Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Meltdown Came

I categorized the glory years by president, but the way down it has to be by subject. Common Core’s catastrophic fall requires much explaining.

When we left off, the Obama admininstration had enacted a significant chunk of the accountability education reformers’ agenda (remember, the three legs of  modern reform are accountability, choice, and curriculum). By holding out dollars to cash-starved states, Obama and Arne “convinced” a lot of states to first adopt one national common academic standard (purely voluntary! not federal!) and then to use the brand new tests they promised to buy in order to evaluate teachers. Ironically, they were able to basically coerce states into taking these actions because of the policy failure that was No Child Left Behind, designed to evaluate schools based on test scores. Unsurprisingly, they were undaunted.

So what happened? Why is 2012 the turnaround year?

2012: Braking

In 2012, the Republicans started to  split on the Common Core. This was a completely unanticipated development. Republican politicians, at least, unhesitatingly support education reform, the better to document the achievement gap, blame teachers for the achievement gap, fire the teachers and, ideally, end tenure.

But  Obama ran for re-election claiming credit for “demanding” standards and tests, which was nails on a chalkboard to Tea Party folks after the narrow Obamacare victory.  When he won in 2012, the ACA became a near-certainty, leading many red state legislatures began looking for ways to stop what they saw as Obama extending control. Education, the last redoubt of state control, became an obvious choice  given Obama’s regular rhetoric about demanding behavior and compliance from the states–to say nothing of revoking waivers when states didn’t comply with their demands….sometimes.

Political Maneuvering

It wasn’t just Republicans by any means. Common Core got beat down on all sides. And not all the efforts to repeal Common Core succeeded in the early days. But the breadth and depth of the pushback was helped along all those eager GOP legislators eager to call hearings and write new laws to do what they could to limit the encroachment of (as they saw it) Obama’s influence on their education.

Financially, they were aided by organizations that are usually strongly in support of education reform: Koch Brothers, Heritage Foundation, and so on.  Republican politicians got the message; notable flipflops were Chris Christie and  Bobby Jindal. Ultimately, Jeb Bush and John Kasich were the only holdouts.

Importantly, the political efforts  were aided by the first group of Common Core naysayers, the ones who’d opposed it from the start: the academics.

ELA Opposition

Sandra Stotsky, who wrote the famous Massachussetts standards, was furious that the state had abandoned them and came out against Common Core in 2010, offering testimony for any state legislature that asked her. Emory professor Mark Bauerlein joined her in opposition, as did a large number of 6-12 grade English teachers. The ELA debate was, as Tom Loveless characterized it, “inside baseball” , involving the degree to which the standards devalued literature in favor of informational texts, giving equal weight to both.

Common Core ELA writers (some might say compilers) David Coleman and Susan Pimental protested that their standards were intended for the “broad spectrum” of subjects–not just ELA but also math, science, and history. And that, readers, explains why ELA opposition was limited to the second half of the educational age group. Elementary school teachers cover all subjects and, when faced with additional informational text requirements could decide to reallocate time in the other three subjects. stealing from history, math, and science to teach reading and ELA.

But in middle school and beyond, teachers cover just one subject. Speaking as a credential holder of three of the four academic topics, I can assure you that math, history, and science teachers have spent not one second outside of mandatory PD mulling their informational text responsibilities to the ELA Common Core. They weren’t worried about ELA standards. They weren’t going to have their performance assessed by the ELA test. Responsibility for test scores would lie entirely on the English teachers. And Coleman and Pimental were telling those English teachers “oh, don’t worry, those topics are for other teachers to cover” and the English teachers looking back at them in horror thinking “oh, my lord, these standards were built by jackasses who know fuck-all about reality.”

Another common complaint was likewise accurate but got less attention: the Common Core ELA standards seemed much more focused on writing than reading, and much more focused on writing as critical reasoning than as personal narrative.

Math Opposition–High School

Opposition to Common Core math at the high school level is a bit complicated–in my view, considerably more insider baseball than the ELA ones.

Unlike the academic opponents on the ELA side, James Milgram and Ze’ev Wurman  didn’t get nearly the traction for complaining that the math Core was too easy and didn’t go far enough.  Every math teacher I talked to who had actually looked at the standards thought this argument was insane. As I wrote in the article that gave this one its name, the standards drastically increased the cognitive demands for elementary school math in order to move half of geometry concepts and most of algebra 1 into 7th and 8th grade math, thus transforming algebra 1 into a a course that most schools would call algebra 2. Milgram, Wurman, and others ignored all this and focused on the fact that Common Core standards put algebra in ninth grade, meaning no students could take calculus in high school, putting them at a disadvantage in college admissions.

Tom Loveless suggested that Common Core might be dogwhistling de-tracking, just as the standards also  opened a window for Integrated Math  and “conceptual understanding“. He argued that the Common Core math standards were an implicit invitation to schools to implement NCTM standards, root cause of the math wars of the 90s.

These debates didn’t find much purchase in the mainstream media.  High school math teachers understandably considered fewer unprepared kids in advanced math a feature, not a bug. Shifting to integrated math, of course, is a different matter. As I’ll go over in the next post, Loveless is correct–the standards were inducement to states and districts to implement math reforms that were otherwise politically impossible.

But for the most part, as I’ve tweeted possibly a zillion times (with Tom Loveless’s agreement, no less!) high school was almost completely unaffected by Common Core requirements, math or otherwise.

Math Opposition–Elementary School

Unlike the high school opposition, the complaints about elementary school math were bottom up. Parents were really annoyed. I think this 2012 Barry Garelick article was the first one I read to explicitly mention  problems parents were seeing while helping their kids with homework, but eventually those complaints exploded into media stories.

