Common Core: What Lies Ahead?
‘Higher standards was code for lower standards’
by Peter Wood
This is a condensed version of a speech Dr. Wood gave at the Heartland Institute on April 6, 2016, originally titled “Drilling Through the Core.” Adapted and reprinted with permission.
The Common Core by common consent is dead. But, as anyone who has watched a zombie movie knows, dead things can hurt us. Even in the real world. Discredited economic theories can come shambling back, like Bernie Sanders socialism, twenty-five years after the Soviet Union was finally and unceremoniously buried.
A dead idea or a dead policy isn’t always dead and gone. Sometimes it stays around to be annoying. Or worse.
The dead sometimes take the living with them. In some cases that may be all for the better, but sometimes it is genuinely tragic.
When Common Core was first conjured, it was meant as a rescue plan. Its first architects, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, presented it as a solution to what’s called “the achievement gap,” i.e. the disparity between the scores on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement between Whites and Asians on one hand, and Blacks and Hispanics on the other hand.
That original purpose is now largely forgotten. The early supporters of Common Core realized that to sell it to the general public they needed a broader marketing campaign. Ultimately they seized the idea that the Common Core would make all students “college and career ready,” a phrase deserving a grave marker.
Low Standards End Achievement Gap
How was Common Core supposed to cure the Achievement Gap? The answer, if you don’t already know it, will surely come as a surprise. Coleman and Zimba proposed that the way to eliminate the achievement gap was to set the standards so low that everyone could meet them. They announced this in a 2007 white paper for the Carnegie Corporation of New York titled “Math and Science Standards That Are Fewer, Clearer, Higher to Raise Achievement at All Levels.”
“Fewer, Clearer, Higher” doesn’t sound much like “lower, lower, lower.” So what gives? The title was an early example of what became a hallmark of Common-Core speak: using words to mean their opposite. It is worth seeing just how Coleman and Zimba accomplished this trapeze act.
Part 1. They decided on what they called “pragmatic analysis,” which meant — don’t bother teaching any math that ordinary people won’t use in their eventual jobs.
Part 2. The standards should be chosen — I quote — to “dramatically” raise “the number and diversity of students performing at the highest levels.” So content shouldn’t be determined by the intrinsic importance of the material but by how well it wipes away evidence of demographic disparities.
Part 3. Coleman and Zimba decided that the word “higher” in “higher standards” would refer not to the intellectual content of the standards but the percentage of people who passed them. Since to raise the percentage of those who passed required lowering the standards, “higher standards” was code for lower standards.
Now if you understand this, you understand most of what you need to understand about Common Core. The mysteries fall away. Sunlight floods in. Common Core was never intended to raise standards. It was from the get-go a plan to establish a nationwide floor that would also be a ceiling. It was anti-excellence wrapped in the gift wrap of excellence.
Of course the history of that gift-wrapping is important, as is the detailed working out of exactly what went into the standards. Common Core provided two streams of standards, in mathematics and in English Language Arts. It went through a prolonged period of development with the involvement of hundreds of supposed experts. It grew not one but two giant bureaucracies of its own. And it became enmeshed in state and national politics.
Rejecting Academic Failure
Let’s first return to the casket. I started by saying that Common Core is dead. How did it die? It died of parental opposition, teacher opposition, political defection, and perhaps most importantly, flat-out academic failure.
The academic failure is the most telling. Remember that Common Core was sold to the American public as something that would make high school graduates “college and career ready.” The designers of Common Core thought they could game this by measuring their success on their own custom-made scales. They forgot about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which provides an independent check. NAEP tests randomly selected fourth- and eighth- graders across the country and examines their performance on reading and mathematics.
In March, the liberal Brookings Institution released a study of how NAEP scores line up with the states that went all-in with Common Core, “strong implementers” in Brookings-speak, and contrasted those states that were “medium implementers” and non-adopters. There is plenty of data. 46 states initially went into Common Core. Three have pulled out — Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. A few others have made some ad hoc changes in their versions of Common Core.
What Brookings found is “no evidence that Common Core has made much of a difference during a six-year period of stagnant NAEP scores.” There is, as Brookings also notes, some moderately good news in that finding. Common Core appears not to be the general cause of NAEP stagnation. Even states that didn’t adopt it stagnated.
