Standards Opinion

Common Core Standards: Conservative Victory or Debacle in the Making?

By Anthony Cody — September 23, 2013 10 min read
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Last week I was a guest on a public radio show called To the Point, hosted by Warren Olney. The episode was titled “Is Public Education Too Soft on American Students.” The other guests were Maria Ferguson of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

I want to share some parts of the conversation there, because I think it is useful to look closely at the arguments being used for and against the Common Core, and also to dig in to the facts behind the claims being made in this debate. So here is a partial record of the discussion, with some notes inserted related to various claims that were made.

I will begin my transcript after Maria Ferguson has suggested that the concerns I have raised about high stakes tests lie with the tests, rather than the Common Core.

Warren Olney (host): Might it then be possible to use the Common Core in a creative way and not have the kind of consequences that you’re worried about?

Anthony Cody: The problem I have with that is this is not a surprise. The people who designed Common Core expected tremendous drops in proficiency rates, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing. In New York state only 31% of the students passed the Common Core tests...[see this post: “Common Core Tests are Not Good for Children or Other Living Things.]

Olney: But isn’t that because the tests are harder than they used to be?

Cody: Well, of course. The tests are, by definition, harder, if you have more people failing them. But of course you can manipulate how many people fail or pass the test simply by setting the cut scores where you want to. If you want to show tests are failing, if you want to penalize teachers and schools, then you can set the cut scores in such a way that they really harm a lot of schools and a lot of teachers. And I’m afraid that’s what we’re seeing happen. These tests are really being used in a political way to refresh the indictment of No Child Left Behind, and to reinforce this idea that our schools are failing. In fact if you look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) there has been overall an increase in student achievement over the past four decades. [See Ravitch here and here] But if you listen to the constant drumbeat from the people promoting Common Core, you would think we were living in an age of educational failure. That’s simply not the case. If we want more people going to college, then we should reinforce the availability of college to people, and make it more affordable. Instead we’re focusing on tests, as if tests are going to somehow magically transform our landscape.

Michael Petrilli: I have to admit that I’m flabbergasted listening to the conversation here. This idea that we’re asking too much of our students. We know from all kinds of empirical studies as well as some great new books like the one from Amanda Ripley at Time, that our kids are not being challenged in school like kids around the world are. The biggest difference between the American education system in general, and systems around the world is that we are not asking our kids to do rigorous work, intellectually challenging work. We ask them to work hard on the sports field, on the play field, but in school, we give them baby stuff. And what we know is that kids are quite able to meet challenging standards when we ask them to do so. So I’m pretty amazed by these comments that somehow we’re asking our kids to do too much.

Olney: Let me read you from some “kid friendly” Common Core standards that were distributed in a school here in California. This is for kindergarten:

I can use capitalization, punctuation and spelling when willing. I can use prepositions when I talk to tell where. I can capitalize the first word in a sentence (maybe you could understand that one). I can recognize and name punctuation, and write a letter for each sound." Are those questions that kids six years old should be able to answer?

Petrilli: Some of those do sound a little out of whack, and frankly don’t sound to me like they’re actually coming from the Common Core. If you look at what the Common Core is expecting, it is mostly expecting, especially little kids, to learn content. And there’s been a big uproar about that. There are educators out there who say, there’s a curriculum out there for example having first graders learning about Mesopotamia. And people say “how could they possibly learn about Mesopotamia? Well, they may not be able to read that word yet, but they can certainly listen to a story about Mesopotamia, and be very interested in what happened in the past in history. Again, these are kids who love hearing stories. I know my son could spend all day learning about knights, or learning about dinosaurs, and I’m sure he would be turned on to Mesopotamia if his teacher gave it a try. And it’s that kind of information that helps young kids learn about the world, and also give them the vocabulary that will eventually allow them to be strong readers. [see a discussion about the Mesopotamia lessons in New York here]

And that is one of the key places we are falling down. Particularly for low income kids, we are not equipping them with the vocabulary they need to make sense as they get older and they read more and more complicated texts.

Olney: I have to contradict you with regard to the standards that I read. This is the “Kids-Friendly Common Core Standards,” and we checked them against the Common Core web site, and they are in fact being distributed by the Common Core. One of the things they say that a kindergartner ought to be able to do is to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. Is that a pretty high standard for a kid of six?

Petrilli: No, I don’t think so at all. You ask a six year old is this story a make-believe story or is this something that actually happened - that’s certainly a concept they can handle.

[Please see this column by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Edward Miller for a discussion of the appropriateness of Common Core standards for young children.]

Olney: Anthony Cody, How do you respond to Michael Petrilli, that American kids just are not being challenged, they can’t compete with kids in the rest of the world?

