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The Federalist Debate: Pullman vs. Petrilli On Common Core

Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute and Joy Pullmann of the Heartland Institute debate Common Core.

Opening Statement – Joy Pullman

Despite its deep effects on the character of our nation, conservatives and the general population often ignore what children are learning except when their own are in school, so I thank everyone reading this debate and my worthy, tenacious opponent, Mike Petrilli, for your time and attention. National Common Core testing and curriculum mandates are destructive, overall, but one good side-effect is creating the opportunity to discuss what children will learn, and why.

Opinion polls continue to show that the general public is ill-informed not just about education policy, but about Common Core particularly. The latest I’m aware of, from Tennessee, finds that 58 percent of adults don’t know what Common Core is. That’s rather astonishing considering that Common Core will ultimately influence almost everything about pre-K through higher education in this country except sundry administrative affairs like bus schedules and lunch menus.

In short, Common Core is a set of central mandates called standards that set what children will be tested on in English and math in grades K-12. Forty-five states have decided to reorient their curriculum and teacher training and evaluations around these mandates, in large part because of demands by the Obama administration. The Obama administration, notwithstanding three federal laws against federal interference with curriculum and testing, is currently the exclusive funder and evaluator of national tests to enforce Common Core that will roll out this coming school year.

Widespread ignorance of this initiative despite its massive effects is a feature, not a bug, of the process that created it. Proponents like to insist Common Core originated in a “state-led” process, but the truth is that a group of private trade organizations commissioned a small group of consultants to write Common Core behind closed doors. There is no legal authority in this country for elected leaders to gather together and write policies except in the halls of Congress. But Americans do not like Congress getting too involved in education, a sensible sentiment given that our Constitution reserves that right to the states under the Tenth Amendment, so those who want a centralized education system in this country decided to go through nonprofit organizations, conveniently circumventing open records and open meetings laws that apply to public bodies such as state boards of education and legislatures. To this day, we have no idea what the people who wrote Common Core were paid and by whom, who called what shots and why, the negotiations that took place, and more extremely pertinent information.

Before this group published Common Core’s final version in June 2010, the Obama administration came into office. Congress, in its wisdom, had already granted it a bajillion-dollar slush fund called 2009’s “stimulus package,” and $4.35 million of that became a U.S. Department of Education slush fund that the administration used to push states into adopting its policy priorities during a panicky recession. It created a set of competitive grants that awarded extra points to states that adopted Common Core and its tests, which were then (and still for the tests) sight unseen. Common Core was actually published on June 2, 2010, but the Obama administration’s deadlines to sign onto it to get priority for these funds were January 19, 2010 and June 1, 2010. A draft of Common Core was not even available until March 2010, after approximately a third of states had already promised the federal government they would switch over to it. Thirty-seven business days after Common Core was released, and with little fanfare, a majority of states had jumped into this massive, experimental shift for their education systems. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama rightfully claimed his administration had “convinced almost every state” to adopt Common Core through stimulus grants. To this day, only a handful has even sketched out what this will cost taxpayers financially, and none have demanded hard data on whether it will be effective at improving education (good thing, because none exists, and in fact studies tend to say standards are a waste of time entirely).

It is not surprising that this pell-mell, elite-driven, closed-doors process created a set of what can only accurately be described as mediocre mandates.

It is not surprising that this pell-mell, elite-driven, closed-doors process created a set of what can only accurately be described as mediocre mandates. Again, the PR line says that Common Core is “internationally benchmarked” and “rigorous,” but evaluations done both by organizations with financial reasons to favor Common Core, such as Petrilli’s Fordham Institute, and by independent scholars conclude that not only will Common Core graduate students prepared at best for a two-year community college (no normal person’s definition of “internationally competitive”), several states already had better standards. Despite this, Petrilli continues to insist that because Common Core is a step up for some states, we should refrain from insisting that all children should get the best we know is available and not mind that these best states dumbed down their academic offerings when they accepted Common Core. I and many parents find that utterly unacceptable.

The grassroots furor over Common Core—which has led to 37 states considering withdrawals or amendments—is not from moms and dads who want their kids to skate through school, as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan implied a few months back. These parents want more, and better for their kids than “a step in the right direction.” I wager that 90 percent of the debate over Common Core would instantly dissipate if states adopted the top-rated standards from, say, Massachusetts or Indiana and dropped the Obama administration tests. Children right now in third and fourth grade do not have a second chance to learn what they need ten years down the road when we finally figure out that Common Core didn’t give it to them.

There are many other concerns with Common Core, such as the extent to which its tests grant direct federal access to kids’ personal information and will micromanage teachers through new test-driven evaluations. As I said in the beginning, Common Core touches almost everything. But if I must pick the biggest concerns, for me they are the lack of academic quality and the technocratic central planning Common Core demands. It is our American birthright to have a voice in the policies that govern our lives and our futures, and for various governments and entities to be restrained from controlling what rightfully belongs to parents and local communities. Common Core has traded that birthright for a mess of pottage.

Opening Statement – Mike Petrilli

It’s not lost on me that I’m one of the most prominent conservatives still publicly supporting the Common Core State Standards (“tenaciously,” according to Joy—a compliment I’ll take!). Nor am I surprised that so many on the right instinctively distrust the effort—for reasons of history both ancient and recent. The left has been foisting ill-conceived ideas on the nation’s schools pretty much forever, ranging from the silly (the self-esteem movement) to the ridiculous (ebonics) to the truly harmful (“rain forest math”). And in terms of recent history, we are living through the impact of the left’s centralizing, micro-managing, nanny state machinations on all manner of policies, ObamaCare especially. Common Core appears to fit this narrative all too well.

Yet, over the course of this dialogue, I’ll argue that the ObamaCare analogy is far from perfect. While there has been a small federal role—one magnified by President Obama’s credit-taking and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s name-calling—this is hardly a federal project. It was started by the states, and its future rests in the hands of the states. Furthermore, in many respects, Common Core is a conservative triumph, as the vast majority of states have moved from vague, low-level, and often leftish academic standards to challenging, straightforward, no-nonsense ones. As Republican speechwriter Michael Gerson argued last year, “Localism is an important conservative principle, but so is excellence.”

But are the standards excellent? Here I look forward to a vigorous debate with Joy, who has been one of the fiercest, yet fairest, critics of the Common Core. In a recent piece for School Reform News, she not only had nice things to say about me (again, I’ll take it!) but also took a strong stand against one of the most dishonest tactics of some Common Core opponents: Equating every bad lesson plan or textbook with the new standards, regardless of how tenuous the link. It’s an easy and effective parlor trick, and I appreciate and respect Joy’s integrity in choosing not to deploy it.

So I look forward to diving into issues of federalism, and the content of the standards, as our dialogue unfolds. But first let me restate why the country is so in need of higher standards and tougher tests in the first place—and why the nation’s governors and state superintendents agreed to work on common standards way back when Barack Obama was just the junior senator from Illinois.

The case for college and career-ready standards:

We all know that there’s a lot of testing in our schools today. And while nobody loves testing (or “central mandates,” in Joy’s parlance), it’s important to know that the advent of standards, testing, and accountability—driven mostly by conservatives—has been associated with big gains in achievement for our lowest performing students. Nationally, or lowest performing students, our lowest-income students, and our minority students are achieving one to two grade levels ahead of where their peers were in the mid-1990s.

The bad news is that it’s come with many unintended consequences—the narrowing of the curriculum, an obsession in some schools on test prep, and a lack of focus on students at the middle or at the top.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s come with many unintended consequences—the narrowing of the curriculum, an obsession in some schools on test prep, and a lack of focus on students at the middle or at the top. And as a result, while we’ve made huge gains for the kids at the bottom, we’ve made smaller gains for everyone else.

It’s not hard to understand why. Most states set their standards, and especially their tests, at ridiculously low levels. And the No Child Left Behind Act put pressure on schools to get all students over that very low bar. So all of the attention went to the students below that bar—the lowest performing kids. And they made gains. Important, historic gains worth celebrating.

But there were no incentives for schools to focus on kids at the middle, or at the top.

That’s created a really big problem. Think of it from a student’s perspective. They march through the public education system, they pass the state tests every year, they pass their courses (often with honors grades), and they earn a high school diploma. But because the standards have been set too low, passing the tests, and earning a diploma, doesn’t actually mean they are ready for what comes next.

So they get to college, and enroll, and take out student loans. And then are told, “I’m sorry, you’re not actually ready for college. You have to take one, two, maybe three math classes, or one, two, three writing classes, before you can even start earning credits.” Before they can even get to the starting line.

And you can imagine how angry these young people would be. And deserve to be. “I did everything you told me to do. I passed all the exams. I passed all of my courses. I earned a diploma.” And most drop out—before ever getting past remedial education.

Because we set the standards too low—because we didn’t align the expectations of the public education system with the demands of the real world—we sent false signals for years that all was well, when in fact many students were not on track for success. We lied to kids, and to their families, and to the taxpayers.

Or imagine if a high school graduate goes straight into a workforce. They show up for a “middle skill” job, one that demands a decent wage. And again, the employer says, “I’d like to hire you, but you don’t have the math or reading or writing or critical thinking skills we need.”

Lied to.

This was the problem that the nation’s governors and state superintendents were trying to tackle when they came together back in 2007 and 2008 to talk about developing common, rigorous standards for English and math. Could they, working jointly, and with support from the philanthropic sector, come up with common, high standards in these basic subjects, and provide the political cover to one another to set the bar where the real world standard really is? Could together they find the political courage to start telling the truth—that in fact our public education system is only preparing about one-third of our graduates for success in college or career, and that we need to do much better? And could raising the bar help us get the kind of progress for kids at the middle and at the top that we’ve seen for kids at the bottom of the performance spectrum?

The result was the Common Core, which, as I’ll argue, is significantly stronger than what three-quarters of the states had in place before, and on par with the rest. Standards which were adopted by state boards of education after public hearings and votes—the standard operating procedure for, well, standards.


Even Joy will acknowledge that today’s system is a “mess of pottage.” Standards that are too low, tests that are too easy, students who aren’t prepared for what comes next. And while I would applaud any state that wants to adopt other college-and-career ready standards that aren’t the Common Core—she mentions those previously in place in Indiana and Massachusetts—Joy should admit that there’s no clear path forward for states wanting to do just that. Indiana is trying, as we speak, to develop new standards under the direction of its legislature. But its Department of Education managed to draft standards that are worse than the very good Common Core expectations and worse than Indiana’s old standards, even though these two sets of standards are quite similar (and similarly good). Meanwhile Indiana’s teachers have been trained on the Common Core and have started preparing for the Common Core tests. Would you like to explain to them why the Hoosier State is going to throw a wrench into all of their efforts? Because of what, politics?

Joy and I, like most conservatives, agree on many fundamentals about education reform: Expanded parental choice is essential; Teachers must be held accountable for raising achievement; Unions are a huge problem. But when it comes to higher standards we will have to agree to disagree, because I for one view them as an indispensable weapon in the war on ignorance and hopelessness.

Let the debate begin!

Response #1: Joy

First, thanks to Mike for his gentlemanly opening words. He’s certainly right about one big thing: public officials have been deceiving taxpayers and kids about the quality of the education they’re dishing up. But I think Common Core is just another version of this deception, dressed up in shinier clothes.

What makes it possible for schools to continue giving kids diplomas that are not worth the fake parchment they’re printed on? When our pediatrician kept not having the vaccines we needed, making us wait for 45 minutes with a naked, squalling baby, and charging us more than our friends’ charged, I switched pediatricians. People with unsatisfactory doctors and plumbers and mechanics tell everybody and find a new service provider.

But public schools are largely insulated from the consequences of their failure. If a school doesn’t teach a kid how to read, the kid loses out, not the school. That’s because most public schools have a captive market. They get students—and therefore public money—whether they teach those kids anything or not. That worked alright back when there was a cultural consensus over what kids would learn, and schools had more effective local accountability because they were locally controlled, and teachers didn’t have to co-parent because moms and dads stayed married and usually one was home to bring up the kids full time.  But once all these things disintegrated and were replaced by more and more centralized, monopoly-creating mandates (such as that teachers must all be trained by one type of institution and those started to de-emphasize the knowledge teachers needed to help kids succeed because teachers colleges didn’t lose students for turning out poor ones), schools degraded.

