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.

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Categories:Education Subsidiarity

18 thoughts on “Who Needs Subsidiarity: A Primer on Common Core

  1. therain says:

    This is a takeover attempt by an EVIL administraion. FIGHT COMMON CORE WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT.

    1. Robert S. says:

      CCSS was brought about by the National Governors Association.

  2. We have forgotten about the Principal of Subsidiarity as part of our lemming leap to ruin. The only way I could feel comfortable with Common Core would be the abolition of all federal involvement in education.

  3. Bill says:

    re: Google Glass — calm down. Google Glass costs $1500 a pair. The battery lasts two hours. It doesn’t work with people who wear glasses. If you have enough of them on line (like several hundred in a typical school), you’re going to tank your WiFi. Big Brother is a long way from watching every classroom.

  4. Gail Finke says:

    Robert S: In theory, teachers can write their own curricula. In practice, how often is that going to happen? Once the textbook companies have a couple of programs set up, it will be far easier just buy them.

    My children attended public Montessori schools. While they were young, our school district went to a uniform curriculum — which effectively negated much of the special curriculum. Montessori schools teach subjects in a different order than most traditional schools, based on child development research by Maria Montessori that has been verified over decades of use. But thanks to the uniform curriculum, the Montessori schools had to teach the same subject matter at the same time as the other schools. So they were “Montessori-like,” but not really Montessori. And they have continued to get less like real Montessori schools as time has passed.

    I don’t see how CCSS can do anything but gut alternative schools. If everyone has to take the same tests at the same time, what other results can there be? The standards are not based on successful working standards in this country or any other. They are not based on child development research. They are being implemented as they are being designed. It’s a ridiculous way to do anything, and it was foisted on the American public without anyone knowing. I am not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but I predict a debacle.

    1. Robert S. says:

      As to your first claim, yes, there is a certain level of control by textbook companies, but that’s always been the case. To allege as the writer of this article did that somehow subsidiarity is NOW being compromised is illogical.

      Further, the Common Core does not mandate curriculum. It mandates core strengths to be mastered by students. It does not dictate how you get there. You can read the standards for yourself: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards

      There is no ‘same tests.’ True, every state could in theory contract with the same assessment firm, but we already see that’s not happening. Testing within the Common Core is separate from the standards design themselves.

      The standards are not being implemented as they are designed. They are already available for public viewing and comment here, as they have been for some time: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards. Next Generation Science Standards have rolled out later, but that was intentional, and their implementation is also on a later schedule.

      Further, to claim that the standards are not based on child development research is just plain false. Some of the top education minds from universities across the country have been tapped for this project. As someone working in higher ed communications, I have reported on this myself.

      Also, these standards have not been “foisted without anyone knowing it.” I have been churning out videos for more than a year with analysis of this topic. This link includes videos posted over the last 2-3 years…with tens of thousands of views. http://bit.ly/13WNTHd

      Now I’m not an education expert (I’m in communications, again), and I don’t know if CCSS will work or not. But I think a lot of the claims you are making can be refuted.

  5. Robert S. says:

    This is a greater reach into public schools than NCLB?

    Further, what you fail to mention is that the Common Core gives guidelines. Teachers are free to write curriculum within the guidelines of the Common Core. This is a serious step away from the teaching to the test virtually mandated by NCLB.

  6. James says:

    So, how do we solve the very real problem of different communities having different standards when many families move during their children’s school years, often multiple times.

    For example, when we moved from NC to SC, we were horrified that the schools in SC were nearly a full year behind those in NC!

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