Cody: We’ve been hearing this ever since Sputnik. Life Magazine did a whole comparison between Ivan and Johnny, and showed how Ivan was taking calculus in the tenth grade and Johnny was going to sock hops. The great demise of America based on our lackadaisical education has been predicted for the last fifty years and even longer. There’s very little evidence to show that test score performance correlates in any way with economic growth. In fact, it has an inverse comparison to economic growth.

Olney: How do you know that?

Cody: If you look at who was on the top of the scale in 1963, you look at Russia, some of the other countries that were getting top test scores - they don’t have great booming economies. [See Christopher Tienken’s journal article: Common Core State Standards: An Example of Data-less Decision Making]

In fact, test preparation is really counter to entrepreneurship and creativity, that we really prize in America. We do not need to standardize everything. Part of the beauty of America is the diversity of thinking, the diversity of educational approaches, and the fact that you enforce all of these standards with tests - and these standards are meaningless without tests, and that in turn drives the curriculum in classrooms across the country. Talk about separating fact from fiction, the idea that somehow you can have creative teachers and freedom to teach in whatever way you want, and at the same time you’re going to have 40 to 50% of your evaluation based on test scores - I’m sorry, that’s fiction.

Petrilli: I’m totally blown away - maybe Mr. Cody doesn’t understand that there’s a huge amount of literature showing a very direct link between educational performance and economic growth. There’s a new book out by a set of economists called Endangering Prosperity, and it looks exactly at this question. Over the last thirty or forty years the countries that have consistently shown strong progress on these international tests in math and science later show big gains in economic growth. And let’s not forget, we’re talking a lot these days in this country about growing inequality. We know that kids who are left behind and who do not get access to a strong education, to higher education, that they are falling behind, and they are ending up on the wrong side of this income divide. Education is more predictive of someone’s socioeconomic status than anything else. So it is imperative that we help more kids make it to college and career readiness.

This idea that the answer is letting teachers teach whatever they want, that is what we’ve tried for fifty years. Look, I want teachers to have creativity, and to have some discretion. I don’t want to micromanage them. But the public has a role to play in saying “here are the goals we want to achieve. We want kids to be able to get to 12th grade and be able to read complex texts and do serious math, and be able to succeed in college or a career, and teachers, you need to help them get there.” That does not mean that they can no longer be creative or use their professionalism.

Olney: Anthony Cody, is it really the standards that you object to? Or is it the testing?

Cody: The standards and the tests in this case were really developed hand in hand. As your first guest mentioned, one of the rationales for developing them was that different states had different tests and different means of determining proficiency. So the whole point of a common set of standards was to allow comparisons between states. That’s only possible if you have common tests as well. So the two things really go hand in hand. The people that advocated the Common Core, like the Gates Foundation, which also funds the Thomas B Fordham Institute, which Mr. Petrilli works for, has paid the Thomas B. Fordham Institute $6.7 million over the past ten years, so we’re not hearing from neutral parties here, in terms of advocating for the Common Core. [see Lawmakers Begin to Connect the Dots Between Gates and the Common Core.] The Gates Foundation has spent more than $150 million to promote the Common Core, so they are really more of a Gates-led initiative than a states-led initiative.

Petrilli: The critics - all they have is this argument about funding. We do get funding from Gates - it’s about ten percent of our budget, but we were for common standards and high standards before Bill Gates was. We’ve been at this for about 15 years, and we are glad to see the Common Core in place. We see this as a big victory for America - even a conservative victory, and that’s the case we’ve been making to our friends on the right, because they do ask for a higher standard, and for real accountability in our schools.

(End of transcript -- you can listen to the entire discussion here.)

It was difficult for me to respond to everything Mr. Petrilli said during the show, and one thing he repeated several times towards the end was this idea that education is the answer to growing inequality in America. Sadly, income inequality is increasing, even after a decades of test-driven education reform. And as Paul Thomas points out here, there is little evidence that education offers a way out for most in poverty.

Matt Breunig points out that according to his research,

you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

A college education provides an economic advantage to most graduates, but a lack of education is not the root cause of the growing gap between the very rich and the poor, and more people graduating college is not likely to disrupt this trend. But it lends a liberal patina to the otherwise very conservative message we are hearing about how we have been feeding our children “baby stuff” in school.

As we think about the Common Core, the critical questions we wrestled with here were:

  • Should our we make tests more difficult to pass in order to “raise standards” and get our children to learn more?
  • Are the Common Core standards appropriate for young children?
  • Will Common Core standards and test-based accountability measures make the US more competitive in the future?
  • Does the Gates Foundation’s funding of organizations like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute compromise their ability to speak as objective experts on the Gates-sponsored Common Core standards?
  • Will Common Core standards and tests result in producing more college graduates, and will this, in turn, begin to close the widening income divide?

What do you think about the discussion above and the questions that emerged?

Continue the discussion with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.