Mike’s Fordham Institute has memorialized the day America realized this degradation with President Reagan’s A Nation at Risk report. But instead of realizing that central planning was a central problem, business and political leaders decided that more central planning was the answer! That’s when, in the late 80s and early 90s, they began pushing education “standards” and tests. (I put “standards” in scare quotes because they have never really deserved the name, which I’ll talk about in a second.) Standards—or, really, curriculum mandates, which is what I will continue to call them—promised conservatives the ability to impose their ideas of what kids should learn on those unruly, leftist teacher colleges. Unfortunately, those teacher colleges trained the “experts” who wrote the standards, and liberals naturally demanded a seat at the table for teachers unions and other establishment “stakeholders,” creating the very sort of bureaucratic committee which can never issue a quality product because the only thing that pleases everyone is a pile of pablum, at best (which is, by the way, why textbooks so uniformly suck).

Of course, the federal government never saw an education idea it didn’t want its sticky fingers on despite its lack of legal authority to touch education, so we had Congress offering states money for “voluntarily” adopting these curriculum mandates. When that didn’t work, 2001’s No Child Left Behind decided more central planning was order, and made everyone adopt “standards” which they would lose money for not meeting. Not surprisingly, states set standards a syphilitic ant could reach.

Again, rather than realizing federal mandates had created this problem, authoritarians of all political flavors decided federal mandates would solve it. (And Mike can’t pretend Common Core started “state-led” when the people running the thing from the beginning begged for federal funds and mandates before President Obama took office and happily obliged.) Then we had déjà vu all over again, with essentially the same process. And here we are, with school instruction about to be essentially nationalized through federal tests.

Even if we concede that central mandates are a good way to run education, these central mandates are not good ones.

Even if we concede that central mandates are a good way to run education, these central mandates are not good ones. Here’s where the false promise of Common Core becomes apparent. Even if we concede that central mandates are a good way to run education, these central mandates are not good ones. A notable number of experts have either declared or conceded that a curriculum built around Common Core itself will not prepare students for the very things they keep telling us it will, like college. It will get kids ready for a two-year community college, Common Core lead writer Jason Zimba told the Massachusetts Department of Education (which has been confirmed by audio recording despite Zimba’s protestations on Fordham’s blog).

Maybe that’s what business front groups mean when pretending that Common Core is “internationally benchmarked” and will make us “internationally competitive,” but I don’t think so. Considering that our international competitors introduce more advanced math concepts several years earlier than Common Core, for just one example of its overall mediocrity, it sounds like they’re uncritically accepting deceptive talking points. Further, notice that Mike doesn’t respond, really, when I say that parents righteously want the best for their kids, and it’s cheating them to pretend that forcing them to take “good enough” is a big victory we should celebrate.

The standards themselves read like the product of any bureaucratic mind-meld. Try some of it on for size. Reading standard RF.K.3B says “Associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.” That sounds really impressive, until someone who knows better analyzes it, as Dr. Terrence Moore has this one. Let me quote him:

Presumably the authors of the standard are telling teachers to teach children the long and short sounds of the vowels. But that is not what it says. Rather, students are supposed to associate (know?) the long and short sounds when they see “the common spellings . . . for the five major vowels.” What?

Now ask yourself: How many ways are there to spell the letter A? I can only think of one, unless you mean to distinguish between capitals and lower case, which is not what is being said. A is always spelled A. Even if we give the original authors of this standard and the Indiana committee the benefit of the doubt, and allow them to claim that learning the vowel sounds was what they meant, we still have the problem of the more generous reading of the standard not being true, either, or at best only half true. Why learn only the short and long sounds? Every vowel except for e has more than a long and a short sound. The letter A, for example, has four sounds: /ă/, /ā/, /ah/, /aw/, as in at, tape, want, talk. Consider the word father. You do not call your father your făther, nor your fāther. Yet this simple truth about the code that is the English alphabet is lost on the very people who are in charge of writing “standards” for our children’s schools.

The answer to the destructive unintended consequences of central planning is not more central planning and mandates on ordinary folks from elitist bureaucrats who will never meet their test subjects. It is to realize that central planning disempowers average folks and advantages the well-connected, and in the process destroys quality. Time to try something else: Set people free to choose a different kind of school when their current one will not educate their child.

