In 2010, the Department of Education convinced—or coerced—an overwhelming majority of states to accept the Common Core standards by making eligibility for $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top funds contingent upon their adoption.
Race to the Top funding was eliminated in the 2015 federal budget, so one simple and cynical explanation for the increasing state backlash against Common Core is that the lure of federal funds has been withdrawn. Now that states have no perceived budgetary interest in pursuing the standards, a litany of problems have prompted legitimate reconsideration of the Gates Foundation-backed campaign for the Common Core. Most of the outcry has less to do with the specific content of the standards themselves than with their implementation and enforcement. The issues include:
- UNDEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENT: At the outset, the standards were developed by a group of sixty individuals, which included more than ten from the test-publishing giants, College Board and ACT, and just one schoolteacher, “in a secret process that excludes effective input from students, parents or teachers,” as education writer and former schoolteacher Anthony Cody pointed out in 2009.
- HIGH-STAKES IMPLEMENTATION: Race to the Top grants gave preference for federal funds to states with “value-added” evaluation of teachers—promoting or penalizing teachers based on student results in Common Core standardized tests, even though the American Statistical Association issued a report stating that “teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions.” These system-level conditions include severe socio-economic and racial disparities that can be exacerbated by the punitive system of high-stakes testing.
- ONEROUS FEDERAL DEMANDS: High-stakes Common Core testing was part of a package of reforms pushed on states through the eligibility requirements for Race to the Top funding. As education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch explained, “If states wanted any part of that money, they had to agree to certain conditions. They had to agree to evaluate teachers to a significant degree by the rise or fall of their students’ test scores; they had to agree to increase the number of privately managed charter schools; they had to agree to adopt 'college and career ready standards,' which were understood to be the not-yet-finished Common Core standards; they had to agree to 'turnaround' low-performing schools by such tactics as firing the principal and part or all of the school staff; and they had to agree to collect unprecedented amounts of personally identifiable information about every student and store it in a data warehouse.”
- BIG COSTS FOR SHRINKING BUDGETS: While the detailed Common Core standards were developed and promulgated at a national level, much of the onus for implementation of new curriculum, training, and enforcement was delegated to states, which was then largely delegated to districts. While in theory, this could arguably enable local input and flexibility, in practice it often created the opposite. (See "In Race to the Top, the Dirty Work Is Left to Those on the Bottom") American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said that the standards-aligned curricula had to be implemented so fast in New York that superintendents compelled teachers to rely upon state-provided lesson plans, basically telling them, “Here's 500 pages. Just do it.” Moreover, the costs of implementation far surpassed federal funding, forcing districts to take funds from other much-needed projects to pay for curriculum, training, testing, teacher evaluation, and materials for the all-online Common Core tests. “Los Angeles alone committed to spend $1 billion on iPads for the tests; the money is being taken from a bond issue approved by voters for construction and repair of school facilities,” observed Diane Ravitch. “Meanwhile, the district has cut teachers of the arts, class size has increased, and necessary repairs are deferred because the money will be spent on iPads. The iPads will be obsolete in a year or two, and the Pearson content loaded onto the iPads has only a three-year license. The cost of implementing the Common Core and the new tests is likely to run into the billions at a time of deep budget cuts.”
- BIG MONEY TO BIG BUSINESS: Those district funds are often going to big educational companies, like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and other software and tech hardware companies. Indeed, the DOE chief of staff and former director of Race to the Top, Joanne Weiss, wrote on the Harvard Business Review blog that “the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” It appeared to be a motivating reason for the federal initiative that the “development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments.”
- TESTS DESIGNED FOR FAILURE: High-stakes tests have been especially panic-inducing for teachers and administrators, because Common Core tests were designed with such a high bar for passing that they were bound to dramatically increase failure rates. “Wherever they have been implemented, they have caused a dramatic collapse of test scores. In state after state, the passing rates dropped by about 30%. This was not happenstance. This was failure by design…The testing consortia set the bar so high that most students were sure to fail, and they did. In New York state, which gave the Common Core tests last spring, only 30% of students across the state passed the tests. Only 3% of English language learners passed. Only 5% of students with disabilities passed. Fewer than 20% of African American and Hispanic students passed.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan dismissed much of the subsequent outcry over this problem by saying it came from “white suburban moms who — 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.”
- TESTING THE JOY OUT OF EDUCATION: After comedian Louis C.K. made headlines for criticizing the soul-crushing pressure of testing and mind-numbing idiocy of many of the Common Core test questions (See "Louis C.K.: Common Core makes my kids cry"), Diane Ravitch wrote an article agreeing that the Common Core testing was sucking the joy out of education. “I believe that subjecting little children to 6-8 hours of testing to see if they can read and do math is harmful, physically and mentally, to them,” Ravitch wrote. "Long ago, educators were able to find out in tests lasting 50 minutes how well a student could read or do math. Why is it now an ordeal that lasts as long as some professional examinations?” Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who had dismissed concerns over the high rates of Common Core test failure, finally conceded that, “Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy and cause unnecessary stress.”
There are also legitimate complaints about specific standards (including objections over specific required ratios for reading fiction and informational text, and age-inappropriate standards for early grades), and there are legitimate concerns about the very notion that all students should be required to learn more or less the same thing everywhere. Moreover, with all the money, effort, anxiety, and scandal associated with the new standards, a 2012 study from the Brown Center on Education Policy forecast that the standards would have “little to no impact on student learning.”
The best thing we can do for students is to give them more freedom, support, time, and resources to pursue work that is actually interesting to them, and to give the same to teachers to encourage students in that direction.
Read more about the objections to the Common Core: