Ravitch Denounces Common Core

Published November 10, 2016

Diane Ravitch, historian of education at New York University and outspoken critic of education choice, wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students.”

The Common Core is a set of national learning standards dictating what K–12 students should know in English and math. When the standards were released in 2010, 46 states and the District of Columbia initially adopted them. Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have since repealed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and several other states are moving to do the same. A report by Education Next found since 2011, 62 percent of states have dropped out of the Common Core Consortia, which creates Common Core-aligned exams.

Ravitch writes in her op-ed, published in July, the promises of the CCSS “haven’t come true.” Ravitch says the development of Common Core was “a rush job,” and, “It’s no surprise that there has been widespread pushback.”

Ravitch writes she was an assistant secretary of education under President George W. Bush, and while she at first agreed with standardized testing, school choice, competition, and accountability under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, she “began to have doubts” and renounced her support “for high-stakes testing and charter schools” as she watched “the harmful effects” of NCLB. 

‘Unqualified Attribution’

Ze’ev Wurman, a U.S. Department of Education official under George W. Bush, says he agrees with Ravitch’s assessment that Common Core did not live up to its promise. Ravitch is wrong, though, when she writes “poverty and racial segregation” are “the main causes” of poor student achievement, Wurman says.

“If poverty and racial segregation were the causes of, rather than correlated with, poor achievement, then we would never see racially segregated but academically successful schools, or successful schools with largely poor kids,” Wurman said. “Yet such schools do exist! We have numerous examples of effectively segregated schools, and of high poverty schools, that bring their students to high achievement, and they typically do this without significantly different expenditures per student.

“Schools with good curricula and competent staff are successful with any kind of kid, rich or poor, black or white,” Wurman said.

‘Not Very Discerning’

Ravitch writes the implementation of standardized testing “demoralized teachers, caused teacher shortages and led to the defunding of the arts and other subjects that were not tested.” Ravitch writes the billions spent on phasing in the CCSS would have been better spent on reducing class sizes and rebuilding “physically crumbling schools,” among other things.

Ravitch’s observations are correct, but her arguments lack insight, Wurman says. 

“I find her criticism right in general, but not very discerning,” Wurman said. “Specifically, there seems to be little wrong with testing per se once in a few years, particularly if its results are important for the students themselves. Such testing tends to promote student achievement. Yet, she is right that the current annual testing is unnecessarily onerous – no reason to externally test students every year. Further, making the tests high-stakes for teachers rather than for students, as is done today, creates incentives for teachers to spend extravagant amounts of time on test-prep.”

Wurman says Ravitch’s argument that “standardized tests are best at measuring family income” is “more of a political rallying cry than an insightful statement.”

“Student achievement is directly caused by school quality, yet poverty is just correlated rather than causing low achievement,” Wurman said.

Faulted for Forgetting Young Children

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor of early education at Lesley University, says Ravitch is correct to say CCSS “hurts students.” The CCSS are especially bad for young children, Carlsson-Paige says.

“For the kindergarten year, there are over ninety Common Core standards that children must accomplish while they are five years old,” Carlsson-Paige said. “When you are asking a teacher to pay attention to that many standards for every kid in his or her class, it will have a profound effect on a teacher’s way of instruction and learning. When it comes to early childhood education, we have specific problems with the Common Core. They never took into account that younger children learn differently.”

‘Distracting’ Arguments

Common Core does “cost billions and hurt students,” but Ravitch’s plan for improvement distracts from real reform, Wurman says. 

“Ravitch is right in her conclusion: Common Core cost America dearly in terms of treasure, student achievement, and damage to federalism,” Wurman said. “Consequently, we should dismantle it as soon as we can. Yet her focus on poverty, race, and class-size are wrong and unnecessarily distracts us from where the true improvement lies: improving schools through improved teacher education and certification, and through school flexibility to adjust to local conditions rather than be governed by rigid rules from a remote authority.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.