Testimony to Oklahoma Interim Committee on Common Core
By Joy Pullmann
November 5, 2013
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and especially Rep. Gus Blackwell, for the invitation to speak today. I’m Joy Pullmann, a mother of three and education research fellow at The Heartland Institute, a state-focused think tank with the mission to research and promote ideas that empower individuals. Because the institute believes in academic freedom, I speak for myself and not everyone affiliated with it.
I believe you have and will continue to receive specific testimony on many of the details of Common Core, such as its lack of academic content, inappropriateness for small children, slipshod construction, connections to massive data-mining programs, and so forth. So, today I am here to discuss the broader context of Common Core, or what history, experience, and research tells us about its likelihood of benefitting children.
The short answer is that we have no reason to believe Common Core will have positive effects, and many reasons to believe it will damage children, teachers, and families. Samuel Johnson, upon hearing of an acquaintance’s remarriage, apparently criticized that decision as “the triumph of hope over experience.” The same phrase applies to central planning and standards-based education, one of its offspring, because every experience with both demonstrates their grave dangers.
If you think back to Economics 101, you may recall a fellow named Ludwig von Mises, a great economist who emphasized that government intervention begets troublesome unintended consequences, which increases the demand for more government intervention, which creates worse unintended consequences, and so on until in whatever sector the government intervened you have socialism or communism, with its high economic costs, low-quality results, and grave restrictions on human freedom. We see that with the United States’ march towards socialist healthcare, which began with World War II wage and price controls. And the same is true of U.S. education, which has slid steadily away from local control and individual responsibility to low-quality, frustration-filled nationalization. Common Core is only the next step down that path, and its existence is the result of federal intrusion into education, which so far has gotten children and taxpayers literally nothing for all its expense, micromanagement, and bluster.
We are all now used to states creating standards, or goals for what children should learn in certain subjects, and corresponding tests to measure whether children actually have learned what the central planners wanted. But this way of managing education is relatively new. It began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with fervor created by President Reagan’s 1983 report, A Nation At Risk, transforming a few years thereafter demands from politicians and special interest groups that the federal government set national goals for education. From the beginning of the standards movement, the federal government and special interest groups set forth national standards and testing models for states to copy, gradually increasing the level of coercion involved. Ever since then, standards-based education has yielded no positive results for children, and battles over state and national standards then have been essentially on the same topics as they are today: reoccurring horror that special interest groups have somehow managed to water down education content in favor of failed education theories and political activism, a lack of content experts involved in developing standards and curriculum, monkey business with state tests, and broad social strife.
Now we have Common Core, whose proponents say bests those rotten old state standards that have been created and coerced by essentially the same process Common Core has and will be. They ignore that the entire idea is compromised because it relies on inherently faulty central planning, and the research bears this out. A series of data analyses from the Brookings Institution, for example, find no link between state standards and student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” says the latest such report. The same is true of our international competitors: Many high-performers have national standards and tests, but so do many low performers. Research from Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek shows that states with higher standards tend to have lower student performance, when compared on the same test.
So why do we keep hearing that Common Core is the magic tonic America’s lackluster schoolchildren desperately need? Dr. Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas explains: “The only evidence in support of Common Core consists of projects funded directly or indirectly by the Gates Foundation in which panels of selected experts are asked to offer their opinion on the quality of Common Core standards. Not surprisingly, panels organized by the backers of Common Core believe that Common Core is good… The few independent evaluations of Common Core that exist suggest that its standards are mediocre and represent little change from what most states already have.” When Seton Hall University professor Christopher Tienken reviewed the purportedly “large and growing body of knowledge” that supports Common Core, he said “I found that it was not large, and in fact built mostly on one report, Benchmarking for Success, created by the [organizations that wrote Common Core]… Only four of the cited pieces of evidence could be considered empirical studies related directly to the topic of national standards and student achievement.” He further discusses research showing there is no link between test scores and economic competitiveness. There is simply no robust evidence that Common Core, or any Rube Goldberg-esque system of central planning, will improve student achievement. Reform proponents once again prefer hope to experience. For this foolishness, not they but the nation’s children will pay.
Here’s yet another outrageous absurdity: No one, anywhere, has ever tried Common Core before. We have no track record of its effectiveness, yet we are supposed to believe it will work magic. People turn to superstition when they have no evidence to back what they want to believe. The same is true of the experimental Common Core tests. No one has ever conducted computer-adaptive testing with many open-ended questions on children at a large scale before, but apparently the whole nation is to plunge into such activities, whether you get your tests from the federally funded national Common Core consortia or off the shelf from a vendor like ACT. Oklahoma, among many states, experienced reams of trouble with your attempts at statewide online testing this spring. Those problems will only be compounded in myriad ways by attempts to micromanage instruction, testing, and curriculum through Common Core, just as similar attempts were during the era of No Child Left Behind.
