Education reform is a risky business, and few programs illustrate this better than the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The original idea might have been good, but a multitude of unwise decisions twisted and politicized it until it became one of the least popular reforms in America.
“It’s a case of a wasted decade,” Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), told PJ Media in an interview Tuesday. Hess’s new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, presents many important lessons for those who wish to reform education in America, and almost all of them would have helped Common Core avoid the disaster it became.
It isn’t just conservatives who look askance at Common Core. Many teachers and teachers unions dislike it as well. Hess explained that while Common Core is still on the books in “close to 40 states,” the standards themselves do not mean very much. He estimated that Common Core tests are now used “in less than half the country.”
Hess actually argued that Common Core today is in a worse position than it would have been in 2010 or 2011. Why? Here are some of the reasons.
1. “Obama Core.”
In 2007 and 2008, education reformers realized that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required states to test kids in reading and math, creating an incentive for states to make their tests easier in order to make schools look better, Hess explained. Reformers wanted to develop an apples-to-apples comparison, and some states agreed to launch Common Core.
but in 2009, President Obama’s stimulus package included education spending, and his administration tied education funding to state adoption of Common Core.
What would have been adopted by about 15 or 20 states on their own accord was suddenly adopted by about 40 states — and the final version hadn’t even been released yet!
“In some ways, it was the worst of all words,” Hess told PJ Media. “It felt like it had been ordered by Washington, states were bribed and coerced into doing it, and it was done in the dark of night.”
By making the Common Core a federal program, Obama politicized it — and made it seem imposed by Washington bureaucracy.
In his book, Hess warned that policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do things well. In education, that difference is key. Furthermore, the book warned about the corruption of power. When you’re out of power, you tend to be skeptical. When you have it, “it’s tempting to use it.”
2. Passion blinded Common Core advocates.
Throughout his book, Hess warned about the “perils of passion.” The AEI scholar explained that “when we get excited about stuff, it’s easy to imagine that everybody is as excited as we are and we put on blinders.”
“When the Common Core folks saw everybody they talked to was saying nice stuff about this, they forgot that they were only talking to 1 percent of the country,” he explained. Eventually, backers of the program became so convinced in its effectiveness that they felt confident dismissing anyone who was critical of it.
3. Dismissing critics made reform impossible.
When people started realizing what was happening with Common Core — strange math work, a large emphasis on testing — “rather than say ‘We went too far too fast,’ advocates of Common Core threw gasoline on the fire by saying anybody who had concerns was a wing-nut,” Hess explained.
Common Core advocates “did remarkably little over the following three or four years to get out and explain to people what Common Core was, listen to them, and figure it out.” This lack of debate prevented reformers from making alterations to Common Core which might have satisfied — or at least addressed — the concerns of teachers and parents.
In his book, Hess warned about the dangers of groupthink. He lamented that most people in education reform tend to be political liberals. Reformers need to continually challenge their ideas by talking to people who disagree with them.
4. Common Core advocates overstated its importance.
Hess noted that part of Common Core’s original strategy was to emphasize that the reform involved only reading and math standards.
In 2013, however, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared, “I believe the Common Core State standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown verses Board of Education.”
This grandiose rhetoric again illustrated the danger of power, Hess warned. Duncan himself once declared NCLB a “broken” law, calling for less Washington control of education. By the end of his time in Washington, this same man was fighting to keep NCLB’s federal control of education intact.
5. The limits of data in education.
“When we talked about the Common Core, advocates didn’t say ‘slightly better reading and math tests,’ they said, ‘now we can precisely measure whether students and teachers are doing their job well,'” Hess explained. Their emphasis on testing revealed an irrational faith in data.
The AEI scholar explained that teachers and parents want kids to learn about more than just reading and math. “Reading and math scores capture about 30 to 35 percent of what I care about,” Hess explained. In his book, he used the example of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, a 2004 book by Michael Lewis turned into a 2011 movie with Brad Pitt.
In Moneyball