A decade ago, back in 2012, when the Common Core was still riding high, I penned a cautionary piece imagining how the effort would look a decade hence—in 2022. In this imagined “future,” I conjured up an excerpt from a book supposedly written by my friend, the education historian Jonathan Zimmerman (he’d graciously agreed to let me use his name). The title of the fictional history was Great Promise Thwarted: The Humbling History of the Common Core, 2008-2018. Well, it’s 2022, and I thought it worth revisiting what I wrote so that readers can decide how prescient or off-the-mark my prognosticating proved to be. Here it is:
For a brief time, during 2010-2012, the success of the Common Core seemed assured. Proponents had compelling arguments. Existing state standards were generally awful. The No Child Left Behind accountability system designed to accommodate variation in state standards and assessments was problematic.
Conservative supporters argued that the Core would make it possible to do away with intrusive federal regulations governing accountability and easier to provide transparency and accountability with a light touch. Moreover, the Core would make it possible to credibly compare student and school performance across the nation, while allowing mobile students or those learning online to move across schools or programs with minimal disruption.
Proponents argued that the Core would reduce the barriers that hindered virtual schools, online instruction, and the emergence of “21st century” assessments and instructional tools. Observers generally characterized the standards as a substantial improvement on those in place in most states. And Core proponents enjoyed enormous political muscle.
A push that would have been laughable in 2006 seemed a fait accompli by 2010, with forty-plus states on board. The effort enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the Gates Foundation (what we today would call Gates-ECB; this was before the Foundation absorbed the European Central Bank following the third Greek default), the Obama administration, nearly the whole of the education “reform” community, and Republican leaders including both members of the 2016 GOP presidential ticket. Major publishers and test-developers were quiescent or supportive, while education technology entrepreneurs were enthusiastic.
So, what went wrong? Why is it that today just eleven states use a Common Core assessment, less than a third of the states are judged to have made any effort to adhere to the Core, and the phrase “Common Core” remains polarizing and generally unpopular with Republicans, parents, and teachers? How did such a promising effort run aground?
In hindsight, four factors were responsible. Notably, none turned on technical debates over the merits and rigor of the standards. All were the product, to varying degrees, of the “we’re-in-a-hurry” hubris that has so often humbled would-be social reformers. Indeed, as one of the Core’s great champions, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn, Jr., prophetically wrote in early 2012, “It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters.”
First, an effort that began as a bipartisan, state-driven enterprise, spearheaded by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, started to look to skeptics like a federally-inspired, politicized project. The Department of Education’s decision to link federal funding to the Core in its Race to the Top program, its NCLB waiver effort, and its “ESEA blueprint,” and the provision of $350 million in federal funds for Core-related tests, all alienated anti-Washington conservatives who would have remained neutral if the question had merely concerned states collaborating to set standards in math and English language arts.
By the time nationally influential conservative pundit George Will questioned in 2012 whether the federal government had exceeded its legal authority, the challenge for proponents was clear. Indeed, “Tea Party” conservatives came to regard the Common Core as part and parcel of Obama administration efforts to extend the federal role in domestic policy, an extension of contemporaneous fights over health care, spending, clean energy, the auto industry, housing, and financial regulation.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demonstrated an unfortunate knack for making it appear that the Core was a pet Obama project—initially, when he excoriated South Carolina in 2012 for expressing second thoughts, but most famously when he futilely blasted the dozen states that announced their “implementation hiatus” in 2014. All of this served to make the Core a partisan question viewed with suspicion by conservatives, undermining the bipartisan support needed to sustain implementation in many “red” and “purple” states.
Second, the Common Core advocates were tripped up by their own impatience. After nearly all states adopted the Common Core in an early rush, proponents exhibited little interest in making the case for its merits, responding to critics, or explaining what was in store. Outside of the occasional op-ed, little sustained attention was devoted to explaining the changes or building broad-based support.
For instance, hardly anyone other than Core enthusiasts realized that the comfortable, familiar high school math curriculum of math, algebra and geometry was to be eliminated and replaced with the antiseptically titled Integrated Math I, II, and III. When the magnitude of the shift became clear in 2014, confused parents and irate math teachers bombarded legislators and state board members with calls to delay implementation or alter course.
Enthusiasts concentrated on designing instructional materials, consulting with states and districts, and training leaders and teachers, seemingly presuming that the public knew what they were up to and supported their effort. In the event, this turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. 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 or that real success would depend crucially on the breadth and depth of support.
Third, Core advocates never did a good job of explaining how their efforts intersected with other reform priorities. Observers asked about whether the math assessment would strangle the abilities of charter schools or specialty district schools to use nonstandard math curricula. Core proponents never really answered such questions in public, tending instead to favor quiet, technical fixes (in this case abandoning mandatory “through-course” assessment) that didn’t address broader concerns.
Skeptics wondered whether the testing “windows” needed to assess all children with the new computer-assisted tests would be so wide as to undermine the viability of sophisticated value-added evaluation systems that states were eagerly building. The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews pointed out, in 2012, that the new assessments would “delay, if not stop altogether, the national move toward rating teachers by student score improvements” and that radical change would force systems “to wait years to work out the kinks in the tests” before they could resume those efforts. In hindsight, the backlash produced by the chaos over teacher evaluation and school accountability systems during 2014 and 2015 was predictable and preventable.
Finally, insufficient public attention to practical questions of cost, technology, and practice ultimately proved crippling. Despite frenzied efforts to support new assessments, instructional materials, and implementation during 2011-2014, interviews from that era with state legislators, district officials, educators, and parents showed remarkably little awareness of the costs and practical difficulties that lay ahead.
When the 2012 technology scan showed that most districts had the requisite technology platform, few realized that the minimum specs had been dumbed-down or that this meant the new tests would sacrifice most of the hoped-for features—turning them into little more than traditional paper-and-pencil tests taken on a computer. At the same time, lousy records and a desire to avoid embarrassment meant that many districts had overstated their capacity in the tech census; they were suddenly faced with millions or even hundreds of millions in unanticipated new expenses, even as they dealt with the practical headaches of inadequate technology.
And when the price tag for the full cost of new technology, training, leadership, teacher preparation, and all the rest became clear in 2014 and 2015, just as states emerging from the Great Recession were restoring cuts to state agencies and hoping to trim taxes, it was no surprise that a slew of states decided they’d keep the Core standards but also their old assessments, instructional materials, training, and teacher preparation.
The Core is still with us, of course, but it remains a shadow of what its more optimistic proponents envisioned a decade ago.
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.