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5 Questions for…Michael Petrilli, President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

August 26, 2014

With a new school year beginning and debate over the Common Core State Standards heating up, we thought it would be an excellent time to talk to an expert on the subject.

According to Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a D.C.-based think tank dedicated to advancing educational excellence for every child, the "Common Core Wars” scorecard currently stands at 42-4-3-1: forty-two states out of the forty-six that signed on to Common Core are still on board (including "plenty" of states that have "rebranded" the standards); four states (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia) never adopted them; three states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Missouri) currently are going through a review process that will result in new standards; and one state, Oklahoma, has repealed the standards.

Headshot_michael_petrilliPND conducted the following Q&A with Petrilli earlier this month.

Philanthropy News Digest: One concern of opponents of the Common Core is that the standards are not as rigorous as some existing state standards. But a Fordham Institute analysis found that the Common Core standards were superior in content and rigor to the standards that three-quarters of the states were using in 2010. What are critics of the Common Core getting wrong? And why should any state with demonstrably tougher standards in place adopt the Common Core?

Michael Petrilli: Even critics of the Common Core acknowledge that the standards are more rigorous and challenging than what the vast majority of the states had in place before. To be frank, that's not saying much: most state standards pre-Common Core tended to be vague, misguided, or both. And the associated state tests, which often were set at ridiculously low levels, encouraged "drill and kill" style teaching, and regularly sent false signals that most students — and schools — were doing fine, were arguably worse.

The real question is how the Common Core stacks up to the best state standards, such as those that were in place in Massachusetts, Indiana, and California. In our judgment, it's a toss-up. Our reviewers gave the Common Core a grade of "A-" in mathematics and a "B+" in English language arts; a handful of states did slightly better, particularly in English. A smart move, then, would be to combine the Common Core with the best of these previous standards, as Massachusetts did in 2010 by adopting the Common Core but keeping, among other elements, the list of exemplary literary authors that was part of its old standards.

Why, you ask, should any of the handful of states with strong standards adopt the Common Core? We admitted to being divided on this question in 2010, though we anticipated some upside to the move to common standards, including the proliferation of high-quality Common Core-aligned curricula and assessments. In other words, it was our belief then that if states stuck with their old standards, even good ones, their educators would miss out on the improvements in curricula and assessments that we fully expected would soon sweep the country. Four long years later, we're finally seeing our prediction come true. Common Core-aligned curricular resources are starting to enter the market, and next spring Common Core-aligned assessments will replace the old state tests in at least half the country. And we still anticipate that these tools will represent big improvements over what preceded them.

But now the question, particularly in red and purple states, is whether states should stick with the Common Core. In Ohio, for instance, there's a bill under consideration that would move the state to the old Massachusetts standards in math and English. While that might have been attractive five years ago, in the interim school districts in the state have invested tens of millions of dollars in professional and curriculum development related to the Common Core. Ohio also is planning to use the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment, which looks to be a huge improvement on its previous test. So, changing assessments again would bring enormous additional costs. Such a switch also would be greatly demoralizing to Ohio educators, who have been working hard to implement the Common Core. In short, teachers and administrators would be right to be frustrated by a move to dump the standards simply because of politics.

PND: Another frequent criticism of the Common Core is that it was paid for and developed by a handful of large foundations behind closed doors and represents U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's reform agenda. You've written elsewhere that it was "a huge mistake" for some Common Core supporters to urge the federal government to create incentives for state adoption of the standards. What about the role of foundations in the process? Could the Common Core, or something like it, have been developed without the support of the Gates, Hewlett, and Broad foundations?

MP: First, let's be clear that the Common Core standards were not developed "behind closed doors." Teachers, in particular, played a critical role in improving the standards. Here's how Lorraine M. McDonnell and M. Stephen Weatherford put it in their American Journal of Education article, "Evidence Use and the Common Core State Standards Movement: From Problem Definition to Policy Adoption":

Both the AFT and the NEA convened groups of teachers to review CCSS drafts. The AFT drew its group of reviewers from members involved in providing professional development to colleagues and the NEA from national board certified members. The AFT math review team met four times and the ELA team three times. After an extensive review of drafts, they communicated their concerns in face-to-face meetings with the standards writers....

We at the Fordham Institute reviewed multiple drafts of the standards, and published our reviews online. One can see a clear progression from relatively mediocre first drafts to a strong final product.

