Common Core Standards (U.S.)
- Patrick ShannonPatrick ShannonPenn State University
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are part of a third wave of school reform in the United States. With accompanying tests, these standards combine calls for increased academic rigor, beginning in the 1980s, with more recent efforts to hold schools, teachers, and students accountable for learning outcomes in publicly funded schools. Origins of CCSS can be traced to the 1996 National Education Summit where the National Governors Association (NGA), philanthropic foundations, and business leaders founded Achieve to broker rigorous high school graduation requirements. In 2009, Achieve became the project manager for the construction of CCSS. In 2010, implementation began with incentives from the Obama administration and funding from the Gates Foundation.
Advocates choose among a variety of rationales: faltering American economic competitiveness, wide variability among state standards and educational outcomes, highly mobile student populations, and/or a growing income achievement gap. Critics cite federal intrusion in states’ rights, a lack of an evidentiary base, an autocratic process of CCSS production, and/or a mis-framing of problems facing public schools. With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, federal advocacy of CCSS ended officially.
During the 2010 National Governors Association (NGA) meeting in Washington, DC, President Obama offered an official rationale for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS):
[Asian nations] want their kids to excel because they understand that whichever country out-educates the other is going to out-compete us in the future. So that’s what we’re up against. That’s what’s at stake—nothing less than our primacy in the world . . .. And I want to commend all of you for acting collectively through NGA to develop common academic standards that will better position our students for success.
A year earlier at the 2009 National Conference of State Legislatures in Philadelphia, Bill Gates explained how the CCSS would do that work:
Identifying common standards is just the starting point. We’ll only know if this effort has succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests—next generation assessment aligned with the common core. When the tests are aligned with the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well, and it will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large uniform base of customers looking at using products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.
With these statements, two powerful voices on American public education presented the promise and the perils of the CCSS. At once, they were the consensus tool to raise the human, social, and information capital of all American students, increasing students’ productive potential, and thus, enabling the nation to compete successfully in the global innovation economy. And CCSS would create national markets, coordinating curricula, pedagogies, and assessments in each school district across the country, focusing all on continuous improvement. In this way, CCSS was a neoliberal moment in America’s national school reform movement that stretched across the second half of the 20th century (from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the National Defense Act of 1958, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and into the 21st (to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) and the Race to the Top initiative of 2009).
In this way, CCSS can be understood as the partial achievement of the goals of the A nation at risk report (1983) that called for state officials to “adopt more rigorous and measurable standards” and develop more robust curricula within all disciplines. During President Reagan’s second term, Secretary of Education William Bennett published James Madison High School: A Curriculum for American Students (1987) and James Madison Elementary School (1988) to provide curricular templates of a common national curriculum. Standing before members of the NGA, philanthropic organizations, and large corporations in 1991, President George H. W. Bush announced the America 2000 policy initiative, through which the federal government would “define new world-class standards for schools, teachers[,] and students in the five core subjects: math and science, English, history, and geography . . . [and] develop voluntary national tests for fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders in the five core subjects” (1991).
Although prohibited by law from imposing curricula, standards, or assessment on states, the federal education officials campaigned vigorously for what Bush’s Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander called a “nine year crusade” (1991) through “a series of truly radical incentives” (1993). His department mailed the pamphlet World Class Standards for American Education (1992) to every school and sent its officials to champion national standards to business, educational, and civic organizations. After arts, civics, and foreign languages were added to the original list, President Bush awarded $10 million in federal contracts to seven scholarly and professional organizations to develop the academic standards (mathematics standards had already been completed). His 1993 budget proposed over $500 million to fund 535 “break-the-mold” schools to serve as models of standards-based schooling (one in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts and two more in each state to represent its senators). The 1992 Republican Election Platform endorsed the national standards and the federal incentives.
