Common Core: Little evidence to back its big changes

Despite its huge impact on the future of education in California, most Californians are only now learning about the Common Core national education standards that the state adopted several years ago. The reason for this inexcusable lag is because the Common Core creation, adoption and implementation process has lacked transparency. This lack of transparency is a travesty given the debatable quality of the Common Core standards and the effect those standards will have on the ability of Californians to control and influence what goes on in classrooms in our state.

Although the Common Core math and English-language-arts standards are trumpeted as products of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the actual writers of the standards were a small committee of insiders. There was no effort to engage the public, to elicit input or to promote open dialogue.

“There was no discussion, no public debate” when key decisions were made as to what went into Common Core and what stayed out, according to Ze’ev Wurman, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former senior policy official at the U.S. Department of Education. Indeed, meetings of the Council of Chief State School Officers that have discussed the Common Core standards are closed off to the public and parents who have tried to attend these meetings have been shut out.

The federal government got crucially involved in the adoption process through President Obama’s Race-to-the-Top competitive grant program. States had to adopt the Common Core standards in order to get needed points to stand a chance of winning federal dollars. In 2010, states were given just weeks to adopt Common Core, and, of course, most did. With minimal public input, California decided to drop its rigorous top-rated state standards and replace them with the less rigorous Common Core national standards.

For example, under California’s previous state standards, most students took Algebra I in the eighth grade. Under Common Core, most students won’t take Algebra I until the ninth grade. Pushing Algebra I back to the ninth grade will cause difficulty for students who want to take high-level math by their senior year.

According to a 2013 report by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, “If a student does not complete Algebra I until the ninth grade but wants to complete Calculus before graduation the recommendation is that the student double up by taking either Algebra I or Algebra II and Geometry concurrently.” What will be the outcome of forcing students to double up their math courses? No one knows because no research has been done on the effectiveness of Common Core.

This lack of evidence grates on people like Robert Niles, a California parent of an eighth-grader, who complains that there’s been no effort to test “to see if Common Core curricula really outperform other curricula.” “Parents,” he says, “are left wondering why their children’s teachers are scrambling to implement untested lesson plans that too often leave kids confused.” Niles observes, “As my college roommate wrote on Facebook, ‘we’ve replaced No Child Left Behind with Every Child Left in the Dust.’”

Stanford University mathematics professor James Milgram, an architect of California’s previous top-ranked state math standards and a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee, harshly criticizes the rigor of Common Core’s math standards: “With the exception of a few standards in trigonometry, the [Common Core] math standards end after Algebra II. They include no pre-calculus or calculus.”

Indeed, William McCallum, one of the authors of the Common Core math standards, has admitted that the standards are not high, “certainly not in comparison [to] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.” No wonder then that Milgram and Dr. Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and also a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee, have written that “a gigantic fraud has been perpetrated on this country, in particular on parents in this country, by those developing, promoting, or endorsing Common Core’s standards.”

If the quality of the Common Core standards is a fraud committed against parents and their children, then Common Core’s disempowerment of parents is a crime against participatory democracy.

Unlike previous state and local standards, where the public could take their complaints to their state legislators or local school board members, or even organize to push ballot measures, Ze’ev Wurman warns that there’s no process to change Common Core.

At the same time that Governor Jerry Brown has commendably increased local control over education dollars, Common Core is undercutting local control by pushing control over standards, testing and curricula to Washington bureaucracies and well-connected private foundations, companies and interest groups. Responding to a growing bipartisan grass roots outcry, lawmakers in other states are introducing legislation to opt out of Common Core. California should join the rebellion.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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