As your editor noted last month, few among the crew of movement conservatives, usually-thoughtful conservative school reformers, and hardcore progressive traditionalists have succeeded as wildly as the Pioneer Institute in advancing the opposition to implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. One reason has to do with Sandra Stotsky, a former Massachusetts state education official (and now a professor at the University of Arkansas) who is the think tank’s chief spokesperson against the standards. Through her prolific writing, Stotsky has become the go-to expert for both the think tank and other Common Core foes, especially movement conservatives generally uninterested in education policy issues. The fact that many Common Core foes don’t really want to engage in a discussion about what Common Core actually requires of students, or even look at the list of fiction and nonfiction literature offered as examples of books for kids to read (in spite of the array of information provided by the standards’ developers, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor’s Association) means that Stotsky’s arguments have largely gone unquestioned. That Stotsky’s vocal opposition to Common Core is likely driven by dismay over the move by Massachusetts to implement the standards and ditch those she helped develop also doesn’t factor into the thinking of her fellow-travelers.
But these days, Common Core supporters — especially conservative reformers who back the standards such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (for which Stotsky has previously consulted) — have been ripping apart the array of half-truths, misconceptions, and conspiracy-theorizing touted by Stotsky, Pioneer, and their ilk. Apparently, it’s not pleasing to Stotsky’s ears. This week, Stotsky took to Pioneer’s blog insinuating that Common Core supporters are engaged in lying. Yeah, I found it to be funny too. Between criticizing an op-ed in the Boston Globe defending Common Core written by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, attempting to castigate former New York City Chancellor and current News Corp. executive Joel Klein for failing to mention that the media giant’s Amplify Learning division works with the Smarter Balanced testing consortium developing exams aligned with the standards, and complaining about a commercial from energy giant ExxonMobil touting the standards, Stotsky proclaims Common Core’s reading and math standards weren’t benchmarked to the two main exams of international student achievement, the Program for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Stud. She also trashes two studies of Common Core’s quality — including one by a team led by University of Oregon professor David Conley (who served with Stotsky on the committee that validated the standards) — partly because she think they were “methodologically flawed”, but mostly because they were funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has backed the development and implementation of the standards.
Stotsky then went on to accuse Common Core advocates of being dishonest in arguing that the standards were geared to replace shoddy state-level standards and improve the quality of standardized tests instead of about mandating a national curricula. Asks Stotsky: “Why, then, is the Bay State’s department of elementary and secondary education running teacher workshops to redesign classroom curriculum for Common Core”. This view reflects the general mindset among some conservative reformers opposed to Common Core (including Stotsky and her boss at the University of Arkansas, Jay P. Greene) that Common Core will neuter innovation in curricula development and other aspects of systemic reform. The average Common Core supporter is, in Stotsky’s mind, no different than a “car salesman” with “no obvious credibility.”
Your editor isn’t going to spend much time on Stotsky’s cheap shot against Common Core supporters, or the rest of the stream of consciousness writing contained in her piece. But her arguments that Common Core isn’t benchmarked to international standards and that Common Core supporters are being misleading noting that the standards are different from curricula are laughable, factually false, and intellectually dishonest.
For one, Common Core was benchmarked to international standards. In fact, they match up well to the standards underlying both PISA and TIMSS. One need not look at Conley’s study (or that of William Schmidt, whose review of the standards was also considered rubbish by Stotsky because the work was funded by the Gates Foundation) for validation of this fact. Before Fordham itself began its own Common Core work (which, yes, is funded by Gates), the think tank reviewed Common Core’s reading and math standards. The reading standards earned a B from Fordham, equal to the rating it gave to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ standards framework, and higher than the D rating it gave to that of PISA (which has been criticized by various education researchers for both not being as comprehensive as it should be); the math standards were also rated B, better than NAEP (which was given a C) and PISA (which were rated a D), but just behind TIMSS’ standards framework (which was rated A).
In fact, contrary to Stotsky’s claims, benchmarking Common Core to international curricula standards — including those of TIMSS and PISA as well as that of Singapore, one of the seven top-performing nations in math — has been as much at the heart of the development of the standards as the overarching goal of spurring the development of comprehensive college-preparatory curricula that helps prepare kids to tackle the concrete and abstract challenges they will take on in higher education (including traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships) and in the workplace. That work began long before CCSSO and NGA came together to launch Common Core in 2004 with the work of Achieve Inc. and its American Diploma Project, which revamped high school graduation requirements and curricula standards. By 2008, a year before the formal development of Common Core, Achieve released Benchmarking for Success, a report which laid out much of the framework for how Common Core’s standards would be crafted as well as offered guidance to states in revamping standards on their own.
