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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Standards Opinion

After All That Commotion, Was the Common Core a Big Nothingburger?

By Rick Hess — April 26, 2021 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.

Those readers who’ve been at this long enough will recall—in painful, vivid detail—the Common Core State Standards imbroglio that dominated education in the first half of the 2010s. At times, the Common Core seemed like it blotted out everything else. It drew rapturous praise, with then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan celebrating it as potentially “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.” And it drew lots of equally vehement pushback.

But, in a new Harvard Education Press volume, Between the State and the Schoolhouse, Tom Loveless concludes that the Common Core amounted to an inane distraction and a giant waste of time. He suggests that it had no meaningful impact—good or bad—on outcomes or on what teachers do. Yep, the whole thing was a big nothingburger. (Full disclosure, I should note that I encouraged Loveless to pen this book and that Harvard Education Press published it in my “Innovations” series.)

Loveless is a stellar guide when it comes to making sense of the Common Core. A veteran elementary school teacher and Brookings Institution scholar, he helped shape the first decade of this century in education research with his straightforward, influential looks at topics like homework and school turnarounds. And, as he notes early in the book, he was initially neutral on the Common Core. When pressed for a take on the standards, he says he usually answered, “I don’t know; we’ll see how they turn out.”

So, why did it consume so much time and energy, produce such intense conflict, and upend school improvement—all, apparently, for nothing?

Well, Loveless asserts that, for all the claims that the standards were evidence-based and world class, they were really more a political than a pedagogical exercise. For instance, when discussing how the architects of the Common Core sought to tiptoe their way through the concerns about its emphasis on “close reading,” nonfiction, and text complexity, he writes, “The fundamental point is that careful selection in the wording of standards is a political act, one that can become undone after standards are released and interpreted by others.”

Because the Common Core was less about pedagogy than posturing, Loveless argues, it shouldn’t surprise that it ultimately had little impact on school performance or on what teachers do. He states, “More than a decade after the 2010 release of Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics, no convincing evidence exists that the standards had a significant, positive impact on student achievement.” He adds that the Common Core “appears to have had no significant impact on achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups, nor a discernible impact on the distribution of achievement.”

When it comes to the impact on instruction, he writes, “The documented impact of Common Core on curriculum and instruction is consistent with the finding of no significant effect overall on student achievement.” He also points out that the programs endorsed as Common Core-aligned are both “ignored by classroom teachers” and generally lacking in “evidence of effectiveness.”

In retrospect, Loveless offers an important insight as to why so many leaders wound up investing so much energy in standards-based reform, in general, and the Common Core, in particular, despite the dismal results. He wryly notes that “the standards-setting process taps into political skills—satisfying competing interests through log rolling, forging compromises with carefully worded documents—that are second nature to leaders of publicly governed institutions.” That’s a problem, he says, in that “standards give officials at the top only the illusion of control” because writing standards is a very different exercise from implementing them

In the end, Loveless concludes that the Common Core disappointed because it was hampered by hubris and a lack of appreciation for how schools improve.

There’s a larger lesson there, I think. A quarter-century ago, my academic career got started when I studied urban school reform across the nation and wound up arguing, in Spinning Wheels, that it was often more about symbolism than anything else. One response to that observation is the cynic’s shrug—this may be true but, if so, it’s mostly harmless.

The Common Core shows, I think, why such responses miss the mark. After all, the Common Core sucked up all the oxygen in the room for a half-decade, helped poison conversations around assessments and accountability, created fierce divides, and sowed profound ill-will and distrust. The Common Core may not have had an impact on student outcomes, but it did make school improvement tougher and more ideological. That’s one hell of a nothingburger.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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