FILE: Students at a summer reading academy at Buchanan elementary school work in the computer lab at the school in Oklahoma City, Monday, July 21, 2014. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has confirmed the Legislature was well within its authority to repeal a set of education standards in math and English known as Common Core. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

For several years now teachers around the country have been attempting to implement the Common Core State Standards, some with more success than others. Implementation in many places has been flawed at best: many teachers weren’t given enough time to learn the standards and create new curriculum and lesson plans around them, and many of the materials that are available for purchase by education publishing companies and that claim to be Core-aligned are poorly drawn.

Districts and states have spent millions of dollars in the implementation even as controversy over the standards and the new standardized tests designed around the Core has blown up for various reasons. Some critics think the Obama administration wrongly pushed the Core on states; other critics think the standards are not well-drawn; others oppose the testing aligned with the Core, both the amount of testing for students and the ways that student test scores will be used to evaluate teachers and principals. Many supporters of the Core believe in the standards but agree that the implementation has been botched.

That all brings us to a piece in The Washington Post late last month by Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Michael Brickman, the institute’s national policy director. The Fordham Institute is a  think tank in Washington D.C. that has supported the Common Core initiative as well as other reforms including charter schools and vouchers. They wrote that it would be extremely difficult to replace the Common Core with a stronger set of standards. The following post takes issue with that idea. It was written by Sandra Stotsky, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who has been a vocal critic of the Core’s language arts standards.

While serving as senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999-2003, she  was instrumental in developing one of the country’s strongest sets of academic standards for K-12 students as well as the strongest academic standards and licensure tests for prospective teachers. She served as the English language arts expert on the National Validation Committee for the Common Core State Systemic Initiative (2009-2010), which she has strongly critiqued.


By Sandra Stotsky

In an opinion piece in the The Washington Post on Dec. 24, 2014, Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli and Michael Brickman claim that it will not be easy to replace Common Core’s standards with something better. They claim that “the basic problem is that it’s impossible to draft standards that prepare students for college and career readiness and that look nothing like Common Core.”  Their claims have no legs to stand on.

Massachusetts once had standards that looked nothing like Common Core, were judged to be among the best in the country, and have an empirical record of contributing to academic gains for all Bay State students, as judged by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in grades 4 and 8, in reading and math, from 2005 on, and by The International Mathematics and Science Surveys (TIMSS) in 2007 and 2013.  The Bay State’s former standards served as the basis for classroom curricula, for professional development for practicing teachers, for licensure regulations and tests for prospective teachers, and for the state’s teacher-vetted K-12 tests.

We know that achievement on the grade 10 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was related to authentic college readiness from a 2008 report relating our high school students’ performance on their grade 10 MCAS to the type of public college they enrolled in after graduation in 2005 and the extent of remedial coursework they needed  (Massachusetts School-to-College Report: High School Class of 2005).  Almost all the students at the Advanced level and about 80 percent of the students at the Proficient level who had enrolled in four-year public colleges and universities in the Bay State in 2005 needed no remediation in mathematics or reading.  They were college-ready as well as high-school diploma-ready, whether or not they took a mathematics course in their senior year of high school (which the report doesn’t tell us).

On the other hand, about half of the 2005 high school graduating students who had enrolled in a Massachusetts community college in 2005 and had earlier been placed at the Needs Improvement level on a grade 10 MCAS test needed remediation in mathematics, reading, or both.  (Again, we don’t know if they had taken a mathematics course in their senior year of high school or tried in other ways to improve their academic records in their junior and senior years of high school.)  Sounds completely rational.

The Bay State’s previous standards accelerated the academic achievement of minority groups in the state and did prepare the state’s grade 10 students for authentic college coursework.  I don’t think the Common Core standards are designed to do that.

Contrary to the implication by Petrilli and Brickman that first-rate standards are not easy to implement, I know that it was easy to implement the Massachusetts 2001 English language arts and 2000 mathematics standards.  How do I know?  Because I was there.  Bay State teachers did not moan and groan after these standards were officially approved by a Board of Education chaired by currently incoming Secretary of Education James Peyser.  They simply implemented them without a fuss.

In fact, when it was time to start revising the 2001 ELA standards in 2007/2008 (by statute), less than 30 teachers in the entire state bothered to reply to the MA Department of Education’s survey on what changes they wanted.  None were substantive, and none were from English teachers. Moreover, there is no record of complaint by Bay State parents, either.

Why don’t Fordham Institute’s Petrilli and Brickman, or Common Core defender Jeb Bush, ask each Department of Education or Department of Public Instruction in each state to send out a survey to all the state’s English, mathematics, and science teachers just asking for anonymous suggestions on how to revise the state’s Common Core-based standards.  We would soon find out how welcome a different set of standards would be.  And how much they might support an accountability plan for Common Core-based test results tied to the state’s education schools, not the teachers they graduate.