Common Core is a failed experiment in centralized education

The movement that resulted in the Common Core Standards began with the publication of A Nation at Risk, the seminal report of the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983. This report issued a clarion call for educational reform with the statement by then-Secretary of Education Terrell Bell that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”This kicked off a movement at the state level to develop standards that would apply to all public school systems within a state, as well as a means to test achievement of these standards.

These standards were meant to replace the often widely divergent “scope and sequence” standards that were offered as part of textbook series adopted by individual school districts within a state.  Initially this movement was welcomed by many classroom teachers. As society became more mobile, teachers were increasingly faced with the task of integrating students with widely varying levels of proficiency due to these differences in local curriculum.

For example, a third grade teacher might be faced with one student who was bored to tears because “we learned all this last year” and another who was floundering without prerequisite skills because “they didn’t cover that at my old school until fourth grade” The problem was exacerbated in 2001 when the federal No Child Left Behind Act tied annual testing of standards to federal funding given to states, and standards still varied widely from state to state. 

“The idea [of Common Core] was to ‘raise the bar’ for all students across the country in order to create better college and work outcomes, and to establish a common yardstick by which all students could be measured.” 

A meeting in Chicago

Although a push for national standards began as early as 2007, it crystalized at a meeting of state governors and chief state school officers in 2009 in Chicago. The idea was to “raise the bar” for all students across the country in order to create better college and work outcomes, and to establish a common yardstick by which all students could be measured. They put together a “work group” of university professors, education advocates, and experts from testing companies to create a set of standards that could be used across the country.

There was a significant omission in the original membership of these groups—none of the “boots on the ground,” the actual K-12 teachers, were invited to participate. In fact, it was only after significant pushback from teacher unions that actual teachers got involved in the process at all.

The first standards

The first set of Common Core standards was released in 2010. Contrary to the idea that most people have of Common Core, it is not a detailed day to day curriculum, and it does not specify the strategies that are to be used to teach. Rather, it is a description of skills that each student should have mastered at each grade level in English/language arts and math by the time they finish high school.

Math standards emphasize application of math skills as well as math procedures. English/language arts standards emphasize the ability to read and interpret complex fiction and non-fiction material.

For example, one second grade English/language arts standard says that by the end of second grade a student should be able to “use sentence level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.”

An example of a second grade math standard is “Add up to four two-digit numbers using strategies based on place value and properties of operations.”  Once standards were developed, work began on developing tests that could be used. In 2010 the U.S. Department of Education awarded $360 million to 2 groups of states to develop standardized tests for the new standards.

Opposition to the standards

Although most states rushed to adopt the new standards, opposition arose almost immediately—in part based on the content of the standards. Some educators thought that the emphasis on non-fiction would downplay the importance of good literature in the classroom. Others complained that some skills, particularly at the lower grade levels, were not developmentally appropriate for most children.

Most of the opposition, however, was political in nature. Conservative activists and lawmakers saw the push for adoption of the Common Core as a violation of state’s rights, since traditionally schools were under the control of state and local governments rather than the federal government. This became more pointed when the Obama administration offered $4 billion dollars in federal “Race to the Top” grants to states that adopted “college and career-ready standards,” a phrase that was widely interpreted as a code for Common Core standards. 

Other educational activists saw the adoption of common standards as undermining a teacher’s ability to tailor instruction to the needs of a particular community or group of children, while still others objected to the emphasis on standardized testing of the objectives to determine not only student promotion, but also teacher pay.

Opposition intensified as textbook publishers rushed to roll out new textbook series that corresponded to the standards and, more importantly, to the new tests that were being piloted.

Teachers complained that they had not been given enough training on the teaching techniques to be used with the new textbooks (which were the product of the consultants at the textbook companies, not the Common Core standards themselves), and that the English/language arts assessments relied too heavily on cold reads of complex passages.

Parents and students complained about Math in particular because of math assignments that seemed unnecessarily complicated and poorly explained, with more emphasis on process than on the correct answer. 

States back away from Common Core

States that had eagerly embraced Common Core Standards, the associated standardized tests, and the federal money that went with them, began to back away, so that by April of 2020, 24 of the 45 states that originally adopted the standards had repealed, revised, or edited them in some way.  Some states kept the standards mostly intact but gave them a new name, while others went back to the standards in use prior to 2010. Still others developed their own standards to better meet the needs of the students in their state.

Testing requirements changed in some places as well: while some states continue to do extensive standardized testing in the spring, others have cut back significantly. 

Common Core, once seemingly a burning issue, has receded far into the background. The question that can now be asked is “why?”

Top-down directives don’t work for education

The answer may lie in a problem with top-down directives in general. The Devil is in the details, as they say, and in this case in the details of implementation.

In understanding the failure of implementation, it may be useful to consider the idea of decision points (described in the classic 1973 study, Implementation, by Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky.) The study found that in implementing any top-down initiative, there are a number of points on the way down the chain where any person or agency can disrupt the implementation of a program. The fewer the points, the more likely an initiative is to achieve successful implementation. Apparently, the success of an initiative falls from 95% at one decision point, to less than 50% at 14 decision points.

The initial workgroups developing the Common Core failed to take this into consideration, because they were all in general agreement about what they wanted to accomplish at this first decision point of the process. Successful implementation of Common Core standards, however, had to navigate many more points at the federal, state, and local level. One investigator, quoted in “Between The State And The Schoolhouse: Understanding The Failure of Common Core,” by Tom Loveless, found a minimum of 17 decision points at the state level alone. Every classroom in every school district represents yet another potential decision point.

Taking this idea into consideration, it is no wonder that Common Core implementation was never truly successful

“The ultimate failure of the Common Core initiative to standardize instruction for the whole country illustrates a problem with centralized educational planning in general: one size does not fit all.”

The ultimate failure of the Common Core initiative to standardize instruction for the whole country illustrates a problem with centralized educational planning in general: one size does not fit all. The United States is a large and diverse nation, striving to educate children with diverse educational needs. Educational planning needs to begin as close to the level of those children as possible, and it must be done by people who understand the needs of the specific populations they serve.

It is useful for the state to provide guidance regarding the skills that should be mastered at each grade level and some definition of what constitutes mastery, but the teacher who is actually working with students needs to be able to tailor the instruction to those particular students to help them reach mastery of the material for that grade. 

The Common Core Standards started out with the noble purpose of raising the achievement of US students and making them more competitive in the world marketplace. Unfortunately, its creators ignored the dangers of such centralized policy making, and some in the educational establishment saw it as an opportunity to promote their pet educational theories through revised curriculums. The result was an expensive bureaucratic boondoggle with no appreciable increase in student knowledge and achievement. Its fate should serve as a warning to any administration tempted to engage in an attempt at educational improvement through centralized planning again.

Ruth Powers taught for 41 years in public and parochial schools, before retiring from public education in 2019. She was part of the team responsible for planning the implementation of Common Core Standards in the Concordia Parish (Louisiana) public schools, adapting the Standards for students with special educational needs. She holds a B.A. in Speech Education from the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 1977, M.A. in Speech Pathology from University of Memphis in 1978, Th.M. from Spring Hill College in 1992, and M.A. in Educational Administration and Supervision from Seton Hall University. She currently works at her parish, St. Mary Basilica, in Natchez Mississippi as the Director of Religious Education. Her article was originally published in The American Commons.

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