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Missouri) currently are going through a review process that will result in new standards; and one state, Oklahoma, has repealed the standards.
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?