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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

How the Failure of the Common Core Looked From the Ground

By Rick Hess — May 19, 2021 4 min read
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Given how contentious the Common Core has been over time, I’m not terribly surprised that my post on Tom Loveless’ hard-hitting new book on the failure of the Common Core has garnered a lot of reader response. A couple of these seemed worth sharing more widely. Last week, I ran Caroline Damon’s letter arguing that Tom and I were too tough on the Common Core. This week’s letter is from Steve Peha, founder of the consulting firm Teaching That Makes Sense and author of Be a Better Writer, who watched the Common Core up close from his on-site professional-development work with schools in his home state of North Carolina and in other states around the country. Here, Steve argues Tom was right that the Common Core failed but could have gone further in explaining why it did. See what you think.


Dear Rick,

In your column of April 26, you concluded that the Common Core made “school improvement tougher and more ideological.” Combined with your quotes of Tom Loveless’ book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse, and his article, “Why the Common Core failed”, I think you both made fine points. However, I believe it’s also useful to complement Loveless’ academic take by discussing a little more fully the degree to which the Common Core’s failure was a product of some of the things that those of us “on the ground” saw up close.

For starters, the standards were presented to teachers as a fait accompli. States did not go through the consensus-building processes they undertook in the 1990s when changing curriculum and introducing new instructional strategies. For example, I myself visited at least 50 schools in the state of Washington between 1996 and 1999 to introduce teachers to these changes, all paid for with state funds. By contrast, I saw little of this when it came to state adoption of the Common Core: There was little in-school training; no small-scale piloting of new practice tests; and virtually no CCSS-aligned teaching materials.

This lack of support might not have been such an issue had the standards not represented a significant departure from what teachers had been doing for more than a decade. For example, in reading, the standards described a major shift away from fiction toward nonfiction. This was a logical move but one most teachers had never been trained for. Writing was an even more dramatic change. These new ambitions for student proficiency were reasonable, in my opinion, but to reach them, teachers would require significant training and materials—neither of which they received.

Because the standards, while well-intentioned, were poorly understood, they appeared to teachers to be inappropriately rigorous. As a result, teachers felt blindsided. Enthusiasm at the classroom level was weak; most schools continued to follow their existing standards. Without teacher buy-in for such massive change, implementation was doomed from the start.

On top of the teacher troubles, many states that adopted the standards were not bought in to them, either—indeed, they probably wouldn’t have signed on to the standards had it not been for the possibility of winning funds through Race to the Top. Strictly speaking, adoption of the standards was not a requirement for RTT applications, but it was the easiest way for states to improve their application scores. Few states, however, truly wanted to throw away their existing standards in favor of a radically different set they’d had no hand in crafting.

Even RTT winners lacked commitment to coherent implementation plans, particularly as there was no accountability for Common Core implementation tied to the funds. For instance, the schools where I worked in North Carolina, a $400 million Round One winner, were in limbo from 2010-2012 when it came to rolling out the Common Core. Inexplicably, several went through major literacy adoptions that had no tie-in to the Common Core at all. Some increased instruction time for reading to 90 minutes a day at the elementary levels, shortchanging time needed for writing—the opposite of what the Common Core asked them to do.

And at school and district levels in North Carolina, I saw few people, even administrators, who knew why the standards were being implemented or how to implement them well. No gap analyses had been conducted. No research-based rationales for their use were forthcoming from the standards’ authors.

What I experienced of North Carolina’s lackluster rollout was typical of what I saw and heard from teachers in other states. How things ended in N.C. was also typical. Three years later, with no significant CCSS implementation, a Republican-controlled legislature unadopted the Core and extended the adoption of the previous standards.

This was not an isolated phenomenon. Across the country, people knew that these so-called “state” standards were a collective proxy for national standards. Poor implementations, strong teacher rejection, and extraordinary parent confusion led to predictable political backlash.

As you pointed out, Rick, the failure of the Common Core made subsequent national improvements in schooling much more difficult. Indeed, I don’t think we’ve seen a significant effort in raising standards since. Nor do I think such an effort is likely any time soon given the extraordinary political and social divisions we have experienced in our country over the last five years. In the end, I’m convinced the Common Core will be remembered, not as Secretary Duncan claimed as “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education,” but as an unfortunate detour on the road to improving public schools.

Steve Peha is the author of Be a Better Writer, editor of A Book That Matters, publisher at The Peha Press, and founder of the consulting firm Teaching That Makes Sense.

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