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The Common Core Commotion

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Second, and more important, the reforms never seem to work. This makes the need for reform all the more urgent. The country now spends more than $650 billion on primary and secondary education every year, far more than on our national defense, and nearly three times what it spent when Jimmy Carter decided we needed the Department of Education to encourage and guide education spending. Over the last three decades, increases in education funding have outstripped inflation by 20 percent. For many years now the United States has spent more money per-student than any other country in the world.

During that time, from what anybody can figure, there has been no overall improvement in the acquisition of skills and knowledge among American students, except among the very poor. But even at the economic bottom, where room for improvement was greatest, the numbers remain dismal: At present trends, only 9 out of 100 poor children who enter kindergarten today will grow up to hold a college degree. As a whole, the country’s educational attainments rest in the mediocre middle of international rankings—well below Canada, but above Mexico, just like on the map. 

We can assume that if Goals 2000 or NCLB or any of the other reform programs had been effective, the reformers could congratulate themselves for a job well done and go off to find another line of work. They haven’t, which brings us to the third reason that educational reform is an enterprise without end. 

It has to do with the old rule that supply creates its own demand. Over the last two generations, as the problem became unignorable and as vast freshets of money poured from governments and nonprofit foundations, an army of experts emerged to fix America’s schools. From trade unions and think tanks they came, from graduate schools of education and nonprofit foundations, from state education departments and for-profit corporations, from legislative offices and university psych labs and model schools and experimental classrooms, trailing spreadsheets and PowerPoints and grant proposals; they found work as lobbyists, statisticians, developmental psychologists, neurological researchers, education theorists, entrepreneurs, administrators, marketers, think tank fellows, textbook writers—even teachers! So great a mass of specialists cannot be kept idle. If they find themselves with nothing to do, they will find something to do. 

And so, after 40 years of signal failure, the educationists have brought us the Common Core State Standards. It is a totemic example of policy-making in the age of the well-funded expert.


It didn’t take long—three or four years—before the weaknesses of NCLB, our last great reform, became undeniable. Its most daring innovation was to offer large piles of federal money for local schools on two conditions: They had to test their students to prove the kids were learning something, and they had to hold teachers responsible for the test results. In support of this revolutionary approach, and as evidence that this time they really meant it, our nation’s army of educationists introduced a new collection of insta-clichés: transparency, accountability, stakeholders, proficiency, high-stakes .  .  . like so: A school’s proficiency will be transparent when stakeholders are held accountable through high-stakes testing. At the same time, the politicians who approved NCLB were constrained by the American public’s traditional, and reasonable, fear of centralization, particularly from Washington and particularly in the field of education, historically a matter for local authorities. 

Politics and principle thus required that NCLB leave each state free to devise its own standards and tests of how much its students were learning. What happened as a result could surprise only an expert. Many states adjusted—this is a politer word than “rigged”—their tests to make their schools look good enough to keep federal money flowing. Children were declared “proficient” in math and reading skills with which, in truth, they had scarcely a nodding acquaintance. Tennessee’s state tests declared that 87 percent of its fourth graders were “proficient” in math. A more disinterested national test put Tennessee’s figure at 28 percent. In some states a student could score in the bottom 10 percent of test-takers and still be pronounced “proficient” in math or reading. Meanwhile, teachers’ unions denounced evaluations that held their members responsible for the mess, leaving NCLB with no mechanism to clean it up. NCLB didn’t invent America’s many illiterate high schoolers, but it didn’t catch them either.

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