state and national spending in those areas and projected the net cost or savings for the three approaches.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Thomas B. Fordham Institute

The “bare bones” approach could save states money by using open-source materials, annual computer-based tests, and online professional development, according to Fordham. It estimates that states could spend $927 million less than the $3.9 billion they currently do in those three areas. The co-authors note that the savings is not a surplus, but a result of using resources that are already included in states’ budgets.

Taking what the Fordham authors call a “balanced” approach would represent a middle road between the other two. It would incorporate traditional and money-saving elements, such as a blend of in-person, online, and train-the-trainer professional development, and a mix of instructional materials, some produced by districts and teachers themselves. Fordham projects the net cost of that approach to states at $1.2 billion.

Textbook Expenses

The potential costs for each state that has adopted both subjects of the common core—all but Alaska, Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas, and Virginia—are estimated, as well.

In California, for instance, Fordham estimates that the net cost of a business-as-usual approach would be $1 billion, compared with $533 million in current spending in the three areas in the study. A balanced approach would cost $148 million more than what the state is currently spending in those three areas, and a bare-bones approach would save it $152 million, according to Fordham.

The biggest savings to be found in shifting from business as usual toward the other approaches is in moving away from hard-copy textbooks and favoring online professional development over the in-person version, according to the study. A business-as-usual approach to textbooks currently costs $135 per student, the Fordham study says, but a balanced approach could reduce it to $35 to $45, and a bare-bones approach to $20 per student.

Cheaper approaches also come with tradeoffs, such as greater flexibility of content, but less-centralized control over quality, and uneven technological access across the student body, the study notes.

“The bottom line is that successful [common-standards] implementation does not have to be wildly expensive and could support changes that have a permanent and positive impact on the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning,” the study says.

Co-authors Patrick Murphy, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco whose work focuses on public finance, among other issues; and Elliot Regenstein, a partner at the Washington-based EducationCounsel, caution that their figures capture only the “short-term costs” of the transition to the standards in the three costliest areas. They don’t account for the technological costs of moving to online assessments, for instance, or interventions necessary to ensure college- and career-readiness for all students.

With its paper, the Fordham Institute, a common-standards backer, responds to a February study by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a frequent common-core critic, which estimated the cost of transition and implementation to states, over seven years, at $16 billion, $4 billion more than Fordham’s national gross estimate.

“Enemies and critics of the common core want you to believe the worst: that besides being hard, it will be very pricey and likely ineffective,” Chester E, Finn Jr., Fordham’s president, wrote in a foreward to the new report. “But this report says otherwise. Implementation can be modestly priced and likely more effective if states are astute enough to (a) implement differently, (b) deploy resources that they’re already spending, and (c) take advantage of this rare opportunity to revamp their education delivery systems, too.”

An Underestimate?

Theodor Rebarber, the author of the Pioneer Institute study, said he believes that the Fordham study underestimates the price tag of common-core implementation by excluding the cost of computers, servers, and other technological infrastructure needed to move to online assessments.

“That is one of the largest costs school districts are going to face, so we included it,” said Mr. Rebarber, the founder of AccountabilityWorks, a Bethesda, Md.-based group that helps districts and states with testing and accountability.

He also faulted the Fordham study for being “a hope-based approach” to various ways states might save money, while the Pioneer study was a national extrapolation of “a handful” of actual cost estimates that states had done for themselves.

“Our basic approach was to look at evidence,” Mr. Rebarber said. “We think that’s the right way to do a conservative, prudent cost analysis. Theirs is more of an attempt to imagine ways to do things less expensively without any guarantee they will actually be able to pull it off.”

He encouraged states to do their own detailed cost and feasibility analyses.

The Fordham study encourages states to take advantage of new approaches that could be more cost-effective. It cites evolving examples, such as a collaborative effort by Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island to create criteria for evaluating high-quality curricula; free and paid versions of an online curriculum-sharing platform by the company BetterLesson; and the School Improvement Network’s “Common Core 360°” professional-development tool, which provides video of classroom teachers using strategies that reflect the common standards.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2012 edition of Education Week as Common Standards Bring Savings, Or Billions in Costs, Report Says

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