Few outfits have argued as strongly or successfully against the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia than the Pioneer Institute. Over the past three years, the otherwise respectable Boston, Mass., think tank, driven by ire over the move by the Bay State to ditch its own relatively high-quality curricula standards for those developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (on both of which state officials actively participate) has given virtual sanctuary to Common Core opponents such as University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky, developed financial estimates on the cost of implementing the standards (what, as my former boss as Forbes, William Baldwin would likely say isn’t likely to come within a country mile of reality), provided its allies a constant stream of e-mails touting various pieces arguing against the standard, and unsuccessfully pushed for the American Legislative Exchange Council to pass a resolution opposing the standards.
So it isn’t shocking that this week, Pioneer’s education czar, Jamie Gass, and Charles Chieppo, a former staffer for onetime Bay State governor (and Republican presidential nominee) Mitt Romney, found their way onto the pages of the Wall Street Journal with an op-ed against Common Core implementation a week after the paper ran a supportive piece by former New York City chancellor Joel Klein and Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute. It offers a seemingly seductive set of claims: That Massachusetts, once a state where “unremarkable” student achievement was the norm, went from middle-of-the-pack to the nation’s top-performing state after enacting a series of curricula reforms. That this progress in student achievement will essentially be halted because the state has moved to adopt Common Core. That Common Core is “academic-lite” because teachers will have to focus reading instruction on nonfiction as well as on great works of literature, Massachusetts and other states are being forced as part of Common Core implementation to stop offering Algebra 1 classes to middle-school kids, and at least one mathematician argues against the math standards. And ultimately, that Common Core is really little more than a “top-down” approach to education championed illegally by the Obama Administration through such efforts as Race to the Top that Massachusetts and other states are only implementing in order to get their hands on federal money. All Gass and Chieppo needed were some arguments about Common Core being some conspiracy by both the Obama Administration and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to debase education. Oh yeah, they do intimate that too.
Your editor had better things to do than give a quick perusal of Gass’ and Chieppo’s anti-Common Core piece the day it came out; this included picking out paint colors for my soon-to-be-born son’s bedroom and working with American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities on providing their children with high-quality education. Besides, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute did a fine job of tearing apart some of Gass’ and Chieppo’s arguments. But your editor did finally get around to reading through the entire claptrap and couldn’t stay silent. The best one can say about it is that Gass and Chieppo engage in more of the mythmaking and revisionist history that has makes it harder for anyone to give serious consideration to the more-thoughtful arguments made by other Common Core foes.
Let’s start with the argument made by Gass and Chieppo that Massachusetts’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were “unremarkable” before it undertook its curricula reforms. That’s just not true. For most of the past three decades, Massachusetts has generally been one of the better-performing states in the nation as measured by the federal exam of student achievement. Back in 1992 (when 42 states participated in NAEP), the average fourth-grader scored 226 on the reading portion of NAEP, nine points higher than the national average, and tying the state with North Dakota for second in the nation on the reading portion of the exams, only trailing then-top ranked New Hampshire by two points; in math, the average Bay State fourth-grader’s score of 227 was seven points higher than the average, tying the state with New Jersey and Connecticut for third in the nation behind Iowa and North Dakota. Two decades later in 2011, the average Bay State fourth-grader scored 237 points on NAEP, 16 points higher than the national average, moving up one place to first in the nation (among all 50 states, which now participated in the exam); the average math score of 253 — or 12 points higher than the national average — helped it move up two places to number one.
Certainly Massachusetts curricula reform efforts have achieved results. But Gass and Chieppo are overstating the case that the Bay State was unremarkable in improving student achievement before the reforms were put in place. In fact, one can even argue that Massachusetts could have achieved even greater results if it were more-aggressive in embracing other reforms, including retaining third graders struggling with literacy and providing them with additional support, an approach taken by Florida as part of its efforts. The 17 point gain on the reading portion of NAEP for the average Florida fourth-grader between 1992 and 2011 is six points greater than the 11 point gain in the same period for their Bay State peers. Providing all children with comprehensive college-preparatory curricula is clearly one of the solutions for helping all kids succeed; but standards and curricula reform won’t work without undertaking other efforts such as overhauling teacher training and school leadership, as well as expanding school choice.