This isn’t to say that Common Core is perfect. The fact that Common Core introduces some math concepts to children a year later than peers in Singapore was not smart. The fact that children are provided Algebra 1 during their first year in high school instead of during middle school, as done by the top-performing nations in math (and as Dropout Nation, most supporters, and many teachers and mathematicians support) is also regrettable. Certainly both decisions reflect the lack of consensus among mathematicians or math teachers in this country over when children should learn higher level math (even as the leading nations in math have long-ago reached the more-sensible conclusion). But the standards should require the teaching of Algebra 1 by the times kids reach middle school, especially given its importance in helping them gain the preparation needed to take on other forms of high-level math as well as to build their knowledge for lifelong success.
All that said, it is clear that Common Core is as good as PISA and just a step below TIMSS in comprehensiveness. Implementation of Common Core doesn’t stop states implementing the standards from requiring districts and school operators to provide Algebra 1 to all middle-schoolers; states that have decided to stop requiring Algebra 1 such as California did so mostly because of fierce opposition to the requirement from traditionalists (including districts) on the ground. Ultimately, Common Core’s reading and math standards are superior to those of most states, and is equal to the standards in place in Massachusetts before the Bay State moved to implement Common Core in its stead.
Meanwhile Stotsky is off-target in claiming that Common Core supporters are misleading in arguing that the focus is on standards and assessment instead of curricula. For one, nearly all Common Core supporters openly acknowledge that the long-term goal of the standards is to spur the development of a wide array of strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula and in the process, end the longstanding practice in American public education of allowing teachers, principals and districts to develop their own curricula without a high-quality North Star to guide them. For good reason. Far too many kids are not being provided the knowledge they need and deserve. Just 13 percent of high school students took strong, comprehensive courses, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress; this included a mere seven percent of black students and six percent of their Latino schoolmates. As Dropout Nation noted this past Saturday, few middle-schoolers were being provided Algebra 1 and other college-preparatory courses, and even fewer children in the early grades are getting the numeracy and literacy instruction they need to take on more-challenging courses.
But implementing a set of high-quality standards doesn’t necessarily lead to national curricula. This is a point that Stotsky fails to mention. In fact, there are as many (if not more) Common Core supporters opposed to a national curricula as there are those who think it is a good idea. One of the very things Common Core supporters have made clear is that the standards on their own are meaningless without developing high-quality curricula that aligns with them. Certainly Common Core’s standards can help teachers in guiding their work, and even allows for families and communities to develop curricula (including American Indian tribes, who can easily use the standards to design curricula that provide their children strong academic knowledge as well as incorporate their languages and cultures). But as reformers have learned from the past two decades of working at the state level, standards will only be marginally successful unless they are backed up by comprehensive curricula that are aligned to them. So it is sensible for states to work with districts and others to ensure that they are developing and selecting curricula that matches up to Common Core. Stotsky knows this all too well. After all, implementation of curricula aligned with standards was a job she undertook during her tenure in Massachusetts developing and implementing that state’s mostly-successful overhaul of its standards.
Meanwhile Stotsky her fellow Common Core foes fail to admit is that there is nothing wrong with common curricula standards. This is because when done properly, standardization can actually allow for more innovation in curricula development because there are now commonly agreed-upon content areas around which a variety of curriculum developers can rally. As seen in the tech sector, it was the tacit acceptance of the Microsoft DOS/Window standards (fostered by the move by IBM and the Microsoft to license the operating system to other computer-makers) that helped advance the development of the technologies that have helped boost productivity, improved quality of life, and allowed for computer makers to provide features consumers desired at affordable prices. Sure, Common Core foes would be right in pointing out that these examples of standardization happened in the conditions of free markets. It would also be fair to note how poorly government-sponsored standards efforts have generally fared. Yet there are some fine examples of how similar efforts (especially in medical education, which involves public universities and private sector counterparts) have been successful. [The fact that neither a lack of standards nor an array of mediocre state-developed ones have been stirred much in the way of innovative curricula in the first place outside of that being done in Native communities should also cause Common Core foes to think things over.]
Simply put, Stotsky’s arguments aren’t worthy of the space they occupy on the World Wide Web. But this is nothing new. As Dropout Nation made clear back in April, Stotsky’s argument that Common Core’s reading standards weren’t clear or explanatory enough for classroom teachers is pure rubbish; Stotsky was simply attempting to blame the standards for the low quality of teaching (and the shoddy approach to recruiting and training teachers) at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. Stotsky’s professed concerns about Common Core’s emphasis on expanding children’s reading beyond classic fiction to include works of nonfiction such as historian Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is hard to take seriously given that she herself complained eight years ago in a review of state curricula standards she conducted on behalf of Fordham that far too many states failed to provide students with the nonfiction literature that helps form “the language of [America’s] civic life”. Stotsky particularly took aim at Missouri’s reading standards for essentially failed to provide high school students with “literary and (non-literary) reading” that matched up to its lofty goals; she also made clear that states should include “foundational documents” such as the Declaration of Independence that helped kids understand the abstract ideas behind the nation in which they live.
It is unfortunate that Stotsky is now willing to debase her long and admirable record of strong advocacy for providing all children with high-quality education. It’s even more disheartening that she’s opposing a systemic reform our children need in order to get the college-preparatory curricula they deserve.