Many Democrats challenged the federal shift from an emphasis on equity to one that prioritized excellence. Democrats blocked Congressional funding (forcing the Bush administration to use discretionary funds) and worked through the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing to recommend both national content and opportunity-to-learn (OTL) standards that provided for rigorous academics and required resources to ensure broad distribution of educational benefits among different classes and racial groups. The prospect of litigation based on OTL standards drove governors of both parties to desert “the crusade,” and America 2000 legislation died in the Senate in 1992 (Whitman, 2015). Efforts to provide scholarly, professional national standards ended with the firing of the English language arts consortium for “lack of progress” (McCollum, 1995) and the Senate’s condemnation of the proposed history standards as “politically correct to a fare-thee-well” (Cheney, 1994).
With Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1993), the Clinton administration sought to coordinate states’ efforts to develop world-class content standards and assessments as well as oversee their plans to provide for students’ opportunity to learn. Toward that end, Clinton appointed a National Education Standards and Improvement Council to establish criteria for content standards and OTL plans and to set procedures by which federal authorities would evaluate each state’s submissions. In 1994, Republicans won the midterm election and dissolved the Council. Clinton’s unsuccessful proposal to reauthorize the ESEA on schedule (1997) included many of the provisions that President George W. Bush included later in the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind reauthorization (2002). Federal officials would certify the rigor of states’: content standards in reading and mathematics; tests at the end of each grade from 3rd through 8th and once in high school in order to provide data to ensure that all groups were being served; schedules of students’ annual progress toward 100% proficiency by a designated date (Clinton proposed 10 years and Bush 12); and provisions to intervene if schools failed continually to make targeted progress. Although all states accepted No Child Left Behind in exchange for continued ESEA federal funding, none reached their expected proficiency goals.
At the 1996 National Education Summit, representatives of the NGA, philanthropic foundations, and businesses established Achieve, a nongovernmental organization, to broker support for the development of rigorous state academic standards without federal assistance (Applebome, 1996). Funded generously by the Battelle, Gates, Cisco, GE, Lumina, J. P. Morgan, and Hewlett Foundations and the Boeing, IBM, and State Farm corporations, Achieve was “to measure and report each state’s annual progress in setting standards, improving the quality of teaching, incorporating technology, supporting innovation, and improving student achievement” (National Education Summit Policy Statement, 1996). Achieve was systematic in building a case for, and then producing, common standards.
1998—Began to evaluate standards and assessments comparing and contrasting states’ efforts against business and international standards (Academic Standards and Assessment Benchmarking Project, 1998).
2001—Partnered with the Education Trust, the Thomas Fordham Institute, and the National Alliance of Business to define common sets of English language arts and mathematics knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college or the workplace (Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts, 2004).
2005—Established the American Diploma Project Network, beginning with a bipartisan group of 13 state governors (eventually 35) to write state standards to meet or exceed the common sets published in Ready or Not.
2006—Began to annually publish Closing the Expectations Gap (though 2012), reporting states’ progress toward the Network’s goals.
2008—Declared “a remarkable degree of consistency in English and mathematics requirements” among the states for high school graduation (Out of Many, One, 2008). Partnered with the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to publish Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring that U.S. Students Receive a World Class Education (2008), pledging to “upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K–12 . . .” (p. 24) and to “hold schools and systems accountable through monitoring, interventions and support to ensure consistently high performance . . .” (p. 30).
2009—Became the project manager for NGA and CCSSO efforts to produce “practical evidence based support for teachers and school leaders” (www.ahievethecore.org/about/us).
It sub-contracted the writing of those standards to Student Achievement Partners (SAP), a two-year-old company producing “evidence-based materials to improve student achievement.”
Working from the Achieve template for career and college ready skills and knowledge, SAP produced those standards within 12 months (June 2009 to June 2, 2010). According to the blue ribbon Common Core State Standards Validation Committee (2010), their product exceeded the principles the NGA and CCSSO set for standards development. “Unlike past standards-setting efforts, the Common Core State Standards are based on best practices in national and international education, as well as research and input from numerous sources” (p. 4).
2010—Assumed the project management for the development of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the two federally funded national examinations expected to replace existing state examinations by 2014.
