Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been a supporter of the Common Core standards.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Thomas Scarice, the superintendent of Madison Public Schools in Connecticut, has been a vocal critic of high-stakes test-based school reform. This year  he sent a letter to state legislators explaining why these “reforms will not result in improved conditions since they are not grounded in research” and he has spelled out what he sees as the worst effects of the test-based “accountability” movement. In the following post, he attempts to separate myth from truth about the Common Core State Standards. This appeared on the website of Scarice’s school district and in the Shoreline Times.


By Tom Scarice

In a world saturated by 140-character messages, intellectually weak sound bites tend to dominate the media. Such is the case with the Common Core State Standards. Many of the Common Core messages are technically accurate, but fail under close inspection. In fact, many claims are outright myths. This phenomenon is unfortunate given that a number of the standards present themselves as worthy academic pursuits.

Perhaps the most prevalent persuasive technique among Common Core enthusiasts is an appeal to fear, namely, fear of economic doom, fear of our students being outperformed on tests by other nations, fear of falling behind the rest of the world. Although this can be an effective technique, this particular approach lacks intellectual honesty.

A recent policy brief by the reputable organization ASCD, formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,  clearly indicates that “the direct connection between assessment results and economic strength is grossly misleading.” Worker productivity data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, since 1972, while reading and math scores on the only true national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have remained relatively flat, workforce productivity has risen nearly 375 percent and GDP has increased 100 percent over that same time period. The primary reason for this is that such tests do not — and cannot — measure the key skills and traits necessary for competing in the global economy, nor do they assess the personality traits employers continually report to be most critical for success in the workplace. Employers recognize the critical nature of an employee’s abilities to work in a team, to make decisions, to solve complex problems, and to ask critical questions. You will not find employers interested in an employee’s test scores.

Beyond the false connection between test performance and economic vitality, a closer look at the data reveals that this “Chicken Little” fear mongering is unfounded. Since the 1960s, the national “average” of U.S. students on international tests has been middling to poor at best. Yet, the nation experienced unprecedented economic growth over that same time period. However, even more interesting, when you control for poverty, students in the United States outperform nearly every nation across the globe on these same tests. Clearly, other variables are at play here other than the need for “higher standards,” a familiar cry among Core advocates.

An additional piece of interesting data can be gleaned specifically from Connecticut students on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In 2012, a statistically representative sample of Connecticut students was compared against the performance of other nations around the world. Truth be told, not all nations educate all children as we do in the United States. On the international playing field, Connecticut students were at, or near, the top of the world in math, reading, and science. Quite simply, if Connecticut was a nation, it would be one of the highest-performing nations on the planet.

Additionally, on the 2013 NAEP, Connecticut high school seniors performed at the very top of the entire country on the reading test. Their performance was not at all a result of the Common Core since the new standards have only been recently implemented across the state in the past year or two, and this cohort of high school seniors never experienced them in the classroom. One wonders to what massive national reform we can credit this performance.

Another familiar refrain is that the Common Core is not a curriculum. In unsophisticated terms, this statement is technically accurate. However, in the current high stakes test-based accountability system plaguing our schools, what is on the test is what will be taught. This is precisely how what is taught in local classrooms has been dictated by forces beyond the local level. Given the scope of the Common Core, not even the most ardent supporter of the standards believes that the entire set of standards will be assessed on one of the new Common Core-aligned tests that will be used by numerous states called the “SBAC.” Therefore, the narrow segment of the Common Core that is tested will become the de facto curriculum in most districts. There is too much at stake for districts in the current broken model of accountability to not comply. In a time of limited local funding and national mass-produced educational materials, coupled with an accountability system that rewards’ teaching to the test- local control is compromised.

Frankly, through high-stakes tests and the current model of specious and bogus teacher evaluation systems, the entire education model has been carefully designed to compel adherence to the Common Core. Clearly, a district can still write its own curriculum, but, it must do so at its own peril, risking a drop in test scores and the inevitable community perception of ineffectiveness.

Do standards matter? According to scholar Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, they do not. Over the past decades states across the nation with high quality standards have improved student achievement to the same degree as states with poor standards.

Are the Core standards state-led? Once again, one look at the veneer would say so, but, a look beneath the surface tells another story. “College and career standards” are a precondition for states to receive federal Race to the Top grant funds and No Child Left Behind waivers. This condition was coincidentally timed with the advent of the Common Core, which qualified as “college and career standards” on grant and waiver applications to the federal government. In fact, many states signed onto the Common Core in 2009, before it was even written.

Reducing the debate of the Common Core to a matter of implementation is intellectually weak. A number of other matters remain unresolved. The standards were never field-tested with actual students. They have been largely influenced through massive donations via powerful philanthropic organizations such as the Gates Foundation, creating a chilling question about the consequential influence of one billionaire on our education system. Questions about whether or not the standards are appropriate for our youngest and most fragile learners have been raised by over 500 nationally recognized early childhood experts, and special education organizations. Categorically, no evidence exists to support the stance that the common core will raise the achievement of our most impoverished students, which is the most pressing challenge facing Connecticut. Education is much too complex to reduce our work to another futile silver bullet.

Connecticut has had academic standards for decades. Academic standards, developed by education professionals, are largely embraced by educators. They serve to set clear expectations for the accountability of learning and form the basis of curriculum. However, the rigidity of the common core, mandating that each and every student achieve the same learning progressions, regardless of learning style, and individual learning profile, at the exact same rate, contribute to the epidemic of standardization and homogenization that has afflicted our schools for the past decade. This is particularly concerning when the global marketplace and the demands of citizenship in this era clearly necessitate an individual’s diversity of thought and skills.

All that said, even within the broken testing and evaluation systems suffocating our schools, there are many individual standards within the Common Core that are worthy of academic pursuit. Districts would be best served to approach the common core with thoughtful analysis of the potential efficacy and appropriateness of each individual standard as they integrate them into curriculum. Plausible rejection of individual standards by local professional educators must be shared transparently with Boards of Education and the local community, backed up with appropriate justification. As always, healthy skepticism and deep analysis serve systems well. Every state and every district has multiple indicators of student success. What would local accountability look like beyond one tightly coupled measure to the Common Core? Is student success defined by performance on the SBAC, and if not, will local districts have the fortitude to move beyond the narrow, inadequate comparisons that are provided by standardized assessments?

There is more to the story of student success beyond the implementation of the Common Core.