Common Core Briefing Memo – June

To:  Members of the Roundtable
From:  James Harvey, Executive Director
Subject: The Common Core
Date:  June 17, 2013
It’s not impossible to find parallels to the scale of change that implementation of the Common Core is likely to bring to American education, but the national models are few and far between. Legislatively, enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson comes to mind. So does Public Law 94-142 (signed into law by President Gerald Ford) providing education as a civil right for students with disabilities. Judicially, Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) and Lau v. Nichols (1974) transformed American schools. But unlike each of those, the Common Core State Standards were developed not by legislators or courts, but by governors and state superintendents, acting through their national associations with the quiet support of the business community and the U.S. Department of Education. In fact, this coalition is on the verge of pulling off something that the administration of the first President George Bush (under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Diane Ravitch) could not achieve: the adoption of a set of educational standards that will be common across the various states.

What this Common Core approach has in common with those earlier efforts (including standard-setting) is that it has set off wide range of polemical political attacks. To hear critics from the Right and the Left, says PBS newsman John Merrow, one would think the world is about to come to an end. The Common Core is a “plot … that is dangerous to our liberty and prosperity,” according to Senator Rand Paul (R.-Ky.). “An attempt … to circumvent … the constitutionally enshrined principle of state-level control of education,” reports the conservative National Review. From the Left, the “tests associated with the Common Core are likely to renew the false indictment of our public schools,” predicts blogger Anthony Cody. And Diane Ravitch complains that the standards “are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools.”

In the Spring of 2013, the tenor of the discussion changed noticeably. A coalition of education associations (Learning First Alliance), each of which was on record largely in support of the Common Core — the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators, associations representing principals, parents, and local school board members — objected to the contemplated speed with which the assessments associated with the Common Core were to be implemented (apparently starting in 2014). Insisting that they supported the Common Core and accountability. These associations demanded a moratorium of at least a year before the high stakes associated with these assessments kicked into gear. In consequence, although the July 2013 meeting of the Roundtable was planned months ago in the expectation that the Common Core and its assessments would be implemented on schedule, it now looks more likely that the Common Core itself will be implemented as planned, with the implementation of the assessment schedule adjusted in some way to respond to practitioner concerns.


If governors and state agency heads try to impose a quick solution on 106,000 schools with some 2.5 million reluctant teachers, it is hard to imagine how that will get off to a good start or end well.

CCSSO and NGA can of course press ahead. But if governors and state agency heads try to impose a quick solution on 106,000 schools with some 2.5 million reluctant teachers, it is hard to imagine how that will get off to a good start or end well.

Drawing on contributions to The Superintendent’s Fieldbook, this memo starts by making the case for Common Core State

Standards (as outlined by its creators), then explores a Brookings Institution analysis that concludes standards won’t make a dime’s worth of difference, before turning to local educators’ concerns about the assessments associated the Common Core.

The remainder of the briefing book includes readings that should be helpful to school district administrators and teachers, including a detailed FAQ prepared by CCSSO and NGA, a guide to resources for the Common Core, the statement from the Learning First Alliance suggesting a moratorium on Common Core high-stakes testing along with the rejoinder from CCSSO, a detailed look at the time, effort, and resources being poured into getting ready for the Common Core by school leaders in Washington, D.C. and John Merrow’s insightful analysis of the sturm und drang of this new development.

The Common Core State Standards

Within the educational policy community, there is a lot of excitement about the promise of the Common Core State Standards for improving education across the United States. The section that follows outlines the hopes animating those developing the standards, a cautionary note about the difficulty of implementing standards from a prominent educational think tank, and the anxieties of many local educators about what they will mean in practice. Included in the issues pointed to by the Learning First Alliance in the attached materials are survey results from the American Association of School Administrators indicating that large proportions of superintendents feel preparation for implementation of the standards is inadequate in terms of funding (74%), professional development (57%), and declining state leadership and support (about 33%). Plans for the Common Core’s on-line assessment draw especially bleak marks, with nearly 60% of responding superintendents reporting their states are not ready to implement these assessments and less than 10% agreeing that schools in their state are fully ready to implement these assessments in terms of either funding or bandwidth capacity.

1. The Case for the Common Core

As the Brookings Institution noted in 2010, “Unlike most countries, the United States does not have national education standards, no single set of expectations for what all American teachers should teach and all American students should learn. It never has. A question that the rest of the world considers foundational to its national school systems—deciding the content of the curriculum—sits in the hands of local authorities.”

Local control has extended far deeper than local school districts. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige reported that one reason he insisted on a common curriculum in English and language arts when he was Houston schools’ superintendent was that he discovered several dozen different reading curricula in place in the district’s elementary schools. Students transferring within the district ran the risk of missing critical elements of reading instruction or repeating work they had already covered. In fact, as the 2010 Brookings account concluded: “Even students transferring from one teacher to another within the same school may . . . learn a different curriculum than their former classmates.”

Efforts to establish national curriculum guidelines in the administration of President George H.W. Bush met with disastrous political results. Led by Diane Ravitch, Bush’s assistant secretary in charge of the Office of Educational Research and Information (now the Institute for Education Sciences), the effort built on an attempt to develop a national curriculum in mathematics championed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The federal standards initiative funded professional associations and consortia of teachers and scholars to develop national standards in history, English language arts, science, civics, economics, the arts, foreign languages, geography, and physical education. But, it collapsed in 1994 when Lynne V. Cheney, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, attacked the developing history standards (which had not been released) as models of political correctness because they paid too much attention to the nation’s historic failings and not enough to the nation’s great men (or great women). In the ensuing uproar, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh said the standards should be “flushed down the toilet.”

So, when the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) announced a new effort to develop Common Core State Standards in mathematics and reading during the second term of the George W. Bush administration, it was something of an historical event. As the Brookings Institution notes, the “Common Core Standards project brought together experts in both reading and math to develop a set of standards that would be, in what became a mantra, both ‘higher and fewer in number’ than existing state standards. The standards are voluntary—states choose whether to participate—but for the first time most American students will study a uniform curriculum through at least the eighth grade.” (These are defined as Common Core State Standards, not federal standards, although they have the effect of being national. There’s something disingenuous about that because federal leaders from both parties have encouraged the effort and the Obama administration put several hundred million dollars behind the development of assessments to validate the standards.)

The Common Core State Standards were developed very quickly. A draft of the experts’ recommendations circulated for a few months, and the standards were announced in 2010. In September of that year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded grants totaling $330 million to two consortia to develop annual assessments aligned with the Common Core standards. As of August 2012, 45 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the standards. Plans call for the assessments to be administered for the first time in the 2014–2015 school year.

Supporters of the Common Core State Standards view them as providing a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn so that teachers and parents can know what they need to do to help students. The standards are intended to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, supporters say, communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

The standards are said to have been built on the highest-quality models from states across the country and from countries around the world, according to CCSSO and NGA. They should provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards are intended to provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.

The standards, in both mathematics and English and language arts, define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K–12 education careers so that they will graduate from high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. Courses in other subjects may be available in time, but as of early 2013, only two curriculum areas have been targeted. The standards are intended to be:

aligned with college and work expectations;

clear, understandable, and consistent;

rigorous and require application of knowledge through high-order skills;

built upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;

informed by other top-performing countries; and

evidence based.

Implementation is a state function and is likely to roll out through the next several years. Implementation obviously implies development of curriculum (and materials and textbooks) to make the standards real, along with assessments to judge whether the standards make any difference.

2. A Think Tank Examines the Common Core

A major source of information on education policy in the United States is the Brown Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. As it is not responsible for supporting or creating initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards Project, the Brown Center feels no need to act as a cheerleader for any of these initiatives. On the contrary, it feels free to look at all of these efforts objectively, calling the shots as it sees them.

Supporters of the Common Core State Standards, therefore, need to take into consideration an analysis from the Brown Center at the Brookings Institution. The Center’s Tom Loveless concluded that these standards would not make much difference in American classrooms (or on student performance). Loveless examined the major arguments in support of the Common Core standards and was unimpressed by what he saw:

Several prominent critics have examined the Common Core standards and, comparing them to state and international standards, concluded the they do not represent much of an improvement. The math standards, in particular, seem to be inferior to existing standards in Massachusetts and California.

An unusual coalition of educators, conservatives, libertarians, and small-government advocates issued a manifesto denouncing federal support for the assessment effort, worrying that it would lead to “a one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K–12 subject . . . [that] threatens to close the door on educational innovation, freezing in place an unacceptable status quo and hindering efforts to develop academically rigorous curricula, assessments, and standards that meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

There is no evidence to support the claim that high-quality standards promote academic achievement, reports Loveless. Prior research shows little correlation between ratings for the quality of state standards and state NAEP scores. Higher performance standards don’t produce higher performance: States with high, more-rigorous cut points for proficiency do not have stronger NAEP scores than states with lower cut points.

Would common standards reduce variation in attainment? Probably not, concludes Loveless. While it might reduce between-state variation, most variation exists within states, and if standards alone were up to the task, existing state standards should have eliminated those variations. “It is highly unlikely,” he concludes, that Common Core State Standards introduced in 2014 will reduce variation within California any more effectively than the existing California standards, which have had 50 years to do so, with little effect.

Standards are aspirational, reports Loveless. “[L]ike a strict diet or prudent plan to save money for the future, they represent good intentions that are not often realized.”

The problem is that curriculum can be understood as intended, implemented, and achieved. Standards define the intended curriculum. The implemented curriculum, on the other hand, is what teachers actually teach. The achieved curriculum is what students learn.


Like a strict diet or prudent plan to save money for the future, [standards] represent good intentions that are not often realized.

“The Common Core State Standards sit on top of a system teeming with variation in terms of the implemented and achieved curriculum,” says Loveless, and “will probably fail to dramatically affect what goes on in the thousands of districts and tens of thousands of schools that they seek to influence.”

“Don’t let the ferocity of the oncoming debate fool you,” he concludes. “The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.”

3. Local Educators Look at the Common Core

Here’s an imaginary conversation about the Common Core State Standards between two experienced educators—one a district superintendent, the other a high school English teacher in Easton-Redding District 9 in Connecticut.

Bernard Josefsberg, Superintendent

I have to say that, when you look at public perceptions of education, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the Common Core State Standards. I recently heard a keynote presentation from a distinguished professor repeating the lamentable tale of American results on international tests—“below the international average and well below that of the top achieving countries.”

            Both the illness and the remedy were familiar and disquieting. Even more disquieting was the professor’s fervor for the Common Core (and accompanying Next Generation testing.) However much our current educational condition may be incoherent, flaccid, and gauzy, to that degree will the Common Core and accompanying testing reverse it all. I am more than a little skeptical.

Jonathan Budd, English Teacher

The implication of the Common Core is that: (1) standards don’t currently exist, (2) standards do exist but are inadequate, or (3) adequate standards exist but are locally contingent. A lot of this is expressed as, “The Algebra you learn in Mississippi shouldn’t be different from the Algebra in Connecticut or Oregon.” Regardless of the argument the Common Core presents an opportunity to refocus our energies, to accept implicit and explicit critique, and to tell our stories of what we do well and why and what we can do better and how.

Bernard Josefsberg

I’m all for burnishing our public image, but as a matter of educational leadership, I’d rather do so through exceptional educational experiences that lead students to learning rather than by continuing the beatings until morale improves.

This work is very difficult. It can’t be achieved through policy fiat. I worry that, in the frenzy to respond, we will cut adrift many of our most challenged students because shallow thinking that demands more rigor, more competition, and more naming and shaming of teachers will ignore the need for more depth, more deep thinking, and the human capacity to step back from ourselves and laugh at our own foolishness. I’m worried that we’re being set up for a fan dance in which cheap tests hide behind fans labeled Common Core State Standards. Allan Luke’s 2011 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Distinguished Lecture drew attention to the entanglement of government, foundations, and test-producing conglomerates:

We are pushed to take on the new common sense of accountability through narrow metrics and through standards that do not always do justice to what is educationally sound and culturally meaningful. There is a silencing process that goes on. . . . [T]he normative, the ethical, the cultural—matters of value—have quietly slipped from policy discussion . . . overridden by a focus on the measurable, the countable, and what can be said to be cost-efficient and quality assured.

We get a lot of hand waving and assurances about high-quality assessments, but I’m not sure we get the real thing. Slapping a BMW ornament on a Honda doesn’t make it a BMW, any more than slapping a 21st-century-skills label on existing assessment items make them worthy of the name. I agree with Linda Darling-Hammond and Ray Pecheone that “an assessment system that promotes high-quality learning” should be tightly integrated with standards, curriculum, and teacher development—and it should also be developed in partnership with teachers and use multiple measures to evaluate students. If we could be assured the Common Core assessments met those criteria, I’d join the crowd beating the drum for them.

As local educators, we function as the medium through which political authority and moneyed interests work their will. Were that will undeniably beneficial to our students’ life chances and educational needs, then I would be the first to encourage us to do our part. But, I’m not sure that will is beneficial. Wordsworth’s lament about the materialism of the Industrial Age comes to mind:

The world is too much with us; late and soon

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

What will it profit us as a nation if we busy ourselves with aligning and assessing. in the process laying waste our powers as educators, giving away our instructional hearts in a sordid deal that confuses first-rate standards with third-rate assessments?


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