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. Maureen Dickson says:

    Seems as we analyze the Common Core issue, we need to realize and accept the bare facts. This is definitely an indoctrination issue and we need to see it as it is – with the approval of ALL educators and parents, without being coerced to “gather ’round the campfire ” and just move in lockstep!
    We are talking here about our precious children and not whether or not this might be of benefit for the stock market, for instance. This seems to be a covert action and very few parents et al even know about this!!!?
    Is that scary, or what?

  2. At the very least, there are problems with MURKY answers and opinions. Facts are–Bill Gates (a lefty) contributed millions. Fact–Bill Ayers and his group from Annenberg have worked on this for years–with a definite ideology not in COMMON with Catholics or most evangelicals. It is a lot like Obamacare in that they pushed it forward before anyone knew what was in it; and a lot like climategate in that they set the goals and found people to support the theories. Any Catholic diocese who implements this has fools in their superintendent position, as well as a duped bishop. If it were only political we could “choose sides” but this is more than that because even some Democrats question it. Dumbing down is not smart.

  3. Jeff says:

    I have to strongly disagree with Mr. Wearne on this particular article. I’m currently in the education program at Arkansas State University, where we have been studying Common Core and its national standards. I feel as if many of my fellow conservatives/Republicans are getting CCSS very wrong. If anything, they should be supporting this measure because it is a state-led initiative, a program the federal government neither designed or operates. The CCSS was established by business leaders and state politicians (including the National Governor’s Association) as an alternative to No Child Left Behind, which we should all agree was one of the largest federal intrusions into public education–this is because the federal government withdrew support from schools if they failed to meet standards. In other words, under NCLB, states were forced to achieve 100% proficiency by the federal government, which caused many states to lower their standards and teachers to “teach to the test.” States can choose to voluntarily join or not join CCSS, and while the standards are the same for every state, each state can decide HOW it wants to implement these standards.

    There is no bureaucrat in Washington telling states what to implement. Federal politicians did not create this curriculum, and no federal politician has the power to regulate it, including the Secretary of the Dept. of Education! It is run entirely by state governments. I like this curriculum because it will make teachers accountable to their state departments of education, not the federal government.

    In fact, teachers seem to have more freedom through this curriculum because they are not forced to measure their students’ achievement through standardized testing. Teachers have more freedom to spend time on those standards they feel like are worth more attention (e.g. writing a persuasive essay, instead of reading works promoting environmental issues). This curriculum is seeking to free teachers of “teaching to the test.” As a future teacher, I’m looking forward to this curriculum because I like the fact that it places an emphasis on getting students college OR career ready. There’s been a general realization by a lot of people (especially business leaders) that students coming out of college are woefully unprepared for the workforce–this curriculum seeks to address that by teaching students skills they need to succeed once out of high school (regardless if they go to some university or not).

    It is true that CCSS may be more expensive to implement, primarily because testing methods will be changed somewhat (standardized testing is by far the cheapest testing method available). I think standardized testing has its place, but it shouldn’t be the SOLE testing method we use in schools–sadly, that’s been primary method we’ve used under No Child Left Behind.

    1. enness says:

      This isn’t state-led, it’s money led. If you want the money, you sign on. That’s not a real choice.

      “The CCSS was established by business leaders and state politicians”
      In other words, people with little or no teaching experience? Am I wrong?

    2. enness says:

      No offense, but you say you are in a program and are a future teacher. Have you done your practicums yet?

      1. Jeff says:

        I’ve been in the field multiple occasions–so yes, I have done my practicums. I’ve taught multiple lessons on a number of occassions, but the real practice won’t come until next semester when I do my full internship at the school. For me, as much as I like Common Core, I don’t find it (or any other new curriculum for that matter) will change the state of the education system all that much. It’s up to individual teachers to do that in their individual classes. I just don’t want people freaking out by thinking Common Core is some attempt by socialist-leaning individuals to manipulate what is being taught to students. It’s not! State officials (along with teaching professionals & business leaders) came together to help build a curriculum, and each state is in charge of implementing it in its own way.

  4. Antonio Sosa says:

    There’s hardly anything more dangerous for our children than the COMMON CORE. Why? Because the COMMON CORE is a means to INDOCTRINATE our children. Obama’s comrades, including communist terrorist Bill Ayers! “Working behind the scenes, implementing these policies and writing the standards are associates from President Obama’s community organizing days.

    “In de facto control of the education component is Linda Darling-Hammond, a radical left-wing educator and close colleague of William “Bill” Ayers, the former leader of the communist terrorist Weather Underground who became a professor of education and friend of Obama’s… http://www.aim.org/special-report/terrorist-professor-bill-ayers-and-obamas-federal-school-curriculum/

    1. Robert S. says:

      Again, this comment is false. The National Governors Association created the Common Core.

      1. Karen S says:

        One thing that is not mentioned is that the push behind Commoncore has been the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation-they are tied in with the administration in pushing a very progressive agenda-Commoncore standards have not been tested even in a small venue- something that has been done in the past with education standards. Ultimately it is putting educators at the mercy of bureaucrats-I have looked at some of the math problems-and answers this should be given to all parents to review. Public school principals and school board members have described Common Core as the “camels nose under the tent” There is no doubt that our education system needs refreshing but it should be left to local and state govt to make decision with parental input. Indoctrination of Americas children – is not what the country needs – back to basics would be a first step in improving education in the country, math, science, reading, writing, history enough of the bs they are fed in today’s schools

      2. enness says:

        And who exactly is that? Who is actually behind the official-sounding title?

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