Common Core: A Failed 'Grand Experiment'

~This post is the first in a planned 3-part series on Common Core~

Top Republican presidential contenders cite Common Core in their stump speeches, seeking political capital and earning audible cheers by referring to Common Core as a "disaster" that must end, or calling for the "repeal [of] every word of Common Core." The Democratic contenders are far quieter on the issue, focusing instead on college and university access.

The call to action is clear. As a failed grand experiment in school reform -- and a costly one, with a nationwide price tag some estimate at $80 billion for teacher training, materials development and purchase, and implementation (from an initial nationwide estimate of $17 billion) -- states must actively reconsider their commitment to Common Core.

With 'war stories' from embattled educators now commonplace, what is painfully clear is that Common Core, which sets standards for K-12 in English language arts (ELA)/literacy and mathematics, has gone horribly, terribly wrong. Each day these demonstrably failed standards remain in place, we betray the trust of U.S. public schoolchildren, parents, teachers, principals, and administrators tethered to flawed, federalized education reform.

Common Core skepticism is on the rise, with concerns from lawmakers, scholars, educators, parents, students, and others that include:

  • Growing opposition to Common Core among teachers and the general public, with a 2015 EdNext poll on school reform showing marked gains in opposition from 2013-2015. In a two-year period, teachers' opposition rose from 12 percent to 50 percent (a more than four-fold gain), while public opposition rose from 13 percent to 35 percent (nearly tripled).

  • In a live Daily Caller poll, 80 percent of respondents say that Common Core should be repealed in every state (late March).
  • School systems caught in a Common Core crossroads, including high-priced curricula and textbooks that claim to be Common Core aligned, but appear rushed-to-market, resulting in erratic (and unverified) quality.
  • A distortion of the teaching and learning process, in which teachers must set pedagogical skill aside and "teach to the test."
  • Indecipherable math problems (see Alec Torres' "The Ten Dumbest Common Core Problems") with frustrated parents and guardians posting sample 'unsolvable' problems online.
  • A "dramatic collapse of test scores," according to research professor Diane Ravitch, in many states a drop of about 30 percent in passing rates, with such 'questionable' outcomes tied to high-stakes evaluations of teachers.
  • Broadly identified as architects of the standards, while the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and Achieve deny that the federal government was involved in standards development, such denial may be far from the truth. Few 'insiders' deny that the standards are a thinly veiled form of federal overreach; others go further, characterizing the standards as conspiratorial. Hastily drafted and improperly vetted, the standards were further hampered by a non-existent implementation strategy.

    Simply put, Common Core is a one-size-fits-all federal "reform" that grossly misses the mark. Through the mechanism of appointed and elected school boards, it is citizen control over public education policy that empowers our nation's grassroots democracy and educational system. States' responsibility for education means that career and college-ready standards that ready students to graduate high school "prepared to success in entry-level careers, introductory academic college courses, and workforce training programs" are best developed at local -- not federal -- levels, with adequate time for academic and public review.

    Many in the education community justly accuse the Department of Education and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of taking steps to end local control through the de facto creation of a national school board. There is perhaps no better example of federal overreach gone awry than the Administration's reauthorization of federal education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, with the equally heavy-handed and ill-conceived Race to the Top.

    Flawed on many levels, Race to the Top fails to improve public education, requiring highly trained teachers to set aside their training and judgment to teach to the test, causing many skilled teachers to leave the profession while also stunting the recruitment pipeline. Race to the Top also promotes the redeployment of limited taxpayer dollars toward private schools, an outcome that erodes existing (and already strained) infrastructure and risks re-segregating schools. Such harsh realities fail America's youth, particularly those living in poverty who must -- for the well-being, economic prosperity and future global competitiveness of our nation -- gain equal access to high-quality education.

    Though the tally has yet to catch up with on-the-ground realities, support for Common Core is waning. At present, leaders of the standards initiative state that 42 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted and are moving forward with them, numbers that fail to account for a growing body of state detractors. (Early non-adopters were Alaska, Indiana, Minnesota [adopted ELA/literacy only, not mathematics], Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.) A growing body of states are developing state-level alternatives to Common Core -- for example, California, Louisiana and Tennessee. Further, key political leaders across the nation, key among them former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker -- all former Republican presidential contenders -- have gone on-record in strong opposition to Common Core.

    With federal control of education a failed model, influential lawmakers, key among them Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), led the call for legislation aimed at putting the brakes on the growing federalization of public education. This bipartisan leadership effort resulted in the December 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA, the long-awaited overhaul of federal education law, significantly narrows the federal government's role in elementary and secondary education, restricting its ability "to coerce states in the adoption of school standards, such as Common Core." Newly flanked by ESSA, states such as Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and others that unsuccessfully attempted to repeal Common Core may gain a second wind.

    The question becomes, with ESSA passage in place that establishes and protects states' control of elementary and secondary education, how long will flawed and failed Common Core standards remain standing? With student outcomes top of mind, how -- and when -- will states act on this important responsibility?

    David A. Pickler, J.D., is president of the American Public Education Foundation, a past president of the National School Boards Association, and Vice-Chair of the Tennessee Academic Standards Recommendation Committee for Mathematics and English Language Arts formed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and other state officials.