Is the Common Core Standards initiative in trouble?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently met with Chamber of Commerce leaders and urged them to be more vocal and forceful in defending the Common Core State Standards. Why?

Duncan made the appeal, which was reported by Education Week, because the initiative — a set of common standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia designed to raise student achievement — has come under such withering attack in recent months that what once seemed like a major policy success for the Obama administration now looks troubled.

A handful of states (including Indiana, Alabama, South Dakota and Georgia) are either pulling back or considering it, and core supporters fear more states will too.  A growing number of educators are complaining that states have done a poor job implementing the standards and are pushing core-aligned tests on students too early. And parents have started a campaign to “opt” their children out of the Common Core-aligned high-stakes standardized tests.

Both Republicans and Democrats have supported the initiative in the past, including the Obama administration and Republican Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, both of whom were big players in the campaign to get some 45 states and the District of Columbia to approve the standards.

It is now both Republicans and Democrats who are questioning the Core, though the Republican voice is louder and more official: The Republican National Committee just passed an anti-Common Core resolution, saying that the initiative is a federal intrusion on states’ rights, and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa just started a bid to to eliminate federal funding for the core effort.

Many Democratic critics say that while they don’t oppose the idea of national standards, the Common Core is not based on research and that parts of it ignore what is known about how students learn, especially in the area of early childhood education. They also say that despite promises to the contrary, the core-aligned standardized tests won’t be dramatically better in assessing student achievement than the older tests. Some former core supporters, such as award-winning New York Principal Carol Burris, changed their minds after learning more about the standards and the core-aligned tests. (You can read some of her critiques here and here).

Supporters of the core — which include educators who are implementing the standards — are somewhat incredulous at the opposition, saying that  the old system of each state having its own set of standards proved to be untenable because student achievement was uneven across the country. (This line of thinking presumes that standards themselves are real drivers of quality.)

Reflecting the growing schism over the Common Core are two different recent editorials in major newspapers: The Los Angeles Time editorial board urged city officials to delay its implementation to make sure that it is done properly, while the New York Times editorial board told parents not to be afraid of the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests and it blamed Republicans for the opposition.

The L.A. Times editorial said in part:

Experts are divided over the value of the new curriculum standards, which might or might not lead students to the deeper reading, reasoning and writing skills that were intended. But on this much they agree: The curriculum will fail if it isn’t carefully implemented with meaningful tests that are aligned with what the students are supposed to learn. Legislators and education leaders should be putting more emphasis on helping teachers get ready for common core and giving them a significant voice in how it is implemented. And if the state can’t get the right elements in place to do that by 2014, it would be better off delaying the new curriculum a couple of years and doing it right, rather than allowing common core to become yet another educational flash in the pan that never lives up to its promise.

The New York Times editorial said in part:

New York City parents are understandably nervous about tough new state tests that were rolled out last week. And some parents whose children have already taken the tests are outraged. They shouldn’t be: the tests, which measure math and English skills, are an essential part of rigorous education reforms known as Common Core that seek to improve reasoning skills and have been adopted by 45 states….New York deserves enormous credit for being one of the first states to carry out what is clearly the most important education reform in the country’s history.

 

Setting aside the questionable notion that the Common Core is  the most important education reform in the country’s history, the editorial makes clear that the Times editorial is on board with pushing ahead with the Common Core despite problems.

Reversing the decision to implement the core won’t be easy and may be impossible in many places. States that have adopted the core have already spent many millions of dollars to create curriculum around them, implement them and create tests aligned to the standards. (The federal government chipped in some $360 million to help develop core-aligned tests.)

Not long ago, the core looked like it was an initiative that was steam-rolling through the states, with the strong support of Education Secretary Duncan and other players in the education world, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund it.

Where this is going is anybody’s guess right now.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | April 24, 2013