Why the explosion? The math was a lot harder. To restate, Common Core math standards were designed to shove a lot of math concepts and abstractions earlier into a student’s development. As a tradeoff, they delayed a lot of operational math until later grades. So younger students were learning a great deal about place value and grouping numbers and the conceptual underpinnings of subtraction and addition (i.e., number sense), but the algorithms were delayed–long division is pushed to sixth grade, simple “stacked addition” didn’t have to be mastered, and so on. So not only were kids not acquiring what the public considered basic skills, but they were spending time and energy mastering longer algorithms and processes without really grasping the “conceptual underpinnings” that were the purpose of the longer processes. The parents didn’t grasp them either.

Testing Opt Out

Adding to all the drama, one of the earliest states to use the new tests was New York, home to New York City, home to any number of hyper-competetive drama queens, and that’s just the parents.  This Times story covers the anguish after the ELA portion of the test, before the almost certainly greater trauma of the math, and notes that  “Even outside of New York City, there was an unusual amount of protest.”

In fact, though, NYC parents were relatively slow to the testing opt-out movement, which already had some small traction in New York and New Jersey, but was never a real political force until the Common Core tests. In 2013, 320 students opted out–a tiny number, but still a surprise to the DoE. At the same time, a number of NYC’s selective “choice” schools (as if there is such a thing) announced that they would not use Common Core tests for admission criteria. But in some New York suburbs , particularly Suffolk County and areas of Long Island, opting out had already reached 5% or higher in 2013, and by 2015, many areas had exceeded 50%. Opting out spread to other states, notably Colorado and Florida.

I don’t have any real insight into any reasons for opting out other than the reported ones: the parents thought both the writing and math tests were ridiculously difficult for their kids. Famously, a pilot ELA common core test had a reading passage about a talking pineapple that approached magical realism–and questions that made no sense at all.

High school students, particularly in wealthy and/or high achieving districts, often gave the tests a pass and not just in New York City. They were studying for AP tests and the SAT/ACT,  and had no interest in helping their communities maintain real estate values.

David Coleman was wrong. So was Arne.

Coleman was wrong about many things as he meandered a series of jobs from McKinsey Consultant to startup founder of software company that *presented* test results–that is, just data display–to “emerging evangelical of standards” buddy of Gene Wilhoit to the guy who Bill Gates gave tons of money to in order to “found” Student Achievement Partners so that he and Jason Zimba could singlehandledly write up Common Core standards to the president of the College Board who led a horrible redesign of the SAT that has led more and more people to demand for its elimination from college admissions.  Coleman’s gift is to convince people through ready adoption of buzzwords and an unhealthy dose of overconfidence that he can master any task he turns his hand to.

But the subheading refers to  his famous comment in response to concerns that the writing standards focused on argument rather than personal narrative:  “no one gives a shit how you feel.”

Turns out, a lot of people had feelings about Common Core, and a whole bunch of other people gave a shit.

Arne Duncan just as famously sneered about how fascinating it was that “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.”  Arne didn’t understand that it wasn’t “fascinating” that white suburban moms didn’t like his innovations, it was fatal.

Denouement

So the political turnaround on Common Core, the constant attempts by most GOP state legislators to repeal adoption, had a ready supply of respectable academics to give testimony, lots of angry parents, a huge chunk of whom were liberal Democrats, and a working class base that was becoming extremely angry at the Republican national establishment going along with Obama.

By 2014, almost every state was fighting some kind of political or grass roots action–meaning, when Louis CK, beloved (at the time) of the smart set, blasted Common Core for making his daughters hate math, there was a huge audience that knew exactly what he was talking about. A year later, John Oliver provided another benchmark of Not Cool by spending  entire Last Week Tonight mocking not just the tests, but President Obama.

Not all the efforts to ban Common Core were successful by 2014, but look through this list and see if you can find any state other than California, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont that hadn’t either made concessions (delayed testing at least a year, delay teacher evals based on tests), fought back constant attempts to repeal, or left the testing consortium to placate angry opponents.

Originally, 46 states and DC approved Common Core. Since 2017, just 17 have the same standards with no changes. Another nine states still have the standards, but made minor changes. Twelve states have made far more substantial changes. And eight have withdrawn entirely.

Whatever else they are, the standards are no longer common.

But so what? If most states are mostly using the standards, why the big deal? Why did you, Ed, devote an entire post to the “core meltdown”?

Good question.

Start with this fact: standards are irrelevant. Tom Loveless pointed this out as early as 2012:

Standards have been a central activity of education reform for the past three decades. I have studied education reform and its implementation since I left the classroom in 1988. I don’t know of a single state that adopted standards, patted itself on the back, and considered the job done. Not one. States have tried numerous ways to better their schools through standards. And yet, good and bad standards and all of those in between, along with all of the implementation tools currently known to policymakers, have produced outcomes that indicate one thing: Standards do not matter very much….On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the common core will have little to no effect on student achievement.

(Tom Loveless is right. A lot.)

Using history as a guide, Common Core at best wasn’t going to make any difference.  But instead, Arne Duncan, Obama, and ed reformers promised that Common Core was the secret to 21st century success. No, not just the secret–the key. The essential element. They bribed states to adopt the standards.

They spent billions to get rebellion, bad press, ridicule and standards that exist in name only. They achieved bipartisan hatred and did much to drive the repudiation of an entire movement.

You know what they didn’t get? Well, stay tuned.

(Note: I finished most of this a month ago, but had to figure out a cutoff. More coming, I hope. Had a tough last week. Borrowed the comic.)

About educationrealist


8 responses to “Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Meltdown Came

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