Let me pause on that for the moment, because the larger context really does matter. The nation has spent billions so far on developing and implementing Common Core. One result of that “investment” is no measurable improvement in NAEP scores. States that spent nothing on Common Core got the same results.
But that does point to the question of why NAEP scores have slumped across the board. What has happened during those six years of Common Core implementation that would weigh against academic performance? I don’t want to give a flip answer. Surely the real answer involves a combination of social and cultural changes. The top of the list of what erodes the performance of children in schools is single-parent families, followed closely by other forms of family dysfunction. Both of these are closely connected with financial insecurity. Also, students struggling with English as a second language do not do as well. Increase single-parent families, family dysfunction, financial insecurity, and immigration, and poor school performance will follow as a certainty. Add to this the increasing tax on students’ attention from social media and the increasing use of schools as a way of promoting ideological conformity, and the picture is not bright.
Common Core was sheer hype. Changing the “standards” for K-12 education was never, ever going to change the real level of performance of students.
Less Literature, More Informational Texts
In the English Language Arts (ELA), we are watching the decline of instruction in literature and its replacement by non-fiction. Why does this matter? Research on reading skills runs against using non-fiction, or at best fails to support it. But Common Core insists that students learn best from treating everything as “informational texts.” That is, even when students read literature, they are supposed to treat it as primarily “information.” This is a bit like trying to squeeze propane gas out of an orange. There may be a way to do it, but you’d far better off trying to collect orange juice.
The Brookings Institution wondered whether schools in the states that “heavily implemented” the Common Core really went ahead with this switch, and sure enough they did. In the years since Common Core arrived, in both fourth-grade and eighth-grade, literature has dropped by ten percent or more, to be replaced by non-fiction texts. In the non-adopting states, the trend has been the opposite: more literature.
The practical answer to this is that reading literature is by far the single biggest predictor of long-term academic success. Follow Ishmael on the voyage of the Pequod to the eventual port in Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Or learn how to excel at BuzzFeed quizzes and maybe get a job working for the guy who read Moby Dick.
Literature matters for a lot of reasons. It teaches us how to read beyond the literal text: to see analogies, to hear the unspoken, to tease out implications, and to comprehend the whole. Literature is where we learn how to see the forests, and not just the pine needles. The Common Core is taking us way into pine needle territory.
Common Core English Language Arts has other problems that have not yet, to my knowledge, been subject to rigorous review. It fragments texts; it fights against context and background knowledge; and it turns everything it touches into evidence.
In Common Core-speak, the standards aim for “greater focus on fewer topics.” Hear how nice that sounds? The Common Core has put a lot of work into smooth marketing of something you neither need nor want. It promises, for example, “coherence” in place of “a list of disconnected topics, tricks, and mnemonics.” I take some umbrage with the idea that education used to be just a random jumble and that Common Core has solved the problem.
As with the deceptive attempt to call lower standards “higher standards,” the translation of “greater focus on fewer topics” is something like this: Our students will know little, remember less, and never race ahead with mental shortcuts. They will instead plod dutifully ahead according to our method.”
Very few students will sit still for such a stultifying education, and parents and teachers will — and already have — bridled against it too. In that sense, the Common Core’s failure as a curriculum was built-in. There never was going to be a day when students would conform to it. Its educational ideals were unmoored from psychological and educational reality.
But that doesn’t mean Common Core couldn’t do damage. It has enormous opportunity costs for students. What they could have and should have learned they haven’t because Common Core was in the way. My NAS colleague, Carol Iannone, examined the teacher’s edition of a Prentice Hall 11th-grade literature textbook, The American Experience, Common Core Edition. She found five hundred or so readings and a “blizzard of sidebars and underbars and inserts and various sets of instructions and proposed questions, with proposed answer and assessment measures and writing assignments and preparation exercises and background information and thought experiments and group discussion ideas and further task suggestions, and more—all in different shapes and sizes and fonts and colors and groupings.”