Meanwhile one can argue that Massachusetts curricula standards reforms have not done nearly as well as Gass and Chieppo want to claim in helping all students gain the preparation needed to succeed in traditional colleges and other forms of higher education. This is important to keep in mind because the goal of school reform is no longer just to help children stay on the path to graduating from high school. Twenty six-point-four percent of 17-to-19 year olds attending Bay State public universities for the first time in 2006 took remedial courses, according to College Complete America’s 2012 report on higher education achievement; it was the fifth-highest level of college remediation after California’s Cal State system, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania’s Penn State system. Meanwhile 66.9 percent of Bay State community college counterparts entering at the same time took remedial courses,, a rate of remediation only outmatched by Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. Has Massachusetts done better than many other states in overhauling public education to stay off the path to dropping out of high school? Yes. One can even argue that Massachusetts could have not adopted the standards, something that Virginia (whose standards are lowly rated) has done. But it struggles as mightily as other states in helping kids get ready for college and career success.
This fact is especially clear once you sniff out another bit of mythmaking by Gass and Chieppo: Their declaration that Common Core is responsible for Massachusetts deciding to no longer require districts to provide Algebra 1 to middle-school students. Certainly Common Core doesn’t proscribe introductory algebra until ninth grade. But the math standards don’t prevent Massachusetts and other states from requiring districts to provide those courses to all middle school students. Not that all Massachusetts middle-schoolers are taking those classes in the first place. Just 17.6 percent of Bay State seventh- and eighth-graders — a mere 25,240 kids — took Algebra 1 in 2009-2010, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. That’s lower than the percentage of middle-schoolers taking introductory algebra in California, Minnesota, Virginia, and Florida, the states analyzed by your editor last month as part of DN‘s report on what states were doing to provide all kids with college preparatory math. The reality is that Massachusetts was doing no better than most states in providing all middle-school students with college preparatory math. In some ways, this isn’t saying much: States have largely done poorly on this front (along with developing high-quality math standards in the first place). At the same time, the reality remains that Massachusetts isn’t some Lake Woebegone.
Meanwhile the contention from Gass and Chieppo that somehow Common Core’s reading and math standards are somehow “academic-lite” also doesn’t stand scrutiny. The fact that Common Core’s reading standards require reading teachers to focus as much time on the great works of nonfiction — including speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill as well as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – as well as on fiction actually helps children gain knowledge about the ideas and philosophies that have shaped the world in which they live. Simply focusing on fiction as most English teachers are wont to do currently — and what Pioneer defends thoughtlessly– is akin to keeping kids riding bikes on training wheels. Children cannot grow up to be successful in the adult world if they don’t master the abstract ideas that drive it. And you glean those ideas just from reading fiction.
Gass and Chieppo are on slightly stronger ground in their arguments about Common Core’s math standards. The fact that the standards don’t focus as much on rote memorization — which is critical to mastering math, especially when it comes to algebraic equations — is problematic, and as I’ve noted last year, Common Core supporters must acknowledge it. Yet Common Core’s focus on other aspects of math, including making sense of abstractions and mastering problem-solving, are time-tested and sensible, while its push for bringing relevance to math instruction in order to engage the minds of children is one that also makes sense. The fact that the standards were developed by a committee of mathematicians that included Deborah Hughes Hallett of Harvard University (and influenced by PISA and other international assessments of student achievement — and in fact, are more comprehensive than PISA) means that the standards weren’t just developed willy-nilly. While there is debate over whether the standards force kids to engage in those activities too quickly — Barry Garelick, for example, argues that kids can only do this as part of natural maturity — mathematicians (as well as math teachers) have never reached any consensus on this. But you wouldn’t know any of this from Gass’ and Chieppo’s piece. Instead, they only rest their claim on the declarations of Stanford mathematician R. James Milgram’s claim that the standards reflect “very low expectations”.
