As the Dust Settles, Does Common Core Come Out on Top?

Last week, with relatively little coverage, two analyses were released that found the Common Core State Standards have had a profound national impact in raising expectations for student performance. For the nation's governors and chief state school officers, who commissioned the creation of the Common Core learning standards in 2009 and 2010, establishing higher expectations for student learning was a top priority. As Lauren Camera of U.S. News & World Report reported:
The Common Core is winning. Or, to put it another way, the group of organizations that designed the academic standards has succeeded in its principal goal—to get states to adopt more rigorous standards.
National education reforms, especially in the area of state standards, tend to move at a glacial pace, if at all. The Common Core has proved a notable exception. The first of the two studies released last week—conducted by Harvard Prof. Paul Peterson and two colleagues at the Kennedy School of Government—found that since 2011, 45 states have raised their standards for student proficiency in reading and math, with most of the change occurring between 2013 and 2015. The study concluded that the Common Core "has achieved phenomenal success in statehouses across the country." Professor Peterson's findings are all the more striking because he has been a critic of the Obama administration, which provided incentives for states to adopt the Common Core State Standards as part of the 2009-10 Race to the Top competition. In 2012, Peterson advised Mitt Romney's presidential campaign on education issues, in addition to critiquing the Obama administration's education record numerous times (see here, here, and here). Yet Peterson couldn't help but marvel to U.S. News about how states had reversed course under the Common Core, raising the bar for student performance. "It wasn't just a few states," Peterson told the magazine. "All 45 states have done something since [2011] and that's an amazing development." Peterson noted that starting in 2005, his studies of academic standards had typically painted a pessimistic picture of states setting low standards for student proficiency. "And then all of a sudden, bang-o!" he declared. "I did not anticipate this at all."

Closing the Honesty Gap

A second analysis of state proficiency benchmarks in reading and mathematics by Achieve closely echoes the findings of the Peterson study. Like Peterson, Achieve has been assessing the rigor of state academic standards for more than a decade. And as recently as May 2015, Achieve's analysis of state proficiency benchmarks showed the persistence of a remarkably large "honesty gap" between the levels of student performance that states deemed proficient and the skills that students actually needed to be on track for careers and college without the need for remediation. Put more simply, educators and state leaders in most states have been misleading parents for years about the readiness of their children to go on to college and careers. In state after state, the vast majority of students were judged to be at grade level on state tests, even though the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that a majority of students were proficient in math in less than a handful of states and not a single state had a majority of students proficient in reading. In more than half the states, the honesty gap between state and 2013 NAEP proficiency levels was more than 30 percentage points, and 14 states had gaps of more than 40 percentage points. These are not small differences—in practice, they meant that a student in one state in America can graduate high school with eighth-grade math and reading skills, while a student in another state needs 12th-grade skills. The 2016 Achieve analysis shows that the honesty gap has shrunk substantially in the last year. Achieve found that 16 states now have eliminated or nearly eliminated their honesty gap and nine more states have made significant progress toward narrowing the gap between state proficiency scores and NAEP proficiency levels. According to Achieve, just four states (Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia) continue "to grossly mislead parents about student proficiency," with an honesty gap of 35 percentage points or more in fourth-grade reading or eighth-grade math. Three of those states—Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia—either declined to adopt the Common Core standards, or, in Oklahoma's case, reverted back to their pre-Common Core standards.

Alice in Wonderland Meets New Hampshire

Even as the Common Core is having a dramatic impact in the classroom by elevating expectations for student learning, the leading Republican presidential candidates are acting out their own alternative reality on the campaign trail in rallies that might resonate with the absurdist caucus race in “Alice in Wonderland.” The three top GOP presidential candidates continue to spread basic misinformation and disinformation about the origins, content and federal role in the Common Core standards. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all erroneously describe the Common Core State Standards as federal standards, all mistakenly equate learning standards with locally-selected curricular materials used to help teach students meet the standards and all allege that the Obama administration has somehow created a national curriculum—though no candidate can identify so much as a single book, homework assignment, textbook or lesson plan that is prescribed or required in this mythic "Obamacore" national curriculum. Trump, Cruz and Rubio differ only on the purported speed with which they will eliminate the Common Core. Rubio has promised that "on my first day in office, Common Core stops." Cruz has stated that shortly after taking office he will " repeal every word of the Common Core" and "instruct the federal Department of Education that Common Core ends today." Donald Trump has also pledged that he " will end Common Core"—though in a bow to modesty, he has not yet committed to eradicating 43 states' adoptions of the Common Core standards within his first 24 hours or first few weeks in office. As I detailed in a 2015 paper for the Brookings Institution, these campaign promises are patently phony, and continue to endure because of voter ignorance and confusion about the nature and history of the Common Core standards. It is not possible for the next president to eliminate Common Core on day one or day 100 (much less "repeal every word" of the standards) since there is no federal law or mandate that ever required states to adopt the Common Core standards in the first place. Each state decided, one at a time, whether to adopt the Common Core standards, and at least a couple of states later opted to drop the standards. Moreover, the 2015 replacement to the No Child Left Behind law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, makes Cruz, Rubio and Trump's promises to end Common Core from the White House even more hollow, since the new law now bars the federal government from providing incentives to encourage states to adopt any set of standards. (The new law does require states to set "challenging academic standards" that must be aligned, as the Common Core State Standards are, with what students need to know to take credit-bearing courses in college, or with state technical education standards). For all of the cognitive dissonance between the pandering promises made by GOP candidates about stopping the Common Core and the real-world increase in educational expectations that the Common Core is in fact propelling, the final verdict on the impact of the Common Core is yet to come. The collective efforts of states to raise academic standards are groundbreaking, but higher standards alone don't guarantee students will excel academically, any more than establishing a demanding goal for lowering cholesterol ensures a healthy diet. Still, raising standards is a vital and politically perilous first step toward educational improvement. Higher standards are a prerequisite both to combating the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for disadvantaged students and to being more honest with parents and students about the college-readiness of students. Governors and chief state school officers from both political parties deserve credit for raising standards. They knew in advance that higher standards would make their state's students look bad, as tens of thousands of students who previously were deemed on track for college and careers would instead be labeled as performing below grade level. Parents and educators will not know for a number of years whether higher and more honest performance standards produce substantial improvements in student achievement and attainment. But as the struggle to make America's schools the best in the world continues, the long battle to raise expectations for student learning is now largely over, all except for the shouting.
David Whitman was the chief speech writer for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from mid-2009 to November 2014. Prior to that, he covered social policy for U.S. News & World Report for nearly two decades, from 1985 to 2003. He is the author of the award-winning, “Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism” (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2008), a two-year study ...

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