What, pray tell, happened to standards that are “Fewer, Clearer, Higher?” What “fewer” actually means in Common Core-speak is that there would be fewer differences among the states, since in principle they would all have the same standards. But the number of standards themselves could be quite large, and the interpretations of those standards in the hands of busy publishers with a buck to turn could be enormous. What “clearer” means in Common Core-speak is everything taught could and should be pinned to an exact sub-sub-sub-standard. There should be no ambiguity about where any stray idea fits into the puzzle palace of Common Core. The whole thing might be a fantastic mistake, but at least we know how every detail contributes to the grand scheme.
The result of this kind of clarity is blinding obscurity.
For example, Herman Melville is found in the Prentice Hall textbook, but actually, students are reading eighteen pages of pre-digested Moby Dick, through the sieve of “pre-teaching” warm-ups and literary analysis concepts and reading strategy; graphic organizer transparencies; activating prior knowledge activities; reading strategy prompts; and whole armies of other pedagogical concepts.
The “jargon-laden schematization” as Carol Iannone puts it, comes in service to an approach to literature that chops everything into fine pieces and dissolves context. No student will come away realizing “This is why we read Moby Dick” or anything else.
But let’s judge the English Language Arts of Common Core by Common Core’s own standards. Is this sort of thing making students “college and career ready”? I know of no college where this destructive sampling of literature would have any value at all. Higher education is desperate for students who have the trained attention spans and independence of mind to read real books and to frame their own opinions. Students fed on a spoon-fed diet of fragments is exactly what they don’t want.
Dumping Ideals, Values, and Tradition
So how did the Common Core hit on this formula? David Coleman and his colleagues wanted non-fiction informational texts to be front and center, and if states demanded literature be left in, the Common Core cogitators decided that literature would have to be stretched and chopped to fit the Procrustean bed of informational text.
But there is something more. Literature is one of the places in the K-12 curriculum where students come into possession of their own civilization. It is rich with ideals, values, tradition, and imaginative aspiration: the very stuff that the Common Core wards off as dangerously privileged or even elitist. What education is really for is developing character. Without it, children learn nothing. Ideally, students develop as whole people: morally-grounded, thoughtful, self-disciplined, creative, hard-working, and mature. We seldom achieve all that but striving towards it gets us a lot closer than sitting back to see what happens.
Slowing Down Math Learning
Common Core Mathematics Standards are troublesome too, just in different ways. The standards slow down the pace of math instruction. Before Common Core was in place, almost all the states reasonably expected students to master basic addition and subtraction by third grade; Common Core decided fourth grade would do. Same with the multiplication table. Long division was generally a fifth grade skill; Common Core defers it to sixth grade.
These changes may seem small in themselves, but they are large in cumulative effect. Common Core decided not to accelerate, but to move into the slow lane. Because math builds on itself, the slow-down in the early stages means more slowing down later on. Algebra gets kicked up to ninth grade and then Common Core tapers off. It has no room at all, for example, for the pre-calculus instruction that used to provide the bridge for students headed off to college.
What’s the harm? The harm is that, by not providing instruction to young people at the age in which they can absorb the knowledge, we preempt the whole possibility of their going further. We are effectively slamming the door shut for millions of children on possible careers in the sciences, engineering, and many technical fields where a solid foundation in math is crucial.
This thinning out of math instruction betrays two key promises made by the Common Core’s proponents: first, the one I have mentioned several times, that the Standards would make students “college and career ready.” Plainly they do the opposite in math. They ensure that students who attend schools that rely on Common Core will not be college ready. They may be career-ready if the career is operating an automated cash register at a fast-food restaurant, but that’s about it.
The other key promise is that the Standards would be “internationally benchmarked.”
Plainly, the Common Core has done nothing so far to nudge us upward in world rankings, let alone make us comparable to the best. So Common Core’s boast that it would set internationally benchmarked standards turned out to mean that, with the aid of binoculars, we can see that bench — on the back of a foreign truck — rapidly disappearing a few miles up the road.
Common Core defenders have their excuses. The “college ready” part turned out to mean — as one of the Core’s architects eventually confessed — ready for community college. Students who have higher aspirations have to fend for themselves by seeking out tutors or extra-curricular supplementary classes.
