Is Common Core the Obamacare of Education?

This has become a top-down approach, just like Obamacare. We were told you can keep your doctor, you can keep your health plan. We were told this would be locally-driven, local curriculum. That’s not what it is. This is a one-size-fits-all approach from D.C.. We have never allowed the federal government to make curriculum decisions in our local schools and we will continue to fight against this.

That was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal explaining to Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, the reason he changed his mind about supporting the Common Core State Standards. Jindal initially agreed that his state would submit to the standards, a list of what children should know in each grade from kindergarten to graduation in English language arts and mathematics, but later changed his mind, citing concerns about increased federal control over state and local education decisions.

Like many other governors across the country, Jindal was lured into agreeing to the standards with the promise of federal dollars from grants through a program called Race to the Top, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Cash-strapped states were encouraged to compete for grants by submitting applications that would be judged, in part, on whether or not they agreed to adopt the Common Core standards. States were told that their applications would be more competitive if they agreed to adopt the new standards.

Forty states applied for the first phase of funding, many of them enthusiastically agreeing to adopt the common standards that would eventually come to be called the Common Core State Standards.

States that didn’t get on board with Common Core during the Race to the Top competition found that the federal government had another incentive — or perhaps threat is a better word. The No Child Left Behind Act had an absurd 100% proficiency requirement that was looming in 2014. No state was on schedule to achieve 100% proficiency and states faced federally mandated sanctions in 2014 if that unrealistic benchmark wasn’t met.  The Obama administration offered states waivers that would allow them to avoid the consequences of NCLB — as long as they agreed to jump on the Common Core bandwagon.

The idea of national standards wasn’t invented in President Obama’s Department of Education. The 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report (which some experts considered to be rhetorically too pessimistic and not evidenced-based) urged schools to adopt standards that were “more rigorous and measurable.” President George H.W. Bush embraced a “defined set of national education goals” at a 1989 summit and in 1996 the National Governors Association created Achieve, Inc., a non-profit group devoted to higher education standards. Funded by groups like the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Alliance of Business, Achieve, Inc. was an effort to “set tough academic standards that apply to every student in every school.”

In 2008 Achieve, Inc., the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association issued “Benchmarking for Success,” a report that called for national standards and federal incentives to achieve that goal. That same year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $22 million to the Hunt Institute to work with governors to promote national standards after being approached by Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, who would go on to become the architect of the Common Core standards. The Gates Foundation would eventually spend $200 million to promote the idea of national standards to state education departments, think tanks, unions, non-profit organizations, and education companies.

The infusion of Gates cash was a game changer and suddenly, without much debate or controversy, the nation was on the verge of adopting national standards, a development education secretary Arne Duncan called “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, discussing the Affordable Care Act, famously said, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

In much the same way, the Common Core initiative was rushed onto the scene and states agreed to abide by the common standards before the public had time to comprehend the dramatic transformation that had just occurred. Americans, distracted with the housing crash, the recession, and the healthcare debate, were not focused on these complex educational issues at the time and so the discussions were mostly left to education bureaucrats. Before the final draft of the Common Core standards was released in June of 2010, dozens of states were onboard, which left little time for public review or debate. There was also no time for input from state legislatures. By the end of 2010, 39 states and the District of Columbia were on board with the initiative.

States that agreed to abide by the standards defended the decision, saying that federal law prohibits the federal government from meddling in state and local education decisions. Ohio Governor John Kasich recently insisted that control of education remains with local school boards. “Barack Obama doesn’t set [the curriculum]; the state of Ohio doesn’t set it. It is local school boards driving better education, higher standards, created by local school boards,” Kasich told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.

In theory (and on paper) that’s true. The reality is quite different.

The claim that the Common Core standards will not determine what is taught in classrooms — that states are still free to develop their own curriculum and local schools and teachers will still make decisions about individual lessons — should be rated as “half true” at best.

Let’s begin with the standards themselves. Schools do retain some measure of local control, but only to the extent that local schools stay within the confines of the mandated standards. For example, the math standards mandate that students “count to 100 by ones and by tens” by the end of kindergarten. There are no requirements for which textbooks must be used or how teachers should explain the concept to students, only that children need to know how to do this by the end of kindergarten. Teachers still have flexibility, but only within the limits of the common requirements.

One immediate result of the (nearly) national standards is that publishers, seeing an opportunity to make a profit, quickly jumped on board. Textbooks and curriculum guides nationwide began to sport “Common Core Aligned” stickers — even homeschool curriculum did not escape Common Core branding. In some cases, publishers found that books they currently had in print already aligned in some way with a standard here or there, so they felt justified in slapping Common Core stickers on them. In other cases, new curriculum and textbooks were (and continue to be) developed to align specifically with the new standards, which are being used to write tables of contents for math and English textbooks that will be used in classrooms across the country. The materials are so pervasive that reportedly 100 of 176 Catholic dioceses have adopted the Common Core standards, citing increased difficulty finding classroom materials and professional development programs for teachers that are not influenced by the Common Core.

Supporters say this is a great development; they cite greater efficiency in textbook publishing and an increased ability for teachers to share innovative ideas and lesson plans across the country. This might not have been the worst development in the history of education reform except that the federal government went on to increase its control — and the controversy — over the standards exponentially by spending $350 million in federal education dollars to fund consortiums to develop tests to ensure compliance with Common Core standards. Two testing companies — Smarter Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — agreed to create the tests and most Common Core states signed agreements to use one or the other. Some 40 million students nationwide will be subject to these two tests created with federal funding and under the influence of the federal government. According to Education Week, the U.S. Department of Education is providing guidance on the peer-review process for the standards and tests and “could exert a powerful influence on how states set academic expectations.”

Critics say this will result in “teaching to the test” on steroids. The tests will most certainly drive what is taught in classrooms, even though the standards do not have specific curricular requirements. The PARCC Assessment Blueprint and Test Specifications FAQ encourages teachers to use their materials to “guide thinking about classroom rubric use and design.” According to PARCC, “The ELA/literacy passage selection guidelines and worksheets should also be helpful tools to guide text selection for classroom instruction and assessments.”

In other words: if teachers want their students to succeed on the tests, they should use the PARCC-recommended materials in the classroom.

And students will find no respite from Common Core in the ACT and SAT college entrance exams, both of which are being aligned to the new standards. College Board president David Coleman (the architect of the Common Core who first approached Bill Gates about national standards in 2008) has vowed to radically redesign the SAT. Education reformer Diane Ravitch called Coleman the “de facto controller of American education.”

Ultimately, the buck stops at the tests. Testing drives everything from publishing to local hiring decisions to the way math is taught in kindergarten. Advocates of the Common Core standards claim there will be no erosion of local control and deny there will be any federal influence on state and local decision-making. But it won’t be local teachers and school board members — or even states — deciding what will be on the high-stakes tests, and within a few years those tests will be the primary driver of what is taught in most of the classrooms across the country.

The Common Core standards will eventually lead to a one-size-fits-all, top-down education with little opportunity for individual choice or state innovation because all children will have to pass the same tests. As Common Core takes root in local districts and classrooms nationwide, local control and state innovation will be abandoned as schools move increasingly toward a nationally directed approach to education with decisions overseen by officials at the Department of Education.

See Part I of this series devoted to making sense of the “tangled web of unanswered questions and competing interests” behind Common Core. Have a question you want to see explored in a future installment? Reach out to @PBolyard on Twitter. Also check out this collection presenting 150 of Paula Bolyard’s top articles over the years.