2011—Became project manager for the writing phase of the Next Generation Science Standards K–12, working from the Framework for K–12 Science Education that the 18-expert-member sub-committee of the National Research Council (NRC) released that year. Achieve and NRC are explicit that the science standards are not part of CCSS.
CCSS are meant to provide evidenced-based, clear, and benchmarked statements about what students should be able to do in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level from kindergarten through high school graduation. These statements specify neither curricular content nor instructional practices; rather, they are intended to shift the emphasis of classwork from basic skills toward more rigorous content and higher-order thinking through six shifts in both subject areas. In English language arts, teachers are expected to balance the proportion of informational and literary texts in order to represent reading and writing demands for all academic disciplines, to use text more purposefully to develop world knowledge, to provide a “staircase of complexity” among the texts students read across grade levels, to encourage students to rely intentionally on textual evidence in support of their arguments, and to engage academic vocabulary more explicitly in oral and written texts. SAP cofounder and English language arts (ELA) standards architect David Coleman employed the metaphors “reading like a detective and writing like an investigative reporter” to capture the nature of these shifts (EngageNY, 2012).
In mathematics, the changes are intended to ensure that high school graduates have conceptual understandings sufficient to enable them to solve increasingly sophisticated unstructured problems efficiently and creatively. Toward that end, teachers are expected to support each student as he or she works through coherent sequences of mathematical concepts from kindergarten through high school, following the sequence shown to be the best predictor of success in college—basic operations with positive and negative numbers, fractions, and then, algebra. Teachers are to focus on these concepts, working simultaneously toward students’ fluency in operations and a deep understanding of the concepts involved. Speed and accuracy of calculations are to remain important, but no more so than students’ abilities to explain why an operation is most appropriate for a particular situation. That is, “They learn more than the trick to get the answer right. They learn the math” (EngageNY, 2012).
Given the failure of America 2000 to produce rigorous uniform standards and the gradual realization that existing academic standards would not enable all students to reach proficiency before graduation, advocates for CCSS began to garner support long before their release. “A key aspect of the process is the participation of more than 25 organizations in promoting and implementing the Common Core . . .” (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2013, p. 488). Achieve’s coalition of 13 state governors within the American Diploma Project Network provided “a college and career ready” hypothesis to address a variety of arguments about why and how CCSS schools could be the solution to the problem of America’s economic decline. Coalition members argued that common standards (developed from common rigorous graduation requirements) would raise levels of human capital, spread benefits more evenly across states and social groups, and accommodate the children of a mobile workforce. Using these hypotheses, the NGA and CCSSO brokered a broader network among foundations (e.g., Gates, GE, and Hewlett), national educational associations (e.g., National Education Association, Council of State Governments, and National Parent Teacher Association), and interest groups (e.g., Chamber of Commerce, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)).
Members of these groups stumped for the concept of common standards before 2009, during the year of development, and after the release of CCSS. They invested their organizations’ time, energy, and reputations in order to articulate the benefits of common standards and testing for the country, industry, states, disadvantaged groups, and all individuals. Anticipating resistance, they listened to and attempted to assuage state officials’, interest groups’, and community members’ concerns, tailoring their message accordingly. “We picked and chose evidence depending on the audience” (as quoted in McDonnell & Weatherford, 2013, p. 491). In order to keep all parties engaged, Achieve established forums for consultation and feedback loops throughout the development and implementation phases, circulating concepts and drafts of the ELA and mathematics standards among expert organizations, state officials, and local civic and educational groups. From the inception of CCSS, the network worked explicitly to keep the processes separate from federal intervention, campaigning for state adoption and full implementation by 2014. Behind the scenes, but not out of the public eye, philanthropic foundations supplied the bulk of the network’s funding (Kornhaber, Barkauskas, & Griffith, 2016). Between 2008 and 2013, the Gates Foundation awarded over $200 million in grants to CCSS development and implementation projects (Layton, 2014).