Response #1: Mike

Now we’re getting somewhere! Joy does this debate a great service by acknowledging what this is really about. Fundamentally it’s not that she disagrees with the specifics of what’s in the Common Core, or how they came to be (though it’s obvious that she’s not a fan of some of the details, or the process). She equates the standards-and-accountability movement writ large with central planning. Joy doesn’t want the public schools accountable to anyone except for parents.

That’s a legitimate, libertarian position, but one at odds with decades of conservative thought, Republican policy, and, in my view, common sense. The problem isn’t her advocacy for parental choice–we are in agreement about that. The question is whether the best policy is “choice alone” or “choice plus accountability for results.” It’s not a close call.

Opening these schools to competition via vouchers, charter schools, or scholarship tax credits should absolutely be a part of the equation.

For sure, Joy is right that “schools are largely insulated from the consequences of their failure” because “most public schools have a captive market.” Opening these schools to competition via vouchers, charter schools, or scholarship tax credits should absolutely be a part of the equation.

But it’s not the entire equation. Consider this: Education is a private good (we want our own children to have access to great schools) but also a public good (we’re all better off with a well-educated citizenry–that’s why we subsidize education with tax dollars). School choice is essential for satisfying the demands of parents (the private good) but some sort of external accountability is essential for satisfying the demands of taxpayers (the public good).

Now, proponents of school choice will argue that parents will exercise greater quality control over the schools than public bodies will; I generally agree. At a macro-level, choice and competition will lift all boats by making schools more responsive to families. It will also create a system which will be less antagonistic to parents’ values and aspirations for their children–an important feature.

But will school choice alone lead to better student achievement results than choice plus accountability? I see no evidence for that proposition. In fact, the lesson from twenty years of charter schooling is that states that have stressed quality and results get better outcomes than those that have embraced a laissez-faire system. The hard truth is that some parents will settle for crummy schools–but they will gravitate toward stronger schools if those are the ones allowed to open and grow.

Of course, the notion that policymakers are choosing between “universal school choice” and “standards based reform” is a false dichotomy. Not only could these two strategies co-exist, virtually nowhere are we close to the school choice marketplace that Joy envisions. (New Orleans, with nearly 100 percent of its schools in charters, is closest–and it embraces accountability for results!) About five percent of the nation’s students are in charter schools; far less than one percent are attending private schools with public support. For the foreseeable future–when the vast majority of children will attend schools that face little or no competition–we need a strategy for quality control for the system as a whole.

Maybe Joy disagrees. May she is willing to trust upwards of 50 million schoolchildren to the whims of local school boards (themselves often captives of local teacher unions); the dictates of state and federal bureaucrats; and the latest brainstorms of ed school professors. For that’s what “quality control” looks like in the absence of standards, testing, and accountability.

Standards-based reform isn’t an act of “central planning.” Done right–and the Common Core authors did it right–it’s about identifying the standard that already exists in the real world: What students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college or get a decent paying job. And then figuring out where students need to be, grade-by-grade, to be on track for that success.

And next time I’ll explain that while the Common Core might not have gotten everything exactly right, it’s dramatically better than what almost every state had in place before. Which is why dumping the Common Core–the path that Joy advocates–won’t return us to some educational shangri-la, but will perpetuate the mediocrity that is the unfortunate hallmark of the American public education system.

Response #2: Joy

I’m not sure where Mike is getting this idea that I do not oppose the content of Common Core. I have written and testified extensively about its anti-American, low-grade, empty-skills heap of disconnected edujargon, in publications he reads and hearings he’s attended. So either he’s not listening, projecting an unfitting image of his evil libertarian archnemesis onto me, attempting to avoid a debate on the  merits of the curriculum Common Core demands, or deliberately caricaturing my position. I’m actually not a libertarian, and I have never said I want public schools accountable only to parents (although I would not object to that system). I think schools should primarily be accountable to parents. But what does “accountability” mean?

Accountability has too often been a weasel word for “central planning,” like “affordable healthcare” is a weasel phrase for “Obamacare.”

It’s my view—and, as researchers have pointed out, this is supported by the best evidence—that choice is accountability. Accountability has too often been a weasel word for “central planning,” like “affordable healthcare” is a weasel phrase for “Obamacare.” Real accountability means that people who make decisions bear the consequences of those decisions. In central planning, that never happens. The people who write education standards—whoever these shadow bureaucrats are and about whom with Common Core we cannot even get an account of who did what and why, how they were selected, and what they were paid—do not have to live with the consequences if they fail to write good ones, or if good ones don’t matter because even “good” central dictates can’t pull the puppet strings hard enough from a thousand miles away. Children and society do.

