Common Core Claims of High Quality Not Valid

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

When Common Core was launched in 2009, it was promised: “These standards will be research and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills.”

Is Common Core internationally benchmarked? Does Common Core actually promote practices that are similar to those of high achieving countries that are likely to result in improved achievement of American students? Are the Common Core standards aligned with college expectations?

These are key questions that are at the basis of the initial buy-in Common Core garnered around the country. Five years have passed since those standards have been published and adopted – sometimes sight-unseen – by over 40 states. What have we learned since?

Let’s look at the case of mathematics.

For those familiar with international education evaluation data, it is unquestionable that the United States is not among the top achieving countries. Prof. William Schmidt wrote in the American Educator in 2005 that:

By the end of eighth grade, children in these [top achieving] countries have mostly completed mathematics equivalent to U.S. high school courses in algebra I and geometry. By contrast, most U.S. students are destined for the most part to continue the study of arithmetic. In fact, we estimate that, at the end of eighth grade, U.S. students are some two or more years behind their counterparts around the world.

Indeed, this particular statement of Prof. Schmidt was cited when Common Core rallied state governors to climb on board, promising to benchmark itself to such demanding standards. In fact, Prof. Schmidt was appointed to the Validation Committee of the Common Core and he signed off on them being “comparable to the expectations of other leading nations” in 2010.

Another expert in college expectations, Prof. David Conley, was also a member of the Validation Committee who signed off on the Common Core standards as being “reflective of the core knowledge and skills in ELA and mathematics that students need to be college- and career-ready.”

Yet not all Validation Committee members were willing to attest that the Common Core is, indeed, internationally benchmarked and reflects college readiness. In fact, five of the 29 members declined to sign, even though one would be hard pressed to find any mention of that in the Common Core Validation Report. In fact, the situation is even worse, because among the five who declined to sign were the only two content experts on the committee – all others were education bureaucrats, education researchers, and policy makers. Perhaps the fact that among the 29 members only one was an actual reading expert (Dr. Sandra Stotsky) and only one was an actual mathematician (Dr. R. James Milgram) should have been a warning flag from the beginning.

One does not need to be a content expert, however, to observe the simple fact that, despite the soaring rhetoric of Professor Schmidt in 2005 about how by the end of eighth grade students in high achieving countries “have mostly completed mathematics equivalent to U.S. high school courses in algebra I and geometry,” Common Core firmly placed the first Algebra course in the high school. It also doesn’t take an expert to observe that Common Core’s “college preparation” in mathematics amounts to a poor-man’s Algebra 2 and Geometry courses. The U.S. Department of Education’s own data shows that with only Algebra 2 preparation – even the full course – the chances of a student to end up with a Bachelor’s degree – any Bachelor’s degree – is less than 40% (table 5 here). According to the National Center for Education Statistics data, a student attempting a STEM degree with such preparation has only an alarming 1 in 50 chance of success (Table 7 here). In fact, one of the key authors of the standards, Dr. Jason Zimba, clearly acknowledged that Common Core is “for the colleges most kids go to but not that most parents probably aspire … it’s not only not for STEM, it’s also not for selective colleges.” Yet Common Core promoters still swear that they are “Career- and College-Ready.”

Given these well-known facts, it is interesting to observe what happened since the Validation Committee’s fake validation of the Common Core.

Prof. Conley immediately embarked on a new study to show – after the fact – that his affirmation of the Common Core was, indeed, justified. The study did a poor job of selecting a random sample of college professors to respond to Conley’s survey and has some other methodological issues, but its biggest problem should be clear to anyone – it never asked the $64,000 question: “Is the Common Core content sufficient preparation for your college entry course?” Instead, it had dozens of specific questions whether each and every standard is aligned or important for such course. This is akin to someone asking a chef whether cheese or tomatoes are important for making a pizza, yet never asking him whether the suggested list of ingredients is sufficient to make a pizza.

Professor Schmidt had a bigger problem. Not only did he himself declare five years prior that Algebra 1, and even a Geometry course, belong in the middle school in high achieving nations, but now he had signed off on an Algebra 1 course starting only in the ninth grade. Numerous researchers have analyzed the Common Core since its publication and all have declared it of much lower expectations than those of high achieving countries.

Yet where there is a will there is a way, and Prof. Schmidt, being an educational statistician, must have taken heart from the famous quip – “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Together with a colleague, Schmidt embarked on a study full of statistical smoke and mirrors and magician’s sleight of hand and – presto – he concluded that Common Core is “very consistent with international benchmarks.” Space here is too short to describe the tricks and the effort Schmidt invested in creating the illusion of consistency with international benchmarks, but more details can be found here.

By now it should be clear that Common Core is not even close to being internationally benchmarked, or preparing our students for college. Yet will the new methods it promotes in elementary grades to develop “deeper understanding” of, and “critical thinking” about, mathematics likely be helpful?

Another researcher, Prof. Andrew Porter at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at this issue:

We also used international benchmarking to judge the quality of the Common Core standards, and the results are surprising both for mathematics and for ELAR. Top-achieving countries for which we had content standards put a greater emphasis on “perform procedures” than do the U.S. Common Core standards. High-performing countries’ emphasis on “perform procedures” runs counter to the widespread call in the United States for a greater emphasis on higher order cognitive demand.

Common Core standards were never validated before being published, and every serious piece of research that has analyzed them since found them lacking. Much of the Common Core is experimental and a rehash of the failed 1989 NCTM standards that brought America to its knees in mathematical achievement. Parents are justified in their complaints about the strange and meaningless homework their children are bringing home, and they should distrust educators who uncritically praise them. More likely than not, those educators themselves have little experience and have been sold a bill of goods by Common Core’s Washington, D.C. promoters.

Ze’ev Wurman is former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush.


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