He’s Dead, Jim: Why Common Core Is a Goner and Just Doesn’t Know It Yet

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Every other day we hear from Common Core proponents about how wonderful these standards are, how teachers really (really!) love them, and how impossible it would be to do any better.

Just the other day, Education Week gloated how the new South Carolina standards are “89 percent in alignment with the common core for English/language arts, and 92 percent in alignment with the common core for math.” It reminded us that the new post-Common Core Indiana standards are also “a set of benchmarks not so different from the Common Core.”

The underlying message is that Common Core standards are so excellent and unique that states attempting to distance themselves from them won’t do any better.

Yet this message is incorrect, and Common Core is dying. Consider the following.

First, the curricula of high achieving nations vary widely. Singapore’s curriculum differs from Japan’s, which in turn differs from Hong Kong’s.

Pretending that Common Core succeeded in finding the unique and perfect combination where others failed—and without any evidence of success—is both arrogant and foolish. Further, all serious studies have found Common Core academically mediocre, trailing behind international high achievers in its expectations. As for the proponents’ definition of “alignment,” they consider having the same content but in a different grade as “aligned.” One is forced to conclude that Common Core’s “excellence” exists only in the mind of its peddlers.

But mediocre academics are not the reason for Common Core’s death. Rather, its death comes because states are abandoning its goal of lock-step national uniformity.

Common Core’s goal was to have the whole country, from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, operate under uniform education standards, with two federally sponsored and federally monitored testing consortia as its whips to coerce compliance. And it expected every student’s academic and demographic record to be available to the federal government for the purposes of workforce planning.

Signing up for Common Core and its testing was a requirement to compete for the $4 billion pot of money in 2010 known as “Race to the Top,” and it is also, effectively, a requirement to receive a waiver from the restrictions of No Child Left Behind. As with the Roach Motel, checking in to the Common Core was easy, but checking out has turned out to be much harder, with a lot of federal red tape and federal arm-twisting associated with an exit.

Yet some states– Indiana, Oklahoma, South and North Carolina, Missouri – managed it one way or another. Detractors preen that it doesn’t matter because their new standards “are xx% aligned with Common Core.” What they don’t understand, however, are two things. First, that being “aligned with” doesn’t mean much. Moving fluency with multiplication and division to the fourth or fifth grade instead of Common Core’s sixth grade is still “aligned” in their vocabulary, yet it is much closer to what high achieving countries are doing.

Moreover, once the standards are disconnected from Common Core, they will move farther from its orbit over time. Indeed, that is a point ignored by many states that just changed the name of Common Core – like Florida’s “Sunshine Standards” or Arizona’s “College and Career Ready Standards.” Their politicians think they can confuse the public by changing the name, but they forget that in a few years, when their own educators may decide to eliminate some idiotic Common Core standard or move it to another grade, nobody will be able to argue that they cannot do it “because they are bound to Common Core.”

Even more powerfully, states have been abandoning the PARCC and SBAC testing consortia in droves. When the consortia started, PARCC had 26 members while Smarter Balanced (SBAC) had 31. Now SBAC is down to 18 and PARCC is down to ten states plus the District of Columbia. This is, in a sense, even more critical than rejecting Common Core because the test is the only thing that actually enforces the standards. Without it, the standards are a dead letter. When the states – rather than the consortia – control the test, they can easily modify the standards too. Moreover, by not participating in the federally sponsored consortia, states do not automatically transfer their individual student data to the federal government in DC for workforce planning.

So here is the good news. Within five years of their launch, Common Core’s mediocre academic standards are in shambles. States are running away from them, other states are trying to hide their participation in them by changing their name, and almost half of the states in the nation have abandoned the federally sponsored consortia – with more states showing signs of following them. Add this news to the fact that Massachusetts, the crown jewel of PARCC, has allowed its schools to choose between its old MCAS test and the PARCC test. My, how the mighty have fallen!

Unfortunately, the Common Core zombie is still around, and it will take another few years and another several million lost children before its death is acknowledged by all. California just dumped another $3.5 billion on top of the $1.7 billion it had already spent for Common Core implementation, even though the original cost estimates varied from $700 million to $1.6 billion.

Yet no matter how much more money is poured into it, and how much denial it faces, Common Core is effectively dead.

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


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