And Mike can attempt to marginalize me and other thinking people all he wants by pretending that Republican education policies over the past fifty years have been the best thing since sliced bread, but we all know that Republicans often join Democrats in feeding the big-government beast, and after three of Mike’s glorious “decades of conservative thought” 58 percent of fourth graders in this country still can barely read. That’s where “accountability” has got us, and we have Mr. Petrilli touting a slight increase in test scores over twenty years as a huge victory, and a reason to trust and even celebrate this testing dictatorship.

But this discussion, like Common Core, is a red herring to avoid talking about its low quality and the lack of proof it will live up to the outrageous sales pitches we now hear from governors, carefully selected teacher-spokespeople, and chambers of commerce. States, lawmakers, teachers, schools parents, and pundits are now spending enormous time and money debating and implementing Common Core, even though the evidence it will do a whit of good for children is sickeningly absent. Three citations. When Seton Hall University professor Christopher Tienken reviewed the purportedly “large and growing body of knowledge” that supposedly grounds Common Core, he said “I found that it was not large, and in fact built mostly on one report, Benchmarking for Success, created by the [private organizations that created Common Core]… Only four of the cited pieces of evidence could be considered empirical studies related directly to the topic of national standards and student achievement.” Or, as Dr. Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas explains: “The only evidence in support of Common Core consists of projects funded directly or indirectly by the Gates Foundation in which panels of selected experts are asked to offer their opinion on the quality of Common Core standards.  Not surprisingly, panels organized by the backers of Common Core believe that Common Core is good…  The few independent evaluations of Common Core that exist suggest that its standards are mediocre and represent little change from what most states already have.” Further, research by the Brookings Institution has found that standards have essentially no effect on student achievement.

And what all these people with all this time and money are NOT doing, instead, is working to accelerate proven reforms like school choice and real curriculum improvement. They’re not opening new, better schools and closing bad old ones. They’re not tutoring neighbors who never learned to read very well because traditional schools lose nothing for failing to use proven methods to educate kids. They’re not tearing down the teacher certification monopoly that indoctrinates our nation’s molders of young minds with ineffective progressive pedagogy. They’re not reading as many books to their little children, not reading classic literature themselves or investigating and wondering at our glorious world. And that is the hidden shame of Common Core, this vast exercise in unexamined groupthink: Because governments and bureaucrats chained everyone to this brain treadmill, we must spend a sickening number of hours explaining why we should instead be left in peace and freedom.

If you will excuse me, there are two toddlers in my room looking for attention, so I’m going to now go practice what I’m preaching.

Response #2: Mike

This exchange has reminded me why I so enjoy Joy’s writing and how lucky we are that she’s working in the school reform movement. We agree on 90 percent of the issues; but alas, back to the 10 percent where we disagree.

I certainly didn’t mean to mischaracterize Joy’s position, though I’m still confused whether she’s for standards-based reform. She says she is, but she also refers to it as a “testing dictatorship,” says we parents should be “left in peace and freedom,” and links to an NRO piece arguing for school choice alone. So I remain somewhat confused. (I continue to believe that choice plus accountability for results is a powerful combo.)

I’m also still confused about whether she thinks the content of the standards are worth fighting over. As she often does, in the course of this debate she linked to Tom Loveless’s research showing the lack of a relationship between the quality of states’ standards and their performance on the NAEP. If standards don’t matter, why all of the fuss? I too wish we could be focused on “accelerating proven reforms.” That’s what was going on circa 2012 in places like Indiana (ahem, remember Tony Bennett?) before the Common Core opponents declared a Holy War. Educators were working on improving their teaching and updating their curricular materials. Indiana was pushing ahead with vouchers and charter schools. Yet it was Joy and her comrades in arms that picked this fight. They decided that the process leading to the Common Core (which was much different than she describes) and the content of the Common Core were so odious as to justify tearing the school reform movement—and the Republican Party—apart.