Despite efforts to keep the federal government informed but separate from the development and implementation, the governors of Texas and Alaska declined to participate because they feared a loss of state control over educational matters. Others expressed concern over the following four federal moves to encourage states to adopt CCSS:
In President Obama’s speech to the NGA, he announced that he would like to make federal Title I funding contingent on states adopting the standards (Klein, 2010).
In the Race to the Top regulations, states that adopted the standards by August 2, 2010 were awarded extra points in the competition for a portion of $4.5 billion in federal funding (Lewin, 2010).
In exchange for agreeing to adopt the standards and to tie teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, the Department of Education granted states waivers from NCLB adequate yearly progress quotas, saving many schools from being categorized as “failing” (Perez-Pena, 2012).
As Bill Gates mentioned, the federal government provided $350 million to two agencies (PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC)) to develop new “game changer” computer-based tests.
Critics argued that each of these incentives made it difficult for state officials to “choose” not to adopt CCSS. By 2013, 46 states adopted the standards, at least in part reserving the right to decide later about whether to use either of the new tests (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia never adopted CCSS).
Opponents made two assertions. First, some conservatives claimed that CCSS threatened state autonomy on education matters (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2013). For example, the Cato Institute published an analysis challenging the evidence that national standards or national testing would necessarily improve existing state-directed student outcomes, arguing for local, market-based solutions instead (McCluskey, 2010). Tea Party groups commented on unfunded mandates required by curriculum shifts and new testing formats, and rejected standardized national knowledge. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley stated, “We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children” (as quoted in Layton, 2014). Second and perhaps more damaging, critics tied CCSS to the Obama administration, bureaucratic regulation, and a national curriculum (Polikoff, Hardaway, Marsh, & Plank, 2016). The Pioneer Institute charged that, despite its illegality, President Obama planned CCSS to be a national equity-based curriculum (Eitel & Talbert, 2012). “Common Core State Standards bring a shocking new level of liberal indoctrination—already in a classroom near you . . . No wonder Common Core has been dubbed ‘ObamaCore’” (Limbaugh, 2014).
Others worried about the evidentiary basis for CCSS, its likely collateral damage, and its sponsorship. Cuban (2010) argued that CCSS were simply a hunch that standards-based schools would improve American economic standing without sound empirical evidence that more and better schooling causes greater individual or national productivity. Loveless (2012) challenged the assumption that common national standards would necessarily raise American students’ scores on international achievement tests because after 10 years of “rigorous” standards common to all schools within a state, “within-state variation is four or five times larger than the variation between states” (p. 4). Joining other organizations, the American Statistical Association (2014) warned against using student scores on tests for CCSS in teacher evaluations because the underlying constructs are unstable and causality of students’ scores are overdetermined. “If the scores for those tests become 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and can unilaterally determine a teacher’s being rated ineffective, then the pressures on students will be enormous. A botched Common Core reform effort will become even worse” (Burris, 2015). Former Assistant Secretary of Education and previous national standards advocate Diane Ravitch (2013) published a declaration, “Why I Oppose Common Core Standards,” citing a lack of field testing, private funding behind the development and implementation, arbitrary shifts in emphasis for English language arts, and predictable consequences for students and teachers. “I will encourage my allies to think critically about the standards, to pay attention to how they affect students, and to insist that they do not harm.” Upon reconsideration, Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina officially rejected CCSS (but replaced them with essentially the same content standards; Ujifusa, 2015); and Arizona, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah debated adoption of CCSS for years.
Kentucky was the first state to adopt CCSS in 2010, and its schools began to implement them in order to inform English language arts and mathematics curriculum and instruction during its 2011–2012 school year. Because the new tests had not been released at that time, Kentucky contracted with Pearson Education to produce more rigorous tests based on the new standards. Student proficiency rates in both subjects fell 30% to 40% from the previous year in tests. In the second year of testing, students’ scores increased by two percentage points. Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday warned, “Everybody who does this, the first year of assessment of Common Core should see numbers very similar to what we saw” (as quoted in Morella, 2012). New York, the second state to employ more rigorous tests, proved that statement to be true (Editorial Board, 2013). Yet, a Gates Foundation-funded study (Xu et al., 2015) concluded that, according to their scores on the ACT college entrance exam, all Kentucky high school students made “faster progress in learning than similar students who were not exposed to the standards.” Although these improvements were small, scores increased on average for all demographic groups and accelerated slightly across a three-year span from 2011–2013). A Hechinger Report (Ostashevsky, 2016) argued, however, that the rates of increase of proficiency on the Pearson Education tests favored white students over their black peers by a two-to-one ratio.
