Peter Greene: Common Core Was Always Doomed. Five Principles (At Least) That Joe Biden Can Learn From The Core’s Failure.
Tom Loveless wrote what may be the definitive analysis of Common Core’s failure to deliver what it promised. If only future administrations would listen.
Tom Loveless has long been a clear-eyed incisive critic of the Common Core State Standards. A year ago, he wrote
In short, the evidence suggests student achievement is, at best, about where it would have been if Common Core had never been adopted, if the billions of dollars spent on implementation had never been spent, if the countless hours of professional development inducing teachers to retool their lessons had never been imposed. When will time be up on the Common Core experiment? How many more years must pass, how much more should Americans spend, and how many more effective curricula must be pushed aside before leaders conclude that Common Core has failed?
Now Loveless has published a definitive autopsy of the failed policy initiative, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding the Failure of Common Core, and the Biden administration would do well to consult the educational coroner’s report before launching their next big education initiative.
Loveless sets the stage with a look back at the history of the drive for education standards. While he’s exceptionally even-handed here, the progression points to some of the earliest missteps of the Core creators. For example, previous standardization attempts were slow and ungainly because so many different stakeholders with so many different concerns bogged down the process. The Common Core solution? Just don’t let all those people in the room.
Loveless takes an unflinching, detailed look at the research about Common Core’s results and concludes as he did previously that the Core accomplished nothing. In this, Loveless is generous; while he says there are no major negative effects of the Core, opponents would argue that’s because nobody has been measuring in the right place to see, for instance, what losses in learning have occurred in subject areas outside of math and reading. However, having declared the Core a failure by its own aims, Loveless works on the question of why.
One problem is a raft of unproven assumptions. For example, the Core creators assumed that more non-fiction reading was needed in schools and that higher cognitive demand would increase math learning; there’s no real basis for either of those beliefs. Loveless also looks at the unwarranted assumption that if a textbook is aligned to the standards, it must be a good textbook.
Another problem is the layers through which the Core had to travel. Loveless says, “Standards are aspirational documents; they look quite different than authors intend when realized in schools and classrooms.” Top-down policy results in a game of telephone, in which each layer transmits a slightly different version of the original idea, transformed by both problems in communication as well as the beliefs of the people in the communication chain.
The inflexibility of Common Core only made that problem worse. The Core arrived with a stern admonition that not a dot or tittle was to be changed (states could add no more than 15% to the standards). There was (and is) no mechanism in place for review and modification. So over the past decade, it has been up to local school districts and, especially, classroom teachers, to modify and rework the standards to fit the classroom.
There is a fundamental problem with top-down, federally-mandated standards. From a thousand miles up, policy makers look down at Earth and say, “Why is everyone moving around in such chaotic, messy paths? Let’s mandate traffic patterns that get everyone moving along nice straight paths that make nice neat squares!” Meanwhile, down on the ground, the people are navigating around potholes, hills and valleys, other drivers, and reacting to every situation that may suddenly emerge. Federal education policy has long favored people who are good at dealing with the thousand-mile-up view; this is why teachers so often long for someone in DC who is a real teacher, who actually understands what it’s like to navigate on the ground. (If you want to examine this concept further, read Seeing Like A State.)
Loveless gets that Common Core has been whittled apart by teachers on the ground, doing what they need to do to navigate on the earth and help their students. He does miss that one of the potholes they navigate around is the Big Standardized Test; classroom teachers learned immediately that the only part of Common Core that actually “matters” is the part that will purportedly be on the test. One more pitfall of trying to implement top-down standardized reform is the attempt to measure success.
Loveless ends with five recommendations, principles for future policy, and each is worth printing on a huge poster and hanging on the walls of the Department of Education.
Principle 1: Scrap Standards-based Reform.
“The idea of standards-based reform should be abandoned,” Loveless says bluntly. “It doesn’t work.” It’s not that high standards are bad, but attempting to impose them from outside is suspect. “Standards imposed by policy are a poor substitute for the expectations of adults conveyed through real human relationships with children.”
Principle 2: Standards Must Be Flexible
Standards must evolve. People change. Relationships change. Circumstances change. And what Loveless really argues for here is that teachers, the “street-level bureaucrats” of the education system, must have the freedom to be flexible in response to student needs.
Principle 3: Evaluate Assessment and Accountability Systems
Accountability has to be parted of the landscape. Just make sure you’re measuring something worth measuring, and that your expectations are realistic (and, it should be added) that your penalties are realistic and reasonable as well.
Principle 4: Make Teaching Easier and More Effective
When Common Core arrived, it often carried with it the assumption that teachers were the problem. Instead of offering to help teachers do the work, Core-based reforms piled on imposed “fixes.” The Core also followed a fine old tradition of folks coming to classroom teachers to say, “Here’s something that will be really useful, if you just change everything about how you work.” In short, the Core approach was to look for ways to bend teachers to the standards, and not to look for ways that the Core could help teachers do the work.
Principle 5: Future Research Should Focus on the Technical Side of Schooling
Imagine, Loveless suggests, if instead of pouring a gazillion dollars into pushing the Core, edu-philanthropists had poured millions of dollars into research to look for better ways to teach and higher-quality curriculum. Imagine if researchers had gone to teachers and asked, “What technical parts of instruction could you use help with?” In other words (and Loveless is not this blunt) instead of putting all their muscle into imposing policies in which they have unwarranted faith, philanthropists and feds threw their muscle into finding real answers to teachers’ real questions.
Between the State and the Schoolhouse doesn’t have all the answers, and most readers will find they disagree with Loveless on one point or another. But it is a good distillation of what happened, what didn’t happen, and what federal policy makers could learn from the whole expensive failure. It is troubling that Joe Biden has never owned up to the failures of the Obama administration when it comes to education, and Common Core sits high on that list. Here’s hoping that more than a few people in his administration read this book before they start the next round of grand education experiments.