So let’s talk about the content of the standards. (Though readers, you can judge them for yourselves.) Those of us at the Fordham Institute do believe that the quality of standards matters, though of course (as we’ve said forever, thank you Tom Loveless) well-crafted standards are necessary but insufficient.  Standards alone are just words on paper. It’s not surprising that states with stronger standards in the pre-Common Core era didn’t necessarily perform better on national tests of student achievement. It would be like thinking that developing countries that adopt better constitutions would automatically have better functioning governments or economies. Constitutions, like standards, can lay a strong or weak foundation, but their success will depend on many other factors.

In the world of school reform, the most important complement to good standards is an aligned, challenging assessment. In other words, a really good test. After all, we know that in today’s high-accountability education system, teachers feel pressure to teach to the test. If that’s a test worth teaching to—like an Advanced Placement exam—then this pressure can be healthy, as it encourages excellent teaching in the classroom. But if it’s a low-level, fill in the blank exam, then any benefits of high, well-written standards are washed away, as the test becomes the de facto standard. That’s what happened in virtually every state before the Common Core, with the possible exception of Massachusetts. (The Bay State had good standards and a good test.) It explains why a state like Indiana had good standards for a decade but very little improvement on the NAEP.

But back to the standards. In 2010, we studied the content of the Common Core and compared it to the standards of the fifty states. We found the Common Core to be better than what three-quarters of the states had previously and on par with the rest. Three states had somewhat stronger standards in English (receiving A’s from our reviewers versus the Common Core’s B-plus). The primary reason: They included a list of exemplary texts or authors. (The Common Core made its list an appendix—for obvious and understandable reasons.) I simply disagree with Joy that some states “dumbed down their academic offerings when they accepted Common Core.” Almost every state significantly upgraded their academic standards with the Common Core, and a handful traded one good set of standards for another.

What makes the Common Core standards so strong? The English standards are solid on phonics and ask schools to bring back rigorous content in history, science, art, music, and literature.

What makes the Common Core standards so strong? The English standards are solid on phonics and ask schools to bring back rigorous content in history, science, art, music, and literature. That’s why E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge program and author of Cultural Literacy, is so encouraged by them. They expect that students read great works of literature and solid non-fiction sources too, like the nation’s founding documents.

The math standards are incredibly solid on arithmetic, expecting students to know their math facts cold, to memorize their multiplication tables, to use standard algorithms, and not to use calculators until they are older. This was a major reversal from most state math standards, too many of which were infected with the “fuzzy math” that Core opponents rightly decry—but which the Core itself does not embrace.

And what about the contention that the math standards will “only” prepare students for entry-level math in community colleges? First, keep in mind that even James Milgram has admitted that the Common Core math standards are tougher than what “90 percent” of the states had in place before. So if that’s true for the Core, it’s doubly true for what preceded it. Second, remember that the advertised purpose of the Common Core is to prepare students for college and career. College is defined as entry level math in a public four year university, or community college courses whose credits can transfer. So critics are right that the Common Core math is not enough for students who plan to attend selective colleges or major in STEM fields. The standards admit as much! The standards are a floor, not a ceiling. But the standards do a very good job preparing young people for advanced math, by giving them a much steadier foundation than what they are getting today. One reason so many students flunk the Advanced Placement calculus exam is that our schools failed to give them a strong foundation.

Still, if states are worried that schools will misread the Common Core as encouraging them to move away from advanced math, they can add standards in calculus as Florida has. Problem solved.


So where do we go from here? If Joy and others on the right still believe in standards-based reform—still believe in the power of setting high standards and holding schools accountable for helping their students reach them—then we need to do a serious cost-benefit analysis.  Should we stick with the path we’re on? With standards that aren’t perfect, but are pretty darn good? Or should we plunge our states into total chaos, as is the best way to describe Indiana today? Where educators don’t know what they are expected to teach; where all indications are that the state’s “new” standards will look almost exactly like the Common Core; where the state is going to spend tons of extra money developing its own test, one that is unlikely to be any better than the low-level test is has now? Remind me again why that is a good idea?

Sometimes such disruption is worth it. Repealing ObamaCare would be messy but healthy, as that is a Rube Goldberg machine that’s fundamentally flawed. That’s not the case with Common Core.  Disruption in the cause of ideology isn’t smart, and it isn’t conservative.

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