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The Beginning of Common Core's Trouble

5:31 PM, May 29, 2013 • By JAMIE GASS and JIM STERGIOS
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Back in 1998, Connecticut had higher reading scores than Massachusetts. But just as the Bay State was adopting clearly articulated academic goals, Connecticut opted for a "hands-on," skills-based approach. By 2005, Massachusetts's scores had jumped dramatically, and Connecticut was one of seven states experiencing outsized drops in reading scores.

West Virginia’s was perhaps the most enthusiastic embrace of 21st century skills.  As Matthew Ladner, a research scholar at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has demonstrated, its impact on poor students is deeply troubling.  West Virginia is the only state whose NAEP reading and math scores for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch fell between 2003 and 2009.  The major D.C.-based drivers of Common Core and national tests like the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, Achieve, Inc., and the Obama administration all enthusiastically support 21st century skills.

Common Core’s problems, however, extend beyond academic deficiencies.  No estimate was ever performed to determine what it would cost to implement the new standards. In 2011, Pioneer Institute commissioned the first independent, comprehensive cost study, which showed that transitioning states to the new standards will be $16.7 billion, more than triple the amount of the federal Race to the Top inducements. Massive technology upgrades, training and support, together with the purchase of new textbooks and instructional materials, and professional development account for most of the expense.     

Most disturbing are serious questions about Common Core’s legality.  Three federal laws explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from directing, supervising, or controlling any nationalized standards, testing, or curriculum.

And yet Race to the Top favored a state’s grant application if it adopted Common Core.  The U.S. Department of Education subsequently awarded $362 million to directly fund two national testing consortia to develop common nationalized assessments. The consortia funding application clearly state that they will use federal funds to develop curriculum materials and to create a “model curriculum” and instructional materials “aligned with” Common Core.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself noted that the consortia would develop “curriculum frameworks” and “instructional modules.” 

The Department of Education then made adopting Common Core a condition for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions, even though the national standards have never been approved by Congress and are, in fact, expressly prohibited by the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which defined the federal government’s role in K-12 education, the 1970 General Education Provisions Act, and the 1979 law establishing the U.S. Department of Education.

It is worth reminding our friends who call it a conservative policy that Common Core would have been a bridge too far even for President Johnson, who signed the ESEA, and President Carter, who signed the law creating the federal Department of Education.  As syndicated columnist George Will wrote last year about the push for Common Core, “Here again laws are cobwebs. As government becomes bigger, it becomes more lawless.”

The problems with what is now federal policy are not lost on state and local leaders.  In just the past few weeks, Indiana lawmakers agreed to pause implementation of Common Core.  Ditto in Pennsylvania. Michigan’s House of Representatives voted to defund the effort.  And the national standards are under fire in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Nationally, the Republican National Committee recently adopted an anti-Common Core resolution, but opposition is bipartisan.  Many Democrats are troubled that Common Core is not based on research and ignores too much of what we know about how students learn.  American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently told the Washington Post, “Common Core is in trouble … There is a serious backlash in lots of different ways, on the right and on the left.”

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