Common Core: Who’s Minding the Schools?

New York Times (June 8, 2013)

Who’s Minding the Schools?

By Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

In April, some 1.2 million New York students took their first Common Core State Standards tests, which are supposed to assess their knowledge and thinking on topics such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and a single matrix equation in a vector variable.

Students were charged with analyzing both fiction and nonfiction, not only through multiple-choice answers but also short essays. The mathematics portion of the test included complex equations and word problems not always included in students’ classroom curriculums. Indeed, the first wave of exams was so overwhelming for these young New Yorkers that some parents refused to let their children take the test.

These students, in grades 3 through 8, are taking part in what may be the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history. By the 2014-15 academic year, public schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia will administer Common Core tests to students of all ages. (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have so far held out; Minnesota will use only the Common Core English test.) Many Catholic schools have also decided to implement the Common Core standards; most private, nonreligious schools have concluded that the program isn’t for them.

Many of these “assessments,” as they are called, will be more rigorous than any in the past. Whether the Common Core is called a curriculum or not, there’s little doubt that teachers will feel pressured to gear much of their instruction to this annual regimen. In the coming years, test results are likely to affect decisions about grade promotion for students, teachers’ job status and school viability.

It is the uniformity of the exams and the skills ostensibly linked to them that appeal to the Core’s supporters, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill and Melinda Gates. They believe that tougher standards, and eventually higher standardized test scores, will make America more competitive in the global brain race. “If we’ve encouraged anything from Washington, it’s for states to set a high bar for what students should know to be able to do to compete in today’s global economy,” Mr. Duncan wrote to us in an e-mail.

But will national, ramped-up standards produce more successful students? Or will they result in unintended consequences for our educational system?

By definition, America has never had a national education policy; this has indeed contributed to our country’s ambivalence on the subject. As it stands, the Common Core is currently getting hit mainly from the right. Tea Party-like groups have been gaining traction in opposition to the program, arguing that it is another intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans by a faceless elite. While we don’t often agree with the Tea Party, we’ve concluded that there’s more than a grain of truth to their concerns.

The anxiety that drives this criticism comes from the fact that a radical curriculum — one that has the potential to affect more than 50 million children and their parents — was introduced with hardly any public discussion. Americans know more about the events in Benghazi than they do about the Common Core.

WHAT became the Common Core began quite modestly. Several years ago, many organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, whose members are top-ranking state education officials, independently noticed that the content and scoring of high school “exit” tests varied widely between states. In 2006, for instance, 91 percent of students in Mississippi passed a mathematics exit exam on the first attempt, while only 65 percent did so in Arizona. At the same time, students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress often differed from the state results.

This was not just embarrassing: it looked unprofessional. The governors and the school chiefs decided to work together to create a single set of standards and a common grading criteria. Private funding, led by some $35 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, allowed the coalition to spread its wings. Aligning tests became an opportunity to specify what every American child should know.

In 2009, an education consultant named David Coleman was retained to help develop the program, and he and other experts ended up specifying, by our count, more than 1,300 skills and standards. Mr. Coleman, a Rhodes scholar and the son of Bennington College’s departing president, is known as a driven worker as well as for his distaste for personal memoir as a learning tool. Last year, he was selected to lead the College Board, which oversees A.P. exams and the SATs.

Of course, the 45 states that have decided to implement the Common Core did so willingly. While federal agencies did not have a role in the program’s creation, the Obama administration signaled to states in 2009 that they should embrace the standards if they hoped to win a grant through the federal program known as Race to the Top.

For all its impact, the Common Core is essentially an invisible empire. It doesn’t have a public office, a board of directors or a salaried staff. Its Web site lists neither a postal address nor a telephone number.

On its surface, the case for the Common Core is compelling. It is widely known that American students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading and math, an alarming shortfall in a competitive era. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks 24th out of 34 countries in “mathematics literacy,” trailing Sweden and the Czech Republic, and 11th in “reading literacy,” behind Estonia and Poland. (South Korea ranks first in both categories.) Under the Common Core, students in participating states will immediately face more demanding assignments. Supporters are confident that students will rise to these challenges and make up for our country’s lag in the global education race. We are not so sure.

Students in Kentucky were the first to undergo the Common Core’s testing regimen; the state adopted the standards in 2010. One year later, its students’ scores fell across the board by roughly a third in reading and math. Perhaps one cannot blame the students, or the teachers — who struggle to teach to the new, behemoth test that, in some cases, surpasses their curriculums — for the drop in scores.

Here’s one high school math standard: Represent addition, subtraction, multiplication, and conjugation of complex numbers geometrically on the complex plane; use properties of this representation for computation. Included on New York state’s suggested reading list for ninth graders are Doris Lessing, Albert Camus and Rainer Maria Rilke. (In many parts of the country, Kurt Vonnegut and Harper Lee remain the usual fare.)

More affluent students, as always, will have parental support. Private tutoring, already a growth industry, will become more important if passing scores on the Common Core are required for graduation. Despite worthy aims, the new standards may well deepen the nation’s social divide.

The Common Core is not oblique in its aim: to instill “college and career readiness” in every American teenager — in theory, a highly democratic ideal. In the past, students were unabashedly tracked, which usually placed middle-class students in academic courses and their working-class peers in vocational programs. New York City had high schools for cooking, printing and needle trades. (There was even one in Brooklyn called Manual Training.) Indeed, the aim of these schools was to prepare a slice of society for blue-collar life. Since the 1960s, this has been seen as undemocratic. Today, students are typically required to take algebra, so they will have more options upon graduation (should they graduate). The irony — and tragedy — is that students who don’t surmount these hurdles now fall even further.

Already, almost one-quarter of young Americans do not finish high school. In Utah and Oklahoma, roughly 20 percent don’t; the proportion rises to 32 percent in South Carolina and 42 percent in Nevada. What does the Common Core offer these students?

The answer is simple. “College and career skills are the same,” Ken Wagner, New York State’s associate commissioner of education for curriculum, assessment and educational technology, told us. The presumption is that the kind of “critical thinking” taught in classrooms — and tested by the Common Core — improves job performance, whether it’s driving a bus or performing neurosurgery. But Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, calls the Common Core a “one-size-fits-all pathway governed by abstract academic content.”

IN sum, the Common Core takes as its model schools from which most students go on to selective colleges. Is this really a level playing field? Or has the game been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail?

Debate is now stirring within partisan circles. Glenn Beck sees the Common Core as “leftist indoctrination.” The Republican National Committee calls it “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Republican governors and legislators in Indiana, Kansas, Georgia and several other states are talking about reconsidering their participation. Yet conservative scholars at the Manhattan and Fordham institutes laud it as promising “a far more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K-12 education.” Some corporate C.E.O.’s favor it because they say it will upgrade the work force. Mr. Duncan is one of the lone liberal voices in support of the program. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, supports the plan, which she calls “revolutionary.” That said, she has called for a moratorium on judging teachers and schools by the first round of assessments, which she fears are sometimes being implemented hastily and without needed support.

For Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former assistant education secretary, the program is predicated on “the idea that you can’t trust teachers.” If we want our children taught from standardized scripts, she told us, let’s say so and accept the consequences.

For our part, we’re tired of seeing teachers cast as scapegoats, of all the carping over unions and tenure. It is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.

Still, there’s an upside to the Common Core’s arrival. As the public better appreciates its sweep, there is likely to be much discussion about schools and what we want them to do. Ideally, this will involve a reconsideration of the contours of knowledge and the question of how we can become a better-educated nation.

Andrew Hacker is an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York. Claudia Dreifus is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. They are working on a book about mathematics.

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