School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Common Core Standards Revisited

The Washington Post’s  Jay Mathews is taking a second look at Common Core standards in his must-read Class Struggle column Why Common Core Standards Will Fail.

Although previously intrigued by the idea of Common Core standards, Mathews now stands firmly in the skeptic camp. Here’s why.

The rationale for Common Core standards goes like this – if the federal government establishes rigorous common academic standards that every state and school district must follow, student performance will rise accordingly. So if students in Massachusetts and Mississippi are all expected to meet the same high standards, and both sets of students are taught using the same agreed-to curriculum, student performance will improve regardless of geographic location. Like Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come.

But according to Mathews, the problem is that researchers have yet to find strong correlation between high standards and academic performance in states that currently use them. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute is a national expert on Common Core. He reviewed the data and determined that states with weak content standards had “about the same average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as states with strong standards.” Rigorous standards were also not a good predictor of future academic achievement gains either. Loveless concluded that the weak to non-existent links between high standards and academic achievement do not warrant the substantial investment they will require.

So if Common Core standards aren’t the answer, what is? For the answer Mathews went straight to the source – he asked teachers.

“I have interviewed hundreds of teachers who significantly raised student achievement. Not one has ever said it was because of great state learning standards. Good curriculums help, but high-minded, numbingly detailed standards don’t produce them. How teachers are trained and supported in the classroom is what matters.”

My take: I too initially was drawn to the idea of Common Core standards, particularly given their worthy goal of setting the same high standards for every student in every state. But as I read and learn more about them, I’m troubled by the lack of flexibility and top-down control they could impose on states and school districts. Moreover, if there is little-to-no correlation between Common Core standards and high academic performance, perhaps we need to look elsewhere to determine what the real driving force is behind states and countries that achieve consistently high academic standards.

Beth T. Sigall

March 4, 2012

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