Standards Scolds Are Getting Us Nowhere

Jeff Bryant

Anyone who remembers the spectacle of the Obama administration’s maneuvering on the Grand Bargain for solving the nation’s financial problems should feel in familiar territory watching how the current controversy over the Common Core State Standards is playing out.

Recall, the Grand Bargain, as economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explained in the aftermath of its collapse, was an attempt in 2011 to “cut a long-run fiscal deal” between the administration and Republicans in the House to “accept huge spending cuts, not to mention a rise in the Medicare eligibility age, in return for a vague promise of higher revenue without any increase in tax rates.”

“It never happened,” Krugman explained, because of extremists in the Republican Party who refused to “accept even a modest rise in taxes,” and due to, as my colleague Roger Hickey explained earlier this year, “a rising new populist electorate” from the progressive side, who mounted a strong defense of Social Security and Medicare.

The Grand Bargain also didn’t happen because it never mattered. As 350 economists attested to, elements of the agreement were not going to help, and in fact would hurt, the economy. And prominent sense-makers like Krugman convinced people that policy led by “deficit scolds” was getting us nowhere.

Now, with the deficit rendered low on the political thermometer, the promise of the Grand Bargain has vanished, and the rhetoric of the Obama administration has since veered sharply to address the more real problem of economic inequality.

A similar dynamic is at work with the rollout of Common Core Standards. The notion of imposing national standards as a way to “fix” the nation’s education woes was a “grand bargain” too, forged in bipartisanship, drawing support from right-wing advocates such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

But now, Tea Party activists rail against the standards, calling them “Obamacore.” And left leaning educators and parents and public school activists pushback against what they perceive, as U.S. News reported, is “a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach, drafted in private, that ignores how teachers teach and how children learn.”

Just like the foundation under the Grand Bargain collapsed, little by little, support for the Common Core is eroding away, and you have to wonder what the Administration and a significant wing of the education establishment are going to be left with.

Core Collapse

Although nearly all states happily opted into the new standards at first, an exodus of sorts is underway. It began in Indiana in March with Republican Governor Mike Pence declaring, “I believe our students are best served when decisions about education are made at the state and local level.”

Then In June, Education Week reported, “Governors of Oklahoma and South Carolina – less than a week apart – signed legislation requiring their states to adopt new standards replacing the common core, and legislators in North Carolina advanced bills to require that state to revise its already-adopted standards.”

Most recently, yet another Republican state leader, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, declared, “He wants the state out of Common Core and the tests that go with it.”

Rejecting “the tests that go with” the Common Core has in fact become the dominant trend across the country, as 45 of the states originally signing onto the new standards-aligned assessments has withered to 27. As an Education Week analysis recently found, “For a variety of reasons, including the length and cost of the tests and political heat over the federal money supplied for their development, many states changed their minds about using the end-of-year accountability tests.”

Keep in mind that an original key selling point of the new standards was that the assessments that go with them would yield student performance results that were comparable from state to state. Now, that appears to be a rapidly fleeting goal.

These events occurred nearly simultaneously with statements from Common Core advocates expressing strong doubts over the way the new standards are being implemented.

As reported first by the folks at Real Clear Education, a top spokesperson for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed to a “call for delaying the attachment of any consequences to the new Common Core State Standards … more than 40 states are adopting.”

Then, Valerie Strauss, on her blog at The Washington Post, reported, the Gates Foundation “now supported delaying by two years using student standardized test scores in high-stakes consequences on teacher evaluation and student promotion.”

In reporting the story, Strauss couldn’t help but note the “coincidence or not” of the announcement to a story run by The Post a few days previous by Lyndsey Layton “about how the Gates Foundation made possible the Common Core State Standards revolution by funding key organizations involved in the initiative.”

That story, “How Bill Gates Pulled Off The Swift Common Core Revolution,” recounted how Gates and his foundation “spread money across the political spectrum” to engineer “the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.”

Strauss noted that Gates and his foundation had been “in synch” with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on policy issues. What now?

Adding to the uncertainty from Common Core advocates, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, one of the two national organizations representing school principals, “is calling for a slowdown in the Common Core initiative,” according to a report in The Washington Post. The organization’s statement cited problems with, “implementation” and “inadequate training they have received to help them ensure that their teachers are able to change instructional practices.”

These recent statements echo a statement last year from President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, also a Common Core advocate. She called for, “A moratorium on assessment-driven sanctions tied to Common Core State Standards until solid implementation plans are embedded in schools and proven effective through a year or more of field testing.”

Lack Of Core Supports

The supports Weingarten called for implementing the new standards a year ago show little evidence of materializing.

As NPR recently reported, “New standards as rigorous as the Core require lots of other changes – to textbooks, lesson plans, homework assignments. In short: curriculum and the materials needed to teach it. And that’s the problem. Right now, much of that stuff just isn’t ready.”

That report brought to mind recent reviews of the nation’s textbooks that both found, “Statements from publishers that traditional instructional materials are aligned with the Common Core State Standards are largely a ‘sham.’”

As an article in Education Week reported, “Hoping to boost their share of a $9 billion annual market, many publishers now boast that their textbooks are ‘common-core aligned.’” But those claims couldn’t hold up to the scrutiny of the two separate and independent reports, which generally agreed publishers have, “done little more than slap shiny new stickers on the same books they’ve been selling for years.”

Another feature of Common Core implementation – the need to shift schools from traditional paper and pencil tests to new online assessments – is also severely under-resourced. As yet another Education Week piece reported, “A roundtable of education leaders held on Capitol Hill” recently explore the questions of whether schools were ready for the computer-based assessments, and “the consensus” answer was “no.” Their recommendation was for “federal funding to help” to the tune of “$250 million”

Why does this lack of support matter?

As the NPR report cited above concluded, ” This time next year, kids across the country will take a new generation of standardized test … In some cases, students, teachers and schools will be judged on the results. These tests – everyone promises – will be aligned to the Common Core. The same cannot be said for the tools teachers and kids have to prepare for them.”

Enter The Standards Scolds

Faced with all this negative press for the Common Core, advocates have responded by branding it “politics.”

In writing her article, the Post’s Layton recalled how, “Gates grew irritated” in her interview with him, “when the political backlash against the standards was mentioned … ‘These are not political things,’ he said.”

Responding to Oklahoma’s decision to withdrawal from the standards, Secretary Arne Duncan commented, “This is not about education. This is about politics.”

Common Core supporters Kati Haycock of the Education Trust and Russlynn Ali of the The Emerson Collective, recently wrote for The Huffington Post that easing off any “stakes for students who don’t meet the new Common Core standards” is tantamount to “saying that public education doesn’t need accountability.” They admonished those who call out the lack of resources for supporting the Common Core “to get serious” about “kids” who “take the journey through school only once.”

Accusing your opponents of being “political” and proclaiming you have the moral high ground are common responses when you can’t make an argument on facts.

The facts are, adopting new standards never belonged at the top of the policy ladder for education to begin with. As Tom Loveless from the Brookings Institute wrote in the pages of Education Week, “States have tried numerous ways to better their schools through standards. And yet, good and bad standards and all of those in between, along with all of the implementation tools currently known to policymakers, have produced outcomes that indicate one thing: Standards do not matter very much.” (emphasis added)

And the issue of resources was always going to trump the implementation of new standards. In an interview with Amy Dean for Truthout, Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute explained, “The underlying problem is not the [Common Core] standards themselves, but the way in which they’ve been implemented and how they’ve been connected to testing. We’ve skipped over all the intermediate steps – such as professional development for teachers, curriculum for teachers to teach [and] time for teachers to work with each other to develop new lesson plans and new classroom approaches. We skipped over all of those absolutely essential steps and went right to testing.”

Where To Now

When support for the Obama administration’s Grand Bargain collapsed, and the deficit scolds faded into the shadows, the White House pivoted to the issue of economic inequality.

Now that support for the Common Core is on the wane, the Obama administration and others who claim to be advocates for public schools do themselves and their cause no favor by listening to the standards scolds and taking the hardline on enforcing a policy that would never have led to the progress that was promised in the first place.

What’s needed instead is a pivot to the issue of education inequality, which can only be addressed not by mandating schools reach Common Core Standards, but by ensuring schools have the “Common Core Resources” our children really need.

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