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How New Common Core Research Connects to Biden’s Plans for Children and Families

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 29, 2021 5 min read
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The early phase of the Common Core State Standards gave a boost to well-off students, but didn’t provide significant help to disadvantaged students’ scores on a national test, according to research released earlier this week.

The study by Josh Bleiberg, a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, also found that—based on scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the no-stakes test from the federal government—students in states that were relatively early common-core implementers fared better than their slower-moving peers.

In his study, Bleiberg notes that students who have sufficient resources to succeed are best prepared to take advantaged of high standards. That sort of philosophy is part of what’s driving the Biden administration’s broader economic proposals, especially those focused on child well-being and support for families.

Bleiberg’s research has limitations, such as the fact that it only focuses on certain states and on scores from one measurement. And his paper doesn’t examine whether the English/language arts and math standards had more positive effects on student performance beyond the early phase of the common core.

Yet it joins a growing body of work and what Bleiberg in his study called a “nascent consensus” about the controversial standards that has found positive but not significant effects. In a new book, education researcher and former Brookings Institution staffer Tom Loveless, for example, wrote that the standards’ documented impact shows “no significant effect overall on student achievement.”

Bleiberg’s study doesn’t focus on smaller-grain issues like observable differences in instructional practices and curriculum. One separate study from earlier this year that focused on Chicago Public Schools found greater improvements for previously low-achieving students when educators received extensive professional development around the math standards, even as statewide data told a different story.

Reflecting on his findings, Bleiberg said he supports raising standards for students—in fact, in 2014 he co-wrote a piece defending the common core. And he wrote in his study that there’s no evidence that getting rid of the standards will help students. Yet he stressed that the standards shouldn’t be viewed in isolation from challenges many of the nation’s students face, from a lack of sleep and homelessness to high levels of lead in drinking water and poor nutrition.

Addressing those out-of-classroom issues has become a top priority for President Joe Biden and the Democrats who run Congress. Their plans to help schools during the coronavirus pandemic have heavily featured upgrading school and other infrastructure such as replacing lead water pipes, easy access to meals, and attempts to alleviate child poverty through expanded tax credits.

The political climate that helped create the common core has changed significantly. And it’s hard to imagine something like it generating much interest inside the Beltway today.

“Raising the bar is just part of it. You also need to help everyone get above the bar,” Bleiberg said.

The split between the haves and have-nots

The standards were released in 2010, and at their peak they were adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. Backed by governors, state school chiefs, and other education leaders, the common core’s supporters said it would provide students and educators with high-quality standards that would raise expectations and performance. Although a state-led and not a federal initiative, the common core received prominent backing from the Obama administration.

Backlash to the standards came from different parts of the political spectrum, and the criticisms ranged from concerns about federal overreach and the quality of the standards themselves, to some that were anchored in misconceptions or unfounded conspiracy theories.

The common core essentially became the boogeyman of education politics and attracted national attention not normally dedicated to K-12 issues.

Some states revised the common core or at least made a public show out of doing so, although many states essentially stuck by them through the last decade; states often reconsider content standards on a regular cycle.

In 2015, Congress effectively barred the federal government from getting involved in states’ adoption of standards.

For his analysis, Bleiberg relied on biennial NAEP scores ranging from 2003 to 2013. His study focuses on states that had “low rigor” content standards prior to the common core and excludes states where, for example, political shifts disrupted the standards.

Bleiberg found, among other things, that the standards’ positive effects were larger for economically advantaged white and Black students than the effect for their disadvantaged peers on the NAEP math test, for whom the standards had “no detectable initial effect,” Bleiberg wrote in a summary.

Academically vulnerable students who had access to robust “economic capital,” meanwhile, saw benefits from the common core. Yet for their peers without access to such capital, the standards “backfired,” the study says.

“Higher expectations provide the greatest benefit to students when students also have the resources needed to succeed,” Bleiberg wrote. (Bleiberg relied on free and reduced-price lunch rates to classify students’ economic status, which provides a certain level of information about students’ background but is not a precise measure of poverty.)

Bleiberg said in an interview that there’s an important relationship between things that may seem quite different, like standards-based education reform and infrastructure improvements.

“I’d be pretty cautious about another top-down reform effort like the common core, if it were even legally possible,” Bleiberg said. “In some sense, raising expectations is the easy part.”

Of course, many influential officials and other supporters of the common core would say they want more resources and support for students inside and outside of classrooms, not just higher standards. One former Obama White House staffer, Roberto Rodriguez, a vocal common-core supporter during the standards’ early years, is poised to join Biden’s Education Department.

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