Neal: Common Core Debate Is Far From Over
by Andrea Neal
The nation’s eyes are on Indiana as it moves to reconsider the Common Core academic standards that are supposed to raise student achievement and standardize what children learn across the country.
The operative word is “supposed.” These national academic standards were adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia with little data to back them and almost no debate. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels and School Superintendent Tony Bennett pushed Indiana’s Board of Education to enact them in August 2010. Since then, questions have arisen about their quality and cost.
House Bill 1427 pauses their implementation and requires the board to conduct a “comprehensive evaluation.” It also sets up a legislative study committee to compare the new standards to the ones that Indiana previously had in place as well as other standards deemed exemplary by experts.
Indiana may prove to be a trendsetter. Lawmakers in at least a dozen states have said they, too, are concerned about the standards.
The concerns fall into three areas:
- Indiana already had well-regarded language-arts and math standards, and it’s not clear that the Common Core standards are an improvement.
- They’re expensive. New standards mean all-new textbooks, instructional materials and standardized achievement tests, at an estimated cost of $3.7 billion nationally.
- There’s no reason to think that national standards will improve student achievement. State standards haven’t done so, even when they have been comprehensive and rigorous.
Defenders of the Common Core are spewing a great deal of hyperbole in their attempt to preserve it.
Writing recently in the Indianapolis Business Journal, David Dresslar made the dubious claim that businesses looking to expand would eliminate Indiana as a potential site if it withdrew from Common Core. Dresslar is executive director of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis.
Dresslar blamed far-right and far-left extremists for the controversy. He said the vast majority of people support these “high-quality global standards” — another arguable conclusion, considering that most people have never seen or read them. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has made similar claims.
A strong case against the standards was made in a recent report by the centrist Brookings Institution, which found that “The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement.”
The report noted that students score about the same on the NAEP test (National Assessment of Educational Progress) regardless of whether they come from states with strong or weak content standards and regardless of race or income. Also, no difference is detected in states with more rigorous expectations for what constitutes a passing score on these tests.
The study goes on to suggest what folks involved in K-12 education already understand. When it comes to student learning, written standards for what should be learned in each subject area are helpful tools. But what really matter are curriculum and its delivery by individual teachers behind classroom doors. Curriculum encompasses all of the books, instructional materials, lectures and learning experiences for which a teacher is responsible.
The Brookings report concluded that the “attained curriculum” will vary from state to state, but it will also vary from teacher to teacher and even between classes taught by the same teacher.
As a middle-school teacher of English and history, I’ve had the chance to review dozens of textbooks and workbooks marketed by publishers as “Common Core aligned.” These new materials are no better than what we have already, except they are more explicitly tied to coming assessments, which will be no better than what we have already.
High-quality instructional materials in the hands of effective teachers are more likely to affect achievement than a rewriting of standards. Education reformers should stop reinventing the wheel and focus their attention on the recruitment, training and retention of excellent teachers for every classroom.
Indiana legislators made a wise move when they decided to pause implementation of the Common Core. Other states will follow.
Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.