Prosperous families will find work-arounds, but for everyone else, Common Core imposes a low ceiling on what their children will learn in school.
Math instruction goes astray in other ways too. It is infamous with parents for imposing tediously complicated forms of computation on children in primary school. The computations “work” in the limited sense of providing right answers (most of the time) but they also deliberately drive a wedge between parent and child, since very few parents can crack the code.
Common Core math standards also diverge from parental understanding in more subtle ways. For reasons known only to the Common Core’s architects — who have never had to explain why — they emphasized simple visual models such as number lines in grades one to six. Less easily visualized mathematical concepts such as multiplication and division with negative numbers get put off to later — in this case, seventh grade. Common Core promotes a way to teach geometry that has been tried once or twice before, notably in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, where the experiment was deemed a failure and discarded. Why it should be imposed on nearly the whole United States all at once through the Common Core is a mystery.
On Its Way Out, Unloved by All
The question is, “What kind of people do we want our children to become?” The answer, to the extent it can be inferred from the Standards, is that the Common Core aims to make children into well-organized utility-maximizers — people who do not waste time contemplating hard problems or dreaming big dreams, but who have a ready means to cut things down to the size they already know how to handle.
Common Core is, to be sure, on its way out. It is unloved by parents, teachers, and the public as a whole. What lies ahead will be partly repair and partly restoration.
To simplify the story, I’ve said nothing about how Common Core demoted other subjects, including history. I haven’t explained how it traveled from a pet project of some state governors to being one of President Obama’s signature projects. I’ve said nothing about the dubious Constitutional standing of Common Core. I’ve passed over the ruckus on data mining. I’ve left the disastrous roll-out of the tests by the two multi-state testing consortia fall by the wayside. I’ve passed over in silence the duplicity that characterized parts of the Common Core movement, and the self-delusion of advocates.
The project sprawls in more directions than I can cover in a short talk, but it probably doesn’t matter. Because the Common Core truly is dead. No state that doesn’t already have it will adopt it at this point, and nearly every state that has adopted it is trying to figure out how to exit at the lowest possible political and financial cost. Major supporters — governors, foundations, think-tanks — have bailed. Some ruefully. “If only . . .” they say, “if only we had done this or that . . .”
Of course, every movement has its die-hard partisans. No doubt there are some Common Core-idians who imagine a resurrection. But dead is dead.
And the real questions we are confronted with now are like those that follow other disasters, like an earthquake or a hurricane. How will we clean up? Who will pay for it? What comes next? America has invested so much in Common Core that we can’t easily get out. The investments include very large amounts spent on textbooks, computers to support Common Core tests, and teacher training.
There are also poignant questions for parents who have the choice of waiting out the bad years ahead by moving their children out of public school or staying put knowing that they will have to work extra hard at home to compensate for Common Core’s poor delivery of essential knowledge and its mis-channeling of children’s intellectual development. I don’t have an easy answer to those questions. I am personally focused on mitigating the upstream damage to higher education, which is going to be considerable. And one of the battles at hand is fighting the continuing effort of the College Board under David Coleman’s stewardship, to institutionalize as much of the Common Core as possible through the SATs and Advanced Placement exams.
Let me say a last word about the other Davids in the fight against Common Core. This was an enormously well-funded and politically wired effort to capture American schools — in effect to wrest power from parents, local school districts, and the states, and to transfer it to private testing consortia, publishers, and the federal government. It failed because of persistent parents, some brave teachers, and a handful of small institutes and grassroots activists. The Pioneer Institute that published Drilling Through the Core and many other papers; the Heartland Institute that stayed on the story; the American Principles Project; the Eagle Forum; and many others are the Davids I speak of. The Goliath of Common Core lies on the ground today because of what they did.
If any good comes from this sorry episode in misguided reform of our schools, it will be this proof that we can successfully stop the follies pushed on us by schemers who do not have the best interests of our children or our communities at heart.
National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood was compelled to speak out about Common Core when he recognized the disastrous impact it would have at colleges and universities. He recently edited Drilling Through the Core, an analysis of Common Core. The National Association of Scholars (NAS.org) is committed to academic freedom, unbiased scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.