Why Common Core standards will fail

Jay Mathews
Columnist February 22, 2012

Virginia, take a bow.

While Maryland, 44 other states and the District are spending billions of dollars to install new national standards for their schools, Virginia has stuck with the standards it has. Mounting evidence shows Virginia is right, and the others wrong.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Common Core standards are the educational fashion of the moment, but your child’s teacher can name many similar plans that went awry. I was impressed at first with the brainpower and good intentions behind the Common Core standards, launched by non-government groups with the support of the Obama administration and governors of both parties. I thought the change would elevate instruction and end the distressing difference between what defined student proficiency in Massachusetts (pretty high) compared with Mississippi (quite low.)

But I have been talking to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, a national expert on this topic, and read his latest research paper: “Predicting the Effect of Common Core Standards on Student Achievement.” He reviewed the research. He assessed the chances of the Common Core standards making a difference. It turns out this is another big disappointment we should have figured out long ago.

As Loveless notes, there are three main arguments for having all public schools teach the same subjects at the same level of rigor and complexity. First, students will learn more if their learning targets are set higher. Second, students will learn more if the passing grade for state tests are set higher. Third, students will learn more if lesson plans and textbooks are all made more complex and rigorous through required high standards.

Loveless analyzed all available research and found that none of those arguments holds enough validity to risk all that money and effort.

The notion that high-quality standards correlate with higher student achievement was disproven long before Loveless wrote his paper. His Brookings colleague Russ Whitehurst showed in 2009 that states with weak content standards, as judged by the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (not ideological bedfellows), had about the same average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as states with strong standards. Loveless investigated the possibility that strong standards might predict future achievement gains. They don’t.

Similarly, states that required students to have higher scores on their state tests in order to be judged proficient did not have stronger NAEP scores than states that grant proficiency status even to students who miss half of the questions. Loveless notes that states that made their tests tougher to pass did show improvement in NAEP scores, but that is likely the result of a phenomenon that does not depend on better standards. States are likely to raise the minimum proficiency score only after they see their scores going up, not before.

The idea that common standards might create efficiencies and motivations that raise achievement is disproved by what has happened in the many states that created their own standards. Those states still have some schools scoring very well and others scoring miserably. That variation has not declined, defying happy talk from Common Core advocates.

Our way of thinking about standards has always been wrong, Loveless says. We speak of them as a system of weights and measure, as benchmarks to which schools must adhere. But that’s not it. “Standards in education are best understood as aspirational,” Loveless wrote, “and like a strict diet or prudent plan to save money for the future, they represent good intentions that are not often realized.”

I have interviewed hundreds of teachers who significantly raised student achievement. Not one has ever said it was because of great state learning standards. Good curriculums help, but high-minded, numbingly detailed standards don’t produce them. How teachers are trained and supported in the classroom is what matters, even in states as enlightened as Virginia.

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to postlocal.com.

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