Curmudgucation: Still Pushing the Common Core

Among the living dead that stumble through the graveyard of failed education ideas, we can still find our old friend, the Common Core State [sic] Standards. Like an undead Tinker Bell, as long as someone's willing to clap for the damned thing, it will keep coming back.

This time the applause is coming from Brookings, an institution devoted to the notion that economists can be experts in anything. The actual research they're highlighting was produced by a research grant from the USC Rossier School of Education, and written up by Stephen Aguilar, Morgan Polikoff, and Gale Sinatra, all of the Rossier School. Polikoff is a familiar name in the ed reform world, and he can sometimes be found conducting serious research. This is not one of those times.

The paper purports to be about correcting misperceptions and misunderstandings about public policy, but I think it's better understood as a study of how to better sculpt PR to market your policy idea. And in this case they're looking at how to better manage the PR for Common Core.

Part of their premise is not unreasonable-- the Common Core did suffer from some bad PR based on some serious misperceptions. I'm not a fan, but you won't find me claiming that it will turn your daughters into lesbian socialists, nor will I blame every bad worksheet produced since the dawn of time on the infamous standards. But the "misperceptions" the researchers are working on here require a little more nuance and honesty.

The basic format of the research was to recruit some subjects through Amazon's Mechanical Turk, ask them some questions, give them a piece of "refutation text," and then ask them the questions again. There's a whole discussion to be had here about whether this technique shows people changing their minds or just figuring out what the "correct" answer is supposed to be, but I'm more interested in the marketing questions the researchers asked. Let's all take the quiz and see if we can get it right.

The Common Core State Standards only apply to English and mathematics.

Oh, yeah. These are going to be true-false questions, thereby allowing for minimum nuance.

So this one is supposed to be true, and it would be true if they hadn't used the wording "apply to." But new science standards are crowing loudly about being aligned to the Common Core, and in PA, for example, we've already taken the liberty to stretching ELA CCSS to cover some of history. So while it's true that Common Core standards were only written for math and English.

Common Core requires more testing than previous standards.

This one is supposed to be false. Based on what, I'm not sure. We can quibble about the amount of testing required by previous standards under No Child Left Behind, but "required" skips the meat of this question. CCSS came with tests attached and serious consequences as well for schools and individual  teachers, resulting in the predictable outcome that many states and schools started giving students test prep tests-- tests that were meant to "diagnose" weak spots in a school and otherwise help shape school programs. 

In short, Common Core may not have required more actual testing, but it made those tests loom even larger than they had before.

The federal government required states to adopt the Common Core.

This point has become one of my tests of how honestly someone is conducting themselves in the Core debate, because nobody who has honestly examined the issue can say that this statement is either true or false. The feds did not "require" adoption of the core in the same way that an extortionist does not "require" you to pay protection money to keep your business from being burnt down. 

States were staring down the barrel of the insanely unachievable mandate to have 100% of their students above average, or else get hit by sanctions by the feds (thanks, NCLB). Race to the Top and Race to the Top Lite (waiver edition) were all about saying, "We'll pretend the law doesn't apply to you as long as you do a few things for us, like adopt standards. And they can be any standards you want to try to sell us, but we'll tell you up front that Common Core Standards are a guaranteed win." In other words, "Nice state education system. It would be a real shame if anything happened to it." 

The Common Core State Standards were developed by the Obama administration.

The correct answer is supposed to be "false," which is, again, technically correct. But the Obama administration pushed the standards like crazy, and the Obama administration provided the financial backing for the PARCC and SBA tests, which were the crucial part of making sure that states properly followed the standards (and paid a penalty for not doing so). 

States adopting the Common Core are allowed to add content to the standards.

This is supposed to be true, which is again technically correct (you see the pattern developing here). What states couldn't do was delete or move anything, and they were only allowed to add 15% more standards. The state-added standards wouldn't be included on the Big Standardized Tests that were to decide everyone's fate, so that would have been a bit of an exercise in futility.  

The researchers might also have addressed the point that, practically speaking, anybody could do anything to the standards because there was nobody minding the store. If you added 20% or crossed out a bunch of standards, who exactly was going to say you nay? Of course, the only standards that matter are the ones that appear on the test, so in effect, PARCC and SBA had already deleted some standards (collaborative process, long term research, speaking and listening, etc) before any state even had a chance to. 

The not quite honest nature of the Q & A is reflected in the refutation text, which is equally not-quite honest on some points. On the assumption some people make that the Obama administration created CCSS:

However, expert analysis of the history of Common Core shows this to be incorrect. In fact, the standards were developed by state education leaders. The creation of the standards began in 2009 and was led by the National Governors Association, and 48 of the nation’s 50 governors initially signed onto the standards. Teachers and experts in mathematics and English language arts wrote the standards, and 45 states then adopted them.

"Expert analysis"?! I'd love to see a citation for that one. And if in 2018 you are still saying that the standards were written by "teachers and experts in mathematics and language arts," I cannot take you seriously-- you either know you're lying, or you've gone out of your way to avoid learning anything about what actually happened. 

So ultimately this piece of "research" is the 12,462,339th marketing study on how to push the Common Core with better PR. In this case, the question is, "If we could feed people some of the information we want them to believe about the standards, would it help our cause?"

The answer is "maybe, kind of," but then, that's been the answer for the last decade. I get the frustration that Core-ophiles must feel a being thwarted by the tin hat "Common Core will turn your son into a gay Satanist" crowd, but there's no ethical high ground to be gained with a determination to fight obstructionist misinformation with more favorable misinformation. More than anything, these folks need to just let the poor shambling shadow of the once and future standards to just lie down in its grave and heave one last breath. Common Core was not very attractive when it was fresh and new; years as a rotting zombie have not improved its looks. Just let it go.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.