School Reformers Argue Merits of Common Core Standards
As more states adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative—28 states, including most recently Massachusetts and Washington, DC, had approved the national standards as of last week—a study by a school reform think-tank concludes several states' standards already match or exceed those under consideration.
California, Indiana and the District of Columbia have English Language Arts standards that are “clearly superior” to the Common Core standards, a new 370-page report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute contends.
Nearly a dozen states have ELA or math standards “in the same league” as the Common Core State Standards, according to the Fordham study’s authors. Overall, the Common Core standards are “clearer and more rigorous” than English Language Arts standards in 37 states and math standards in 39 states, the Fordham study found.
State boards of education in California and Indiana, whose state standards earned the highest marks, are scheduled to vote on the Common Core standards next week. Both states are expected to adopt the national standards.
“Of course, as everyone knows, standards alone don’t change anything. They are just aspirations,” Fordham Vice President Mike Petrilli explained on the Flypaper weblog last week. “But if combined with rigorous assessments, high ‘cut scores,’ meaningful accountability, and strong implementation, they can move mountains, as we’ve learned from Massachusetts over the past decade.”
A ‘Conservative Case’ for Standards?
On the heels of last week’s report, Petrilli and Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn co-wrote an article for National Review Online touting the Common Core standards and ridiculing opposition to the reading and math standards.
“This profound, and we think positive, shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with,” Finn and Petrilli write.
Although Finn and Petrilli say the “voluntary” nature of the standards partly accounts for their quick adoption, they downplay pressure from the federal government to adopt Common Core. “Yes, there are risks inherent in a national anything, particularly if the federal government clumsily tries to intervene,” they write, noting how most states have signed on to better their chances at winning a piece of the remaining $3.75 billion in federal Race to the Top grant money.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said states should adopt the Common Core standards by August in order to qualify for second-round grants in Race to the Top. And President Obama has said he would like to make $14.5 billion in federal Title I aid contingent on adopting the standards.
Standards Supporters’ ‘Tragic Flaw’
Among the “half-a-dozen libertarians” to criticize the Common Core State Standards Initiative include the editors of the Wall Street Journal, Massachusetts state board of education member Sandra Stotsky, as well as policy analysts at the Heritage Foundation, Foundation for Educational Choice, Pacific Research Institute, Pioneer Institute, Heartland Institute, and the Cato Institute.
Neal McCluskey, associate director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom and one of the more outspoken and persistent critics of the Common Core project, offered a vigorous rebuttal to Finn and Petrilli on the Cato-at-Liberty weblog.
“The tragic flaw in the thinking of many national-standards supporters is not the desire to create high bars for students to clear, but the utter delusion, or maybe just myopia, that allows them to assume that they will control the standards in a monopoly over which, by its very nature, they almost never hold the reins,” McCluskey argues.
McCluskey predicts any good in the national standards would be quickly co-opted by the education establishment, including teachers unions, which is vested in maintaining the status quo.
“The same political forces that have smushed centralized standards and accountability in almost every state—the teacher unions, administrator associations, self-serving politicians, etc.—will just do their dirty work at the federal rather than state level,” McCluskey writes. “Indeed, those groups will still be the most motivated and effectively organized to control education politics, but they will have the added benefit of one-stop shopping!”
McCluskey adds: “Government schooling will ultimately be controlled by the people it employs because they are the most motivated to engage in education politics. And naturally, their goal will be to stay as free of outside accountability as possible!”
Another point of disagreement over the Common Core standards is whether a single set of standards is preferable to each state setting its own standards and comparing results with other states.
“Conservatives generally favor setting a ‘single standard’ for everybody,” Finn and Petrilli write at National Review Online. “Setting different standards for different people — think affirmative action, for instance — is an idea most associated with the Left.”
Jay P. Greene, department head and 21st Century Chair in Education Reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, took strong exception to Finn and Petrilli’s characterization.
“If by ‘conservative’ we mean people who think that decisions should be decentralized, Finn and Petrilli have it exactly backwards,” Greene wrote last week at his eponymous group blog. “National standards are a centrally-imposed, one-size-fits-none approach that would make most conservatives shudder.”
Conservatives, Greene adds, “do not generally favor a ‘single standard’ for everyone. Conservatives do not think everyone should meet a single standard of fashion by being required to wear the same clothes. Nor should everyone be compelled to meet a single standard of nutrition by being required to eat the same foods.”
“On what basis would we think conservatives would want every school child to be required to learn the same thing at the same time?” Greene asks.
His answer: “Conservatives generally favor allowing consumers (of food, clothing, education, or anything else) to decide how best to serve their own needs by having choice among competing providers with differing products.”
‘Professional Judgment’ Questioned
In a separate blog post, Greene took issue with the methodology of Fordham’s study comparing Common Core with state standards.
“Education studies based on the professional judgment of experts is phony science and is usually nothing more than an exercise in political manipulation,” Greene writes. “Unfortunately, the recent ‘study’ released by Fordham assigning grades to state standards and the national standards proposed to replace them is an example of this kind of research.”
“Anyone interested in serious education research should shun professional judgment studies, whether for spending adequacy or for education standards,” Greene wrote.
Ben Boychuk (email@example.com) is managing editor of School Reform News.