When the debate over the common core standards first erupted, my initial reaction was, “do standards really matter that much, anyway?”
This still strikes me as a good question. For all the fears and hopes surrounding the new standards, I can’t help wondering why so many people assume that more rigorous standards (and of course the rigor of the new standards is itself disputed) will drive either true reform or a federal takeover of education. My reasoning is that standards seldom change what happens in the classroom, and that’s where really education reform needs to happen.
A recent blog by University of Arkansas education professor Jay Greene takes on the issue of why the standards don’t matter – and also why they do. To start with the first point:
Common Core doesn’t matter because standards mostly don’t matter. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution illustrated this point simply and convincingly in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education. Loveless examines variation in the alleged quality of existing state standards to see if higher quality standards are related to academic performance on the NAEP. They aren’t. In fact, the correlation between the Fordham Institute’s rating of state standards and NAEP performance is -.06. Somehow that fact never seems to come up when Fordham is invoked in defense of the quality of Common Core. Loveless also demonstrates that there is no relationship between “performance standards” (the rigor of cut scores on state tests) and NAEP performance. Loveless concludes:
Don’t let the ferocity of the oncoming debate fool you. The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.
Standards mostly don’t matter because they are just a bunch of vague words in a document. What teachers actually do when they close their classroom door is in no way controlled by those words. Changing the words in a standards document is very unlikely to dramatically change what teachers do.
Okay, that’s the same point I’d been trying to make. But if the Common Core is just a bunch of vague words that can’t guarantee any real change is delivered, why is it still important? Here’s what Professor Greene has to say:
1) Common Core is important because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies. It will probably take about a decade for the failure of Common Core to become obvious to its most important backers. Until that time Common Core is consuming the lion’s-share of reform oxygen and resources.
2) Common Core is inducing reformers to ignore and even denigrate choice-based reforms because they have to deny one of the central arguments for choice — that there is a legitimate diversity of views on how and what our children should be taught that choice can help address. If Common Core folks have any support left for choice it is to allow parents to choose the school that can best implement the centrally determined education content. You can choose which McDonalds franchise you frequent so that they can compete to make the best Big Mac for you, but you are out of luck if you prefer pizza.
3) Common Core enthusiasts support granting dramatically more power to the federal government over education to improve the odds that their centralized machine can be built and implemented. Even after that fails, the precedence for greater federal involvement will remain, further eroding our decentralized system of education that has long produced benefits through choice.
4) Common Core is providing license to all sorts of crazy and contradictory local policies. Districts are cutting literature, pushing back Algebra, increasing constructivist approaches, reducing constructivist approaches… all in the name of Common Core. When parents and local voters complain, the schools dodge accountability by claiming (perhaps falsely) that Common Core made them do it. A big danger of trying to build a centralized system of controlling schools is that local education leaders will blame the central authority for whatever unpopular thing they choose to do. It’s like the local Commissar blaming shortages on the central authority rather than his own pilfering. It shifts the blame.
Now, if states really do adopt new tests based on the common core, and if these tests really do live up to the promise of testing higher reasoning skills, then we’re surely going to see an eruption of mutual blaming. Much as teachers hate the basic skills standardized tests that allegedly drive them toward rote learning, I think they’re going to hate tougher tests even more. Students who can’t pass a basic reading comprehension test are not going to perform well on a more complex essay test. Ditto for more complicated mathematical reasoning. What’s more, it may turn out to be much harder to predict what kind of questions will appear on the new assessments. We may end up missing that old teaching to the test.