The question is not whether Common Core will fail, but what federal intervention statists will demand when it does. It’s not hard to guess. After the failure of ObamaCare, we will see increased pressure for entirely socialized healthcare. After the failure of Common Core, we will see demands for even more nationalized education.
Now is the time to stop ignoring history, research, and experience, and turn away from several decades of education theories and machinations that have proven themselves a waste of energy, resources, and children’s precious time. Our nation is still at risk—in fact, the risk has increased, yet our remedies so far aren’t working. The answer is not a double dose of what made the patient even sicker. It’s to change the medicine.
Central planning creates social tension by demanding that everyone follow not his or her own plans, but one plan decided through the political process. This is why you see such fury on Common Core—those who like it can’t do it if you make other standards mandatory, and those who don’t like it must live with it if you continue on the present path. Central planning also makes it more likely for special interests to control what happens, because they have the money, time, and resources to constantly devote, while parents and ordinary citizens do not.
America’s economy and education system worked well when both largely allowed individuals and communities to follow their own plans. Before states made every child attend school, and decided what children would learn, and how, and created teacher training monopolies, and became cartels that only sent public funds to schools that followed central mandates, and set pay and pension systems from the statehouse, and so forth, the people whose interests were only for their children ran education, and America had the highest literacy rate in the world, besides the most dynamic economy.
To reverse the government interventions that demand ever more intrusive government interventions, lawmakers should focus not on centrally stipulated curriculum mandates and tests, but on recreating an education ecosystem built on choice, freedom of association, and innovation (what American ideas!). Opposite Common Core, almost every single high-quality study available finds school choice benefits children and society (a few find no effect). An excellent place to start would be with another noted economist, the Nobel Prize-winning Milton Friedman. He cites Walter Lippmann, who “diagnosed [problems with public education] as ‘the sickness of an over-governed society,’ the change from ‘the older faith…that the exercise of unlimited power by men with limited minds and self-regarding prejudices is soon oppressive, reactionary, and corrupt…that the very condition of progress was the limitation of power to the capacity and the virtue of rulers’ to the newer faith ‘that there are no limits to man’s capacity to govern others and that, therefore, no limitations ought to be imposed upon government.'” Later, Friedman concludes, “the growing role that government has played in financing and administering schooling has led not only to enormous waste of taxpayers’ money but also to a far poorer educational system than would have developed had voluntary cooperation continued to play a larger role.”
Oklahomans can either continue snowballing from increased government intervention to increased government intervention, of which Common Core is only the latest manifestation and will not be the last, or to stop the socialism snowball and start walking back up the hill to the summit, where education is once again a matter of individual liberty. Under that arrangement, as research and experience resoundingly demonstrate, children and society will thrive.
 See Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition, by Ludwig von Mises, 1926. Available at https://mises.org/document/1086/Liberalism-In-the-Classical-Tradition.
 “The Impact of Federal Involvement in America’s Classrooms,” Andrew Coulson, testimony to Committee on Education & the Workforce, United States House of Representatives, February 10, 2011: http://www.cato.org/publications/congressional-testimony/impact-federal-involvement-americas-classrooms.
 National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide, Diane Ravitch (Brookings Institution, Washington DC): 1995.
 “Standards-Based Education Reform in the United States since ‘A Nation at Risk,'” Boyce Brown, University of Hawaii, June 1, 2009: http://www.hawaii.edu/hepc/pdf/Reports/FINAL-History_of_Standards-Based_Education_Reform.pdf.
 See, for example, What’s at Stake in the K-12 Standards Wars, ed. Sandra Stotsky, (Peter Lang, New York): 2000.
 “How Well Are American Students Learning?” Tom Loveless, Brookings Institution, Volume III, Number 1 (February 2012): www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/2/brown%20center/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf.
 “One Size Fits None,” Jay Greene, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 11, 2010: http://jaypgreene.com/2010/04/11/sandy-and-jay-on-national-standards/.
 “Is the Common Core Just a Distraction?” Eric Hanushek, Education Next, May 9, 2012: http://educationnext.org/is-the-common-core-just-a-distraction/.
 Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jay Greene, September 21, 2011: http://jaypgreene.com/2011/09/21/my-testimony-on-national-standards-before-us-house/.
 “Common Core State Standards: An Example of Data-less Decision Making,” Christopher Tienken, AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice, Winter 2011, Vol. 7. No. 4, p. 6: http://www.aasa.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/Newsletters/JSP_Winter2011.FINAL.pdf.
 “What Is Wrong with Our Schools?” Milton Friedman, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 1979: http://www.edchoice.org/The-Friedmans/The-Friedmans-on-School-Choice/The-Role-of-Government-in-Education-(1995).aspx.
 “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice,” Greg Forster, Friedman Foundation, April 17, 2013: http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/A-Win-Win-Solution–The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.aspx.