Meanwhile Gass’ and Chieppo’s contention that Common Core is somehow a “top-down approach to education” (drawn from a letter sent by a Common Core supporter, Marc Tucker, to Hillary Clinton in 1992 after her husband won the presidency) is a misstatement of education history. Developing common curricula standards has long been a goal of the school reform movement. Those efforts, which began in the late 1970s with Southern governors and chambers of commerce concerned about the economic and social consequences of what has become the nation’s education crisis. The work they did was embraced by other states and even the federal government by 1983 when the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk; three years later, some 250 commissions and panels were formed on developing curricula standards along with addressing other aspects of the nation’s education crisis, according to current Teachers’ College President Susan Fuhrman.
By 2004, states began moving from developing curricula standards on their own to working together thanks to the efforts of the work of Achieve Inc., which through its American Diploma Project helped develop curricula requirements for obtaining high school diplomas. That work would become more extensive when state governments, through their two policymaking groups — NGA and CCSSO — began developing what is now Common Core. Although legislatures have not directly weighed in on Common Core’s implementation, the policy bodies through which they work on a national level (including the National Council of State Legislators) have backed the effort, as have reform-minded legislators on their own. [By the way: The fact that state legislatures, in general, delegate the nuts-and-bolts of policymaking to executive branch officials, doesn't get mentioned by Gass or Chieppo in their piece.]
What Gass and Chieppo fail to admit is that the effort by states to implement Common Core is an acknowledgement of the reality that they have largely failed on their own to develop their own standards; just two states had eighth-grade math standards that matched those of the top seven nations in math, according to the American Institutes for Research in its 2010 report. Just as importantly, Common Core’s implementation shows that reformers have learned a key lesson gleaned long ago from other efforts such as implementing accountability systems and expanding school choice: It is difficult for reform-minded politicians to actually achieve change without banding together as part of a national effort.
This is where the Obama Administration’s move to champion Common Core comes into play. Contrary to Gass’ and Chieppo’s assertions, the administration isn’t violating federal law restricting the federal government from developing or mandating curricula. In fact, the administration has plenty of leeway in supporting curricula development efforts states developed on their own. The reality is that the Obama Administration is doing exactly what the Eisenhower Administration did when it successfully advocated for the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (which encouraged states to do more so that children can get on the path to employment in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields), and following the path of other administrations, Democrat and Republican (including the aforementioned Reagan, and the first George Bush). There’s no question that the Obama Administration hasn’t exactly always gotten things right on the education policy front. But supporting the implementation of Common Core — is one of them.
By supporting state implementation of the standards, the Obama Administration is doing exactly what George W. Bush did with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act 11 years ago: Providing cover for reform-minded governors and school leaders to beat back opposition to addressing the reality that far too many kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds (including in Massachusetts), are not getting the education they need for success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
This isn’t to say that Common Core is perfect; they should be the floor and not the ceiling on elevating the quality of curricula for all kids. Nor can one support Common Core without acknowledging there are legitimate concerns, especially about how it is being implemented. At the same time, it is clear that Common Core is one of the solutions to advancing systemic reform of super-clusters of failure that condemned the futures of far too many kids who deserve opportunities to write their own stories. Because public policy is the clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society – and especially for children – Common Core is clear and moral declaration that all children deserve high-quality education.
Of course, your editor doesn’t expect Gass or Chieppo (or even their boss, Jim Stergios) to acknowledge the points that have been made by yours truly and other Common Core supporters. Pioneer, along with many other Common Core foes, have long ago decided that they oppose the standards. What I do ask is whether they truly believe that the mythmaking and revisionist history they engage in actually gives either Pioneer or their fellow Common Core foes any credibility?