Despite hundreds of millions devoted to implementation, the RAND Teacher Panel Survey (Kaufman et al., 2016a) reported that teachers across the country continued to be moderately to highly concerned about the national rollout of the new more demanding tests. Teachers felt unprepared to meet the new curricular and instructional demands of CCSS because expected shifts in ELA and mathematics were yet to be fully implemented across all grades. For the 2014–2015 and 2015–2016 school years, student test scores nationally mirrored those of Kentucky and New York. For example, third through eighth grade students who completed SBAC examinations in 2015 averaged slightly above 50% proficiency in English language arts and well below 50% in mathematics (Herk, 2015). PARCC (2016) reported proficiency rates ranging from 38% (3rd grade) to 39% (11th grade) in English language arts and from 42% (3rd grade) to 32% (Algebra 1) in mathematics. White students’ rates roughly doubled those of black and Hispanic students. From a national sample, the National Assessment for Educational Progress concluded that only 37% of eleventh grade students were prepared for college academic reading and mathematics (Zernike, 2016). Loveless (2016) labeled this outcome “a political disaster for Common Core” (p. 14).
Eight years overdue, Congress negotiated a reauthorization of the ESEA in 2015. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced NCLB, preserving federal oversight but returning responsibility for standards, performance goals, school and teacher evaluation, and plans for improvement to states and local districts. The act removed the NCLB mandate that all students would be proficient in reading and mathematics by a certain date. Only the persistently lowest-performing schools on the mandated tests would be required to adopt state-specified improvement plans. ESSA barred the federal government from “imposing academic requirements like the Common Core” (Davis, 2015). In response, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund worried, “Some states will do the right thing, and that’s great, others may not, and therein lies the problem” (as quoted in Davis). The former Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling opined, “I’m a little bit skeptical. We’ve tried the local control approach before, and we saw pretty pitiful results” (as quoted in Davis). On November 28, 2016, the Obama administration sought to assuage these concerns, articulating final regulations for ESSA that attended particularly to issues of equity and access to quality education and transparency to parents and the public.
In February and March 2017, the Republican members of the House of Representatives and the Senate used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Obama administration’s articulations of ESSA regulations in order to, as Senator Lamar Alexander stated, “restore to states, to classroom teachers[,] and to school boards decisions about what to do about the children” (as quoted in Goldstein, 2017). However, in June 2017 the Trump administration’s Department of Education offered strict and comprehensive feedback for new state ESSA plans for academic standards, assessment, and accountability, labeling some as “not ambitious,” “without specificity,” and “incomplete.” “What this signals is that [USDE] will continue to play the role they’ve always played in the years ahead” (Green, 2017).
Professional organizations for English language arts (ILA, 2013) and mathematics (NCTM, 2013) were generally supportive of CCSS upon their release, stating that they were clearly improvements over many state standards (37 for ELA and 39 for mathematics respectively; Carmichael, Wilson, Porter-Magee, & Martino, 2010). Pearson (2013) judged the ELA standards to be generally research-based concerning the shifts toward the comprehension of texts across academic disciplines and their characterization of career and college readiness in the 10 anchor standards. He characterized the reverse engineering to arrive at the grade level standards to be based more on professional consensus than on research and the development of a rigid schedule for increasing text complexity across grades, regardless of students’ reading levels to be problematic (see also Beals, 2014). Cobb and Jackson (2011) concluded that CCSS mathematics’ standards were better focused (smaller number of concepts at each grade) and had greater coherence (arranged over time) based on learning progressions research. Although Cobb and Jackson had “minor quibbles with some of the CCSSM developers’ decisions” (p. 184), they welcomed the centralized mediation of many states’ efforts to produce rigorous mathematical standards and aligned assessments.
All, however, were guarded about CCSS implementation, citing a lack of experimental trials before full implementation. Pearson commented on the apparent contradiction between CCSS rhetorical commitment to school and teacher authority in designing curricula and pedagogies—“schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards” (Common Core, 2010)—and the primary authors’ explicit directions to textbook publishers to control the content and instructional emphases (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012a, 2012b). Cobb and Jackson ended their assessment of CCSSM, “it is one thing to formulate sound instructional policies and another to support their successful implementation” (p. 185). In order to ensure that all students have opportunities to achieve the standards, Hull and Moje (2010) reminded all involved that school practices “derive their vitality from curricula and activities that connect to learners’ backgrounds, cultures, and communities; that capitalize on the social nature of learning; and that position young people to experience literacy as purposeful and themselves as skillful and confident makers of meaning” (p. 6). Kane, Owens, Marinell, Thal, and Staiger (2016) and Loveless (2016) reported that most teachers made significant changes in their lessons and instructional materials in order to accommodate the increased demands of CCSS and that new professional development programs were correlated with higher scores on PARCC and SBAC. However, Johnson and Wells (2017) and Zubrzycki (2016) found that these changes had not helped teachers to meet the needs of English language, disabled, academically at risk or low income learners who struggled to cope with CCSS. RAND studies concluded that English language arts (Kaufman et al., 2016b) and mathematics (Hamilton et al., 2016) teachers were least confident in their abilities to provide differentiated instruction within the complex inquiry-based formats implied in CCSS deeper learning, and that teachers in other discipline areas felt unprepared to address the English language arts and mathematics standards that CCSS assigned to their subject areas.
Public support seemed to hit its tipping point in 2015 when a Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll reported that 54% of Americans opposed CCSS and 64% agreed that there was too much testing in public schools. Although over 70% of Americans continued to agree that schools must raise academic standards, they rejected CCSS and the aligned tests as federal overreach. Whitman (2015) argued these findings were primarily a political construction. Conservative Republicans had succeeded publicly in separating the Reagan and Bush administrations’ support for national standards and testing in the 1980s and 1990s from CCSS in order to criticize the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. Polikoff et al. (2016) attributed the negative opinion primarily to misinformation, characterizing CCSS as a federal mandated, liberal, secular curriculum with prescribed methods of instruction that prohibited states and teachers from making any changes. “If you’re a real conservative, you’re against [CCSS], if you’re a faker, you’re for it” (as quoted in Edwards, 2014). This sentiment became a litmus test for Republican candidates during the 2016 presidential primary, culling moderate Republicans from the list of hopefuls.
The nature and the results of the testing regime associated with the implementation of CCSS contributed to this negative public sentiment (FairTest, 2017). Concern for high stakes standardized testing in general boiled over as the new CCSS tests required substantially more time (Bidwell, 2015), were found to have logical, editing, and logistical errors (Burris, 2015), and substantially lowered proficiency rates in English language arts and mathematics among middle income students as well as lower income and minority students (Hernandez & Gebeloff, 2013). With solidarity from teacher unions that opposed federal pressure for states to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations, several parent organizations called for parents to refuse to allow their students to sit for these exams (Levy, 2016). More than 650,000 students opted out of the initial test trial of the PARCC and SBAC (FairTest, 2017), including 20% (Harris, 2015) and then 21% (Wang, 2017) of the eligible students in New York State. Parents’ and teachers’ concerns over testing elicited several concessions from federal and state authorities: the Obama administration called for less testing and a moratorium on test scores as measures of teachers’ performance; many states withdrew from PARCC or SBAC consortia, and the ESSA recommended that all states honor “opt out” provisions.
Common Core advocates argued that public concerns about CCSS testing were the result of middle class parents’ realization that “all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were; and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were” (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as quoted in Strauss, 2013). According to a national survey (Pizmony-Levy & Saraisky, 2016), “the typical opt out activist is a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose children attend public school and whose household median income is well above the national average” (p. 6). The CEO of Stand for Children, Jonah Edelman, (2016) conceded that CCSS and aligned tests had not been implemented effectively, but chastised, “instead of joining a productive debate and coming together with solutions, opt-out activists have taken unilateral actions” (p. 1). Although he argued that CCSS and common tests would enable “educators, parents, advocates, and policymakers” to monitor each student’s and all students’ progress toward being competitive in a global economy, Edelman was particularly attentive to historic income and racial achievement gaps in the United States (see Reardon, 2011). He cited the “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts” statement signed by 12 national civil and human rights organizations, which stated:
Until federal law insisted that our children be included in these assessments, schools would try to sweep disparities under the rug by sending our children home or to another room while other students took the test. Hiding the achievement gaps meant that schools would not have to allocate time, effort, and resources to close them. Our communities had to fight for this simple right to be counted and we are standing by it.(The Leadership Conference, 2015)
Beginning with the A nation at risk report (1983), progressives questioned the underlying rationale of policy shifts from educational equity toward more rigorous academic standards and testing (e.g., Prakash & Waks, 1985). Later, they pointed toward direct evidence of the mal-distribution of school benefits among diverse groups (e.g., Duncan & Murnane, 2011). In “Common Core Standards: Hardly an Evidence-based Policy,” Cuban (2010) stated, “a policy is both a hypothesis and argument that a particular action should be taken to solve a problem. That action, however, has to be politically acceptable and economically feasible.” Despite advocates’ claims of rationality, transparency and evidence behind CCSS, progressives charged that CCSS was the authoritative allocation of values negotiated among social groups of unequal power (Karp, 2016). As the opening quotes from President Obama and Bill Gates show, CCSS are predicated on neoliberal values:
The primary problem facing the United States is to preserve its global economic competitive advantages;
The best hypothesis to accomplish that is for citizens to continuously increase their productive human capital by demonstrating proficiency on rigorous academic standards; and
Markets are the best means to ensure that citizens act accordingly and schools improve continuously to keep up with demands within the global innovation economy.
Progressives argue that these neoliberal values mis-frame the problem, overstate the hypothesis, and ignore contrary evidence (Shannon, 2013).
A Mis-Framed Problem
The United States has the world’s largest economy—equal to the combined economies of the next three countries—China, Japan, and Germany (International Monetary Fund, 2016). It has the largest amount of personal wealth—40% of the world’s total, equal to the amount in the next nine countries (Sherman, 2015). American total wealth is growing at 7% annually. That is, America still enjoys comparative advantages over its competitors. However, economic benefits are not distributed justly among Americans. The United States has the largest wealth equality gap among the 55 richest countries (Sherman, 2015); income inequality has risen in every state (Tritch, 2016); and child poverty is the highest level for any developed country (Coplan, 2015). This inequality hurts individuals by suppressing their social mobility (Semuels, 2016), their physical and mental health (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009), and their life expectancy (Case & Deaton, 2017). It retards America’s economic growth (Sherman, 2014) and undermines its democracy (Sitaraman, 2017). For progressives, inequality, and not maintenance of economic standing, is the primary problem in America.
Progressives argue that CCSS advocates overstate the roles of schooling. “What really matters in the determination of national prosperity is not the educational level of individuals, but the nation’s ability to organize individuals into enterprises with high productivity” (Chang, 2010, p. 179). The governments of the countries that President Obama touted were economically successful not because of educational attainment, but because they provided a range of institutions that encouraged investment and risk taking, a trade regime that protected infant industries, a financial system that provided for patent capitalization, good bankruptcy laws that protected entrepreneurs, a good social safety net that supported workers in times of troubles, and public subsidies and regulation that encouraged research, development, and training (Reich, 2011). Progressives cite the surveys from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to debunk CCSS advocates’ assumption that future jobs demand higher academic standards, since over two-thirds of the fastest growing jobs in America over the next decade will require only a high school diploma (2015). Finally, they return to inequality, showing through test scores: that the U.S. income achievement gap has increased by 40% since the Reagan administration (Reardon, 2011), that the United States has a two-tiered educational system serving middle- and upper-class students well and low-income students poorly (Berliner, 2009), and that the United States’s middle-of-the-pack educational standing among developed countries is the direct result of U.S. citizens’ willingness to tolerate the highest rates of child poverty (Carnoy & Rothstein, 2013). Schools are not responsible for the rise or the fall of the U.S. economy—overstating the hypothesis cripples the possibilities for schooling to address inequality.
Progressives challenge the empirical evidence for market-based solutions in educational reform (Mathis & Trujillo, 2016). They demonstrate how treating schools as markets achieves neoliberal values, (e.g., cutting spending for social services, reducing regulations, and positioning individuals as entrepreneurs) but exacerbates inequality (Saltman, 2012). They cite mixed, at best, outcomes of market solutions to other public responsibilities—think Halliburton in Iraq, Management and Training Corporation control of Mississippi prisons, or BP and Deepwater Horizon (Ball, 2014).
The findings in our study cast serious doubt on the assumption that schools in the private and independent sectors—schools that must directly compete for students—produce better outcomes . . . according to our data, not only might autonomy and competition not work as well as reformers have promised, but they may make matters worse.(Lubienski & Lubienski, 2016, p. 380)
“Although reasonable people have found things of value in the Common Core standards, there is no credible defense to be made for the high stakes uses planned for the new tests” (Karp, 2016, p. 271). Progressives call for federal and state governments to accept their responsibility to ensure the welfare of their citizens by dismantling institutionalized obstacles to all students’ intellectual, social, and physical development that they might contribute to the development of “social arrangements that permit all citizens to participate as peers in social life” (Fraser, 2009, p. 16).
Although “the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 ends federal interference in state standards and ends the federal mandates on states to adopt the Common Core State Standards” (Alexander, 2015), states must still adopt ambitious academic standards (CCSS are an option), implement accountability systems (built around standardized tests), and enact programs to intervene in the lowest performing schools. Further research is needed to determine the influence of CCSS on learning, teaching, and policies in American preschools through post-secondary institutions. A place to begin is to build upon Carmichael et al. (2010) and Ujifusa (2015) to examine the carry-over of CCSS’s “fundamental shifts” in English language arts and mathematics into the new ESSA state plans for standards, assessments, and curricula. Such studies could test hypotheses of Whitman (2015) and Polikoff et al. (2016) that concerns about CCSS were more political than educational. Supplementing these content studies should be investigations of the processes of production of these new plans—who is involved, why are they involved, and how are they involved—furthering the research of Kornhaber et al. (2016) and McDonnell and Weatherford (2013). Evaluative studies could follow, judging the qualities of the plans according to their research base (e.g., Cobb & Jackson, 2011; Pearson, 2013), assumptions (e.g., Karp, 2016), and commitments to equity (e.g., Edelman, 2016).
Equally important would be questions on the processes of implementation of these new CCSS-influenced plans and their outcomes for students, teachers, and communities. How do state officials interpret the remnants of CCSS shifts and frame their translations for district personnel? Kane et al. (2016) and Kaufman et al. (2016a, 2016b) provide some answers from the recent past. How are teachers prepared philosophically and pedagogically to enact these translated plans into curriculum and instruction (e.g., Hull & Moje, 2010)? How do those means of preparation manifest themselves in classrooms (e.g., Hamilton et al., 2016; Johnson & Wells, 2017)? What differences do these plans and their theoretical and practical applications make for students’ learning in general (e.g., Loveless, 2016; Reardon, 2011) and for particular groups (e.g., Carnoy & Rothstein, 2013; Ostashevsky, 2016)? In what ways do various communities respond to these changes and outcomes (e.g., Pizmony-Levy & Saraisky, 2016; Wang, 2017)? Finally, how do these processes reflect back upon the underlying neoliberal rationale and framing of CCSS (e.g., Shannon, 2013)?
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