That said, I do believe that Common Core supporters made a huge mistake in not crying bloody murder when Arne Duncan incentivized adoption of the standards through Race to the Top. Conservatives are right to worry about federal involvement in this area, and the distinction between "incentives" and "mandates" turned out to be meaningless with respect to the public debate.

As for foundations, I do believe that philanthropy played an appropriate role in the development and adoption of the Common Core. For years education reformers have argued that foundations need to engage in the policy-making process if they want to make a significant impact; otherwise, they are simply throwing "buckets into the sea," in the memorable phrase of University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene. In the case of the Common Core, their resources were essential in funding the technical work involved in developing the standards and in ensuring rigorous feedback on the various drafts.

Where the foundations erred — as did the Obama administration — was in their approach to the federal role. The center-left orientation of the major Common Core funders blinded them to the backlash that would come from the right because of federal involvement in the Common Core endeavor. I regret that we at the Fordham Institute didn't do more to warn them — and the administration — to avoid any and all federal entanglements.

PND: Do you support the recommendation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to institute a moratorium on the question of using Common Core-aligned assessments to evaluate teachers and determine student promotions?

MP: Absolutely, and I was heartened to see Arne Duncan endorse this course of action as well. There are many reasons for such a "pause" in the use of student test scores for high-stakes teacher evaluation systems. The first is simply logistical: it is technically challenging to develop accurate measures of student growth when switching from one test to another. Furthermore, states may not have the results from the new tests back in time to compute student growth even if they were able to overcome the technical challenges. Then there's the issue of fairness and morale: this is a time to encourage teachers to try new approaches, to stretch themselves, to collaborate, to push their students toward new, higher expectations. Understandably, teachers want some assurance that if they are going to take these risks, they are not going to face the guillotine if they fail.

PND: What are the implications of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal's decision, apparently for political reasons, to withdraw his support for the Common Core?

MP: Everyone knows that Governor Jindal flip-flopped on the Common Core as a way to audition as "Tea Party Darling" for the 2016 presidential sweepstakes. And in crass political terms, his decision may work. What Governor Jindal may not have expected was the fierce pushback from his own state superintendent, his own Board of Education, his own Board of Regents, and a majority of Republicans in the state legislature. And it looks like he is going to lose on the merits in the courts. Surely other Republican politicians are watching and learning. If Governor Jindal gets a bounce from fighting the Common Core, others might follow. So far, the lesson appears to be that flip-flopping on this issue is no more popular than flip-flopping on any other issue.

PND: Broadly speaking, what role or roles should organized philanthropy be playing in education reform? What is it doing well? And what, if anything, should it do less of?

MP: Let's be honest: there would be no education reform movement were it not for philanthropy. That's nothing new; old-line foundations have been investing in public education reform for almost a century. What is new is that the current generation of foundations — foundations such as Broad, Gates, and Walton — are willing to invest larger amounts of money, in a more aggressive way, and not just through the system as it currently exists.

On the whole, this is an overwhelmingly positive development. It has led to the most promising innovations in education in generations, including Teach For America, which is pumping new talent into the education system; "No Excuses" charter schools, which are achieving breakthrough results for low-income students and are starting to scale; and, of course, the Common Core standards, which represent a radical raising of expectations.

This new philanthropy also has been admirably open to self-examination and course correction. The major funders of the charter school movement, for instance, have led efforts to improve charter quality and accountability, efforts that are starting to bear fruit.

The mistakes, in my view, mostly come in two categories. The first is political tone-deafness, particularly around top-down, one-size-fits-all reforms. That certainly includes the Common Core, which should have been protected from any federal interference. But it especially involves the push for prescriptive statewide teacher evaluation systems, which, as former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said, raised the stakes for high-stakes testing dramatically and fueled a backlash to much of the reform agenda in the politically powerful suburbs.

The second category is around funders' "theory of action," which, in my view, has been too narrowly focused on college as the sole pathway to the middle class for poor children. There's no doubt that college is a great pathway, and we should continue to work to help many more low-income students complete two- and four-year degrees. But there are other great pathways, too, including high-quality career and technical education programs and apprenticeships. If our goal is to end the cycle of poverty, we shouldn't overlook these other routes to the middle class.

Kyoko Uchida

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