Spurred at least in part by an outside chance at winning the competition for the remaining $3.4 billion in federal Race to the Top funding, 37 states and Washington, DC have agreed to adopt national curriculum frameworks.
In order to qualify for a portion of Race to the Top money, state applications had to include plans for reforms such as raising caps on charter schools, measuring student growth with improved data systems, and changes to teacher tenure and compensation rules. But U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s August 2 deadline for states to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative lent greater urgency to the federal grant program’s second round.
Duncan announced the 19 finalists, which included18 states and Washington, DC, for round two of the administration’s Race to the Top program on July 27. Round two winners were scheduled to be named on August 24.
Delaware and Tennessee were the only two states to receive RTTT grants in round one, and between 10 and 12 states are likely to receive phase two grants.
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, noted the unexpectedly large number of RTTT finalists raised some questions. “[The administration] selected a very large number of states, a number much larger than most observers would have guessed. In doing so, they included a number of states that have raised eyebrows. I think states like Florida and Louisiana should be locks, but a critical question will be how many winners there ultimately are,” Hess said.
Hess says the Obama administration’s education grant competition has played a “constructive role” in spurring state-level reforms, but he said some of the reforms have been tepid.
“It’s unfortunate that most of the points are awarded for best-practice and process measures,” Hess said. “It has pushed states forward on teacher evaluation, removing data ‘firewalls,’ and charter schooling.”
But Hess criticized competition rules favoring “statewide buy-in” and “stakeholder commitment” to comprehensive reform plans.
“I think it’s clear that the union buy-in provision—and especially Duncan’s beating that drum—blunted reform,” he said.
Although Hess sees the Common Core Standards movement as state-led, he chided Duncan for using Race to the Top as leverage.
“Federal overreach is a real concern,” Hess said.
Jay P. Greene, director of the Center for Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, also sees the pressure to adopt national standards as a prerequisite for a Race to the Top grant as a significant case of federal meddling.
“The good news is that it might fade away as yet another set of bold declarations that don’t translate into real action,” Greene said. “Once the money is already promised, the states learn they don’t even have to follow through on what they’ve already promised, let alone make another round of promises,” Greene noted.
‘Giving Treats to Delinquents’
Greene predicts the grant program’s effectiveness at spurring reform will likely wane after the September announcement.
“As states realize [their] reforms were not really the deciding factor [in Race to the Top] and as most realize that they won’t get the money anyway, the influence of this approach will certainly diminish,” he said.
“You can’t promise the 1st graders cookies and ice cream for behaving well if you end up giving the treats to some delinquents while denying it to some who were angelic,” he explained. “They figure it out.”
The federal push for national standards could have lasting effects long after Race to the Top is a distant memory, said Lisa Snell, director of the Reason Foundation’s education and child-welfare studies. For some states, including Snell’s home state of California, the common core standards could be a step down.
“California education officials seem willing to exchange short-term financial gain for Common Core standards that lower expectations for California students,” Snell said, noting the state’s math and language arts standards already exceed Common Core’s proposed requirements and are more effectively organized by grade level.
“As a parent whose children have been through the more rigorous math standards, I can say my son has benefited from taking Algebra in 8th grade and my daughter can take Algebra in 7th grade because of California’s coherent and fast-tracked math standards,” Snell said. “These higher math standards have led to real gains in mathematics by California students.”?
‘Negligible Impact’ Predicted
Opponents of the press for the Common Core Standards argue implementing new frameworks and testing will put a heavy fiscal burden on states while giving little or no guarantee of academic improvement.
“It is somewhat likely that these new federal standards and large-scale investment in retrofitting state standards to comply will have a negligible impact on student achievement,” Snell said. “No Child Left Behind did a good job of making school-level performance more transparent, but had little impact on moving individual schools to improve performance.
California’s Progress Could End
Bill Evers, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a member of the California Academic Content Standards Commission, strongly opposed California implementing the Common Core math frameworks. He points out remediation rates have fallen sharply for freshman entering the California University system—a positive trend.
Since 1997, California State University freshman enrollment has doubled from 25,000 to 50,000, while remediation rates in mathematics have dropped from 54 percent to 37 percent.
“California had to look at these national standards and see if they were as [rigorous] as the academic standards we had,” Evers said. “When it came to math, I could not see that they were.”
Lindsey M. Burke ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.