I’m glad US News and World Report is covering issues related to Common Core implementation rather than pushing the endless back and forth between supporters and opponents that most mainstream news outlets have been publishing for the last six months.
I thought they had shot the moon yesterday when I read the headline “Most States Not Ready for Common Core Standards.” Here at AEI, we’ve been arguing for a while now that states have not done much of the legwork necessary to make the standards work — perhaps this article would take that standard and run with it.
Alas, it did not. The story reports on a new analysis by the Education Trust that uses state-level NAEP data to show that there is wide discrepancy in student performance across states. The argument made in that report, and the story that covered it, is that states are not “ready” for the Common Core because many students are so far below the college and career readiness threshold the standards set.
That is not why states are not ready.
States are not ready because they are still figuring out how to integrate new accountability exams into their current teacher and school evaluations systems. States are not ready because they have not figured out what textbooks and instructional materials to use and have no idea how to vet the mountain of products being offered to them. States are not ready because their colleges of education and professional development resources are not yet up to speed to train teachers on how to actually teach the new standards.
If we continue to ignore these (and other) potential implementation pitfalls, the Common Core runs the risk of doing more harm than good.
On that note, I penned an US News and World Report article last week in which I noted:
Implementation is not fun to talk about, but the Common Core standards will undergird everything in the education system. Even if they are educationally sound, not implementing them with care could do more harm to children’s education than good.
In response to that article, Marc Tucker, CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, wrote the following comment:
The premise of this piece makes no sense to me. McShane says at the end that failing to implement the Common Core with care could do more harm than good. Sure. But the examples he cites do not prove his point. If a few states fail to appropriate the funds needed to implement the standards, that will deprive the students in that state from benefiting from the standards, but how does it harm others? It is true that every provider of instructional materials will claim that their product is aligned with the Common Core and most will not be. But how will that be different from what happens now, without these standards? Sure I would prefer that instructional materials used by schools be aligned with the standards, but it is hardly clear that the world is worse off with good standards and non-aligned materials than it was with poor standards and non-aligned materials. Sure, schools of education will do a poor job of preparing teachers to teach well to the new standards, but how is that worse than being poorly prepared to teach lousy standards? I have argued elsewhere that poor implementation will mean that our legitimate hopes for the standards will not be reached. But it makes little sense to me to argue that poor implementation will lead us to a world in which we would be better off without the Common Core standards. The fact remains that the Common Core standards are essential to widespread higher achievement for American students, but they are not sufficient by themselves to bring about that outcome.
Unfortunately, he too misses the point. For three reasons:
1. The Common Core is not free. New instructional materials, new PD, technology upgrades, new assessments, all of this is going to cost billions of tax dollars. If those tax dollars would have been better spent on programs that don’t fizzle out in implementation, then the world would be better off without Common Core. Moreover, state leaders are making the tough choice to fund this stuff even as they recover from the great recession and their public sector pension and Medicaid obligations continue to rise. Is this how we repay them?
2. The standards do not exist in isolation. If they fall, there will be collateral damage. Just look at the recent kerfuffle over testing moratoria. The standards were being implemented in states without care for the fact that the tests that undergird teacher evaluation systems were going to be aligned to them before it was clear that instruction and professional development would be. The unions argued, actually quite reasonably, that this was unfair and counterproductive, and the Obama administration offered “waiver waivers” to allow states to push back tying stakes to the tests. Groups like Chiefs for Change and TNTP came out strongly against this change of plans, and for good reason. This is a huge blow to the accountability movement. Inertia rules in policy and restarting these systems after the pause is going be a herculean task for a reform-minded state or district leader. If you think accountability policy is a positive force for schools and the Common Core derails it, again, it would be better to not have had the Common Core in the first place.
3. Spinning wheels hurt reform. Tucker’s blithe dismissal of the costs of implementation is the exact wrongheaded thinking that my colleague Rick Hess addressed in his landmark book Spinning Wheels. At the time that book was written, people thought that states and districts failed because they didn’t reform, that interest group politics or lack of urgency stymied action. Rick found the exact opposite. It turns out, states and districts are reforming all the time, but this constant trotting out of promising new programs that fall apart in implementation mires districts in what he termed “policy churn,” wasting the resources allocated to all of these new programs, the political capital needed to pass future reforms, and the time and energy of the teachers and principals tasked with implementing them.
Tucker appears to have zero concern for these issues. If the Common Core just gets added to the pile of failed programs, it will hurt future school improvement efforts.
Anyone in a twelve–step program will tell you that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. If we cannot name the problem (as was the case in the USNWR article) or cannot admit that it is a problem (the Tucker comment), we’re in trouble.