Who Needs Subsidiarity: A Primer on Common Core

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{Please welcome the first post by guest contributor Eric Wearne. -Ed.}

As each new school year comes along, most states are moving further in trying to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  States are voluntarily ceding some of their decision making power over public schools to larger organizations, which has some people excited, and others concerned; this post will describe some of the major issues involved at the moment, by answering some common questions.

What are the Common Core State Standards?

The Common Core State Standards are a set of English and Math standards that are meant to largely replace current state standards for public schools.  The English standards come with a suggested reading list.

Is this a federal takeover of schools?

No, but it is a greater reach into local schools by national actors than has been the case in the past.  Accepting the CCSS was a scoring criterion for the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition (Of the states that still do not use Common Core, none of them won Race to the Top money in the main rounds.  Some never applied; some applied in round 1 but not round 2;  others applied in both, but scored toward the bottom each time.  None of these necessarily stayed out or lost just because of Common Core, but that surely hurt their chances if they did apply).  States have joined this club voluntarily; the federal government itself doesn’t “own” the CCSS.  But it’s not clear at all who really does.  The actual governance structure remains, several years in, very murky.  Even if the standards were universally accepted as excellent, at some point they will need to be revisited.  But who gets to call for revisions?  And what is the process to do so?  If there is a problem, to whom does a state complain?  There is no transparently accountable governing body.

What about the tests?

In terms of implementation, the tests are probably more important than the standards themselves.  Currently, every state contracts with testing companies to produce tests for them.  As states began adopting CCSS, having the economies of scale that would be possible by adopting uniform standards was a major selling point of supporters.  Now, it looks like the tests will be significantly more expensive than states’ current tests. The federal government (not the states), through the U.S. Department of Education, has funded two multi-state testing consortia through Race to the Top. States have begun to balk at the estimated cost of the tests, so it is unclear at this point how many will actually participate. A separate, longer-term question that has been raised in several places is: what do these tests mean regarding data collection on students for those states who do use the tests?  I’ve written elsewhere about the potential problems related to “Big Data” in education:

How long will it be before the first researcher suggests we outfit entire classes in Google Glass, so that we can gather data on what teachers are doing and what students are paying attention to at any moment?  Anyone horrified or surprised by such a suggestion should pay closer attention to how inexorably Big Data works. Teachers and parents, ask yourselves if you are interested in this kind of future… (And, lest we forget, it’s not as if the private sector is particularly interested in protecting privacy.  See Google, TargetFacebookApple, etc.)

What might the Common Core mean for charter schools, private schools, and homeschoolers?

First, all charter schools are public schools.  To the extent a state either uses CCSS tests or bases its own tests on the CCSS, charter schools will be held accountable to them through mandatory state testing requirements and the terms of their charter.  Private schools and homeschoolers will not be affected that way, but there could very conceivably be some indirect implications.  If accrediting bodies were to build CCSS into their requirements, many private schools would have to either address them or seek another form of accreditation.  The organizations responsible for the SAT, ACT, and GED, have said they will align their work with the CCSS.  So private and homeschool students could be disadvantaged when taking those tests and trying to compete for spots at selective colleges.  As an aside: Is this an attempt to take over homeschooling by the federal government?  No, but it is very clear that the current Department of Justice thinks very little of homeschoolers’ independence.

Are the new standards better than the old ones?

I will answer that question with another question: Given everything else above, how much does that matter?  Standards have typically been set by individual states; the CCSS have been rated as better than some and worse than others.   There has been some argument over whether the suggested English reading list drives out literature in favor of presidential executive orders.  (No, really).  If a work is suggested, and then is tested, it is a safe bet that state and local school officials will want students to read that and not something else, regardless of whether or not better works are also on a long list of suggested readings.  Supporters will cite this as evidence of flexibility in the CCSS.  But in practice, curricular choices will come down to what types of works schools are held accountable for.  And if parents disagree with the approach a school takes, they can complain to teachers…who will blame administrators…who will blame state leaders…who will blame the CCSS reading list, which is governed and set by…well, no one can really say.  And nothing will likely change.  So the question shouldn’t be: “Are the CCSS better or worse?”  It should be “Why are we all jumping into the same boat when we don’t at all agree on where we’re going?”

What does the future hold?

The CCSS effort is already starting to show cracks as real implementation starts in the states.  (The Next Generation Science Standards, a separate but similar effort, were announced recently, to relatively little fanfare.  Had things been going better for CCSS, surely these science standards would have received more attention than they did).  Joining the effort three years ago was easy; a state board of education vote, with no actual requirements coming until several years later is totally free.  Now that states are changing curricular materials and being asked to pay for new and more expensive tests, some are starting to drop out of the testing efforts.  The most likely outcome is that in a few years we will see lots of states who say they are “common core aligned,” whatever that means to them, but hardly anyone will be giving the same tests, and no two states will be using the same cut scores or accountability measures on those tests, but the SAT and other national tests will have more CCSS-style questions and readings.  So rather than having a set of truly comparable standards, with less expensive, commonly shared tests, we are likely to end up with school outcomes that are no more comparable than they are today, and tests that are at least as expensive as they are now, if not more so.  And we will have significantly damaged the concept of subsidiarity as it relates to schools (or, “local control,” as many like to say) in the process.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Eric Wearne is an assistant professor of education at a college outside Atlanta, and teaches undergraduate courses on assessment. He also teaches literature at St. John Bosco Academy, a hybrid homeschool/private high school, and is a founding board member at Latin Academy Charter School, a startup middle school in Atlanta. Prior to joining the faculty, Eric served as Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, where he helped design and conduct Georgia’s first statewide standardized testing audit. His work has been published by the Journal of School Choice, the Cato Institute, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He began his career as a high school English teacher, and is a convert to the Catholic faith. He also writes at www.ericwearne.com.

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