When President Obama unveiled his Race to the Top initiative in 2009, the idea was to award $4.35 billion in federal grant money to states to replicate policies that boosted student achievement. That quickly changed and the federal money was instead used to persuade states to adopt administration-backed nationalized K-12 English and math standards and tests. By last year, most states had adopted the standards, known as Common Core, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the United States would join countries like France in having a uniform curriculum.
But what a difference a year makes. Today, a full-blown epidemic of buyer’s remorse has taken hold. Popular resistance is rampant and bills to pull out of Common Core are making their way through multiple state legislatures.
Had the Obama administration been interested in policies with a proven record of improving students’ academic performance, it would have looked to Massachusetts. In the early 1990s, Massachusetts was an above average but unremarkable performer on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and SATs. After enactment of the Bay State’s landmark 1993 education reform law, SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years. In 2005, Massachusetts students became the first state ever to score best in the nation in all four categories on the NAEP’s fourth and eighth grade reading and math assessments. The next three times the tests were administered—in 2007, 2009, and 2010—this feat was repeated.
While American students as a whole lag their international peers, the 2007 “Trends in International Math and Science Study” showed Massachusetts students to be competitive with top-performing nations like Japan, Korea, and Singapore. With the Bay State’s eighth graders tying for first in the world in science, it could truly be said to be one of the few states to have answered the alarm bell of the Reagan administration’s 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report, which declared that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.”
Other states, such as Florida, claim to have developed reform models that work. But while they have shown good (though inconsistent) improvement, their performance remains below average on national tests and downright dismal on international assessments.
Given this record, you might expect strong commonality between what Massachusetts did and what the U.S. Department of Education was trying to advance. But it would be hard to imagine an approach that has less in common with the Bay State’s than the one promoted by Race to the Top.
The most obvious difference is that Massachusetts’s success was built upon a relentless focus on academics, specifically on literacy, math, and the liberal arts. Common Core emphasizes experiential, skills-based learning while reducing the amount of classic literature, poetry, and drama taught in English classes. Its more vocational bent includes far greater emphasis on jargon-laden “informational text” extracts, and it supports analyzing texts shorn of historical context and background knowledge.
The impact on English classrooms in Massachusetts, which adopted Common Core in 2010, has been to reduce the amount of classical literature studied by more than half. Goodbye Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
In math, consider the view of Stanford University emeritus professor of mathematics James Milgram, the only academic mathematician on Common Core’s validation committee. (He refused to sign off on the final draft of the national standards.) He describes the standards as having “extremely serious failings,” reflecting “very low expectations,” and ultimately leaving American students one year behind their international peers by fifth grade and two years behind by seventh grade.
One major practical effect is that American students will not get to algebra I in eighth grade, which is critical if our students are to be college-ready in mathematics.
Rather than learn from leading states like Massachusetts, Common Core draws from the so-called “21st century skills” movement, which elevates soft skills like global awareness, media literacy, cross-cultural flexibility and adaptability, and creativity to equal footing with academic content. This less academic approach has, in fact, been road tested in places like Connecticut and West Virginia. Predictably, the results have been dismal.
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.”
The backlash is richly deserved. The Common Core standards are academically inferior to the standards they replaced in high performing states; and they ignore empirical lessons of how states like Massachusetts achieved historic successes. Neither local leaders nor their constituents like having policies force fed by Washington, especially when the new requirements amount to a massive, and possibly illegal, unfunded mandate. Common Core’s troubles are just beginning.
Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute. Jamie Gass is director of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform.