Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Why Didn’t They See Common Core Fail Coming?

Rick Hess’s article, How the Common Core Went Wrong, unerringly dissects the failures of the proponents’ strategy, no small feat for contemporaneous writing. Granted, he goes off the rails when he offers the states a three step way-out: take back control from the feds, form a small coalition of states willing to implement tough standards consistently and test on them, and make sure they implement the “rigorous” Common Core, not the “frivolous” one. Uh, sure.  (I am reminded of Ender’s siblings Valentine and Peter, who never agreed about what the world ought to be, but rarely disagreed about what the world actually was.)

Here Hess is on the world as it actually is.

The crucial compromise [of NCLB] was that states could set their own standards and tests. In fact, NCLB specifically prohibited national testing or a federally controlled curriculum.

What followed was not difficult to anticipate. The possibility of sanctions gave more than a few state leaders reason to adopt easy tests and lower the scores required for proficiency. A “race to the bottom” was soon underway, prompting an effort to combat the gamesmanship.

In December 2008, Achieve, Inc., the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association issued “Benchmarking for Success,” a report that urged states to develop and adopt common standards; called for federal incentives to promote that effort; and advocated aligning textbooks, curricula, and tests to those standards. If all states played by the same rules, there would be no race to the bottom. (emphasis mine)

Here he is on the world as it ought to be.

A push for a meaningful common measure of educational quality should start with a small number of deeply committed states that choose the rigors of true commonality.

So let’s unpack that.

First, No Child Left Behind set criteria of 100% proficiency with stiff penalties for states that didn’t make progress. In response, states made their tests easier to increase proficiency rates and reduce the noticeable proficiency gap between races, demographics, language status, etc.

Is this true? Yes. Without question, states were lowering cut scores.

So why did they need waivers?

Remember all those media stories recording reformer complaints about low cut scores? Not one reporter asked, “if cut scores were so ridiculously low, why were waivers required? Shouldn’t all the students have been passing?”

Again: The states made the tests easier. They made the tests a lot easier.

And there was still an achievement gap. Not a single state achieved 100% proficiency. 

The Obama administration was able to force states to adopt Common Core because the states needed waivers because various student demographic groups weren’t passing their extremely easy tests.

The governor’s association that dreamed up the need for Common Core didn’t think “Hmm, the states lowered the standards to the point that 10% correct was proficient and still there were kids who didn’t get proficient so maybe we should take a beat and evaluate if perhaps our expectations of all American kids are a tad unrealistic.”

No, what they thought was, “We need to force the states to use a much more difficult common test.”

Now return to the point of my last article, which is that the states are experts at taking federal money without any intention of fulfilling the requirements attached to the largesse (which is only fair, mind you, given the idiotic demands the feds make without anything approaching full funding).

The last law was ignored in everything but spirit and nonetheless drove all the states into non-compliance. The Obama administration used the states’ desperate desire to get a penalty waive to force them to sign up for common standards and collaborate to create really difficult and expensive tests–that they didn’t have to use.

So the states didn’t use them.

The only way you could make states “play by the same rules”, as Hess puts it, is to force them to. He envisioned a voluntary cooperative because, as I said, Hess is better at describing reality than anticipating it. There’s no way states would sign up for tests that would increase their achievement gap. They couldn’t even end the achievement gap by making the tests simple. Why would they sign up for something harder?

Insanity. Also amazingly stupid. And of course, expensive.

At which point you realize that only really unique aspect of Common Core was the redistribution of $345 million  from the federal government to Pearson and other testing companies. Everything else was business as usual: feds hand out money with requirements, the states take the money and ignore the requirements.

Common Core standards survived, sure. But only because the tests didn’t.

Now the standards are just….wallpaper.

Hey, under a thousand.

About educationrealist


8 responses to “Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Why Didn’t They See Common Core Fail Coming?

  • Kelsey

    Could you explain what you mean by the Standards are wallpaper? I have to base all my objectives on Standards which must be written on my board. My subject area has CFAs which are based on a standard. We look at the SBAC to determine which standards are most commonly tested, and use that to determine lessons. Is this not common in California?
    Also, Hess was right about literature – at least in my district. We are told kids don’t need to read books. They only need to close read sections because the point is “making meaning” and “critical thinking”. Is this just my district?

    • educationrealist

      I said Rick Hess described reality exactly, not that he was wrong.

      First, standards as wallpaper is what Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli said the fear was (it’s a shoutback to their quote in an earlier piece).

      Schools that make teachers write their standards on the board are going through a phase. Every school has had to do it at one time or another (although thank god never when I’ve been at them), but every school snaps out of it.

      I’m assuming you’re in elementary or middle school, because it seems like you are testing every year? As you can see from the map in the earlier article, California is one of the few states still using the SBAC. Notice you are focusing on the test, not the standards, to determine what to teach. Which is kind of my point.

      I’m a high school teacher, and HS was largely untouched by CC. BUt if your school is saying kids don’t need to read books, I’d switch schools or ignore the instructions.

      • Jen

        A relative of mine who teaches HS math definitely got affected by common core. Their prior curriculum got thrown out and everything, new textbooks and exams.
        Maybe it varies by state.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I would never say “standards are wallpaper”. I’m a more boring writer than Ed 🙂

      What I would say is, “standards determine what you must teach; they don’t determine what students must learn.” The standards say, “Students will understand X” or “Students will be able to Y.” But that’s not how it works in reality. Rather, a high enough percentage of them must be able to achieve the “cut score” when they are tested on X and Y. Which is pretty much guaranteed to happen because over time the cut score and the difficulty of the tests is adjusted so that a high enough percentage of students get a passing grade. We then insult the English language and say those who passed are “proficient”.

      What students must actually learn is some subset of the standards, maybe a fairly small subset. Even that may be over-optimistic. Those who are really cynical or disappointed would say students don’t have to learn much of anything; they just have to memorize enough to get a passing score on a one-time test, and then let the knowledge “decay”–perhaps to nothing.

  • Calvin Hobbes

    I think this Simpson clip is more appropriate here than on the previous blog post. I’m going to use that an excuse to post it again, just because I love it so much.

  • JG

    When is the next part going to be written? On how ed reform gave up and just decided to blame “White Supremacy” and water-down the curriculum for all students.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, I’m working on that, although that’s not how I’d put it!

      • JG

        Great, I’d love to hear more. A friend asked me if I knew any info on how the Harlem Children’s Zone was doing. I tried to look and could find almost nothing written in the last few years. That seemed odd to me. I wondered if the narrative of Ed reform changed so much that no one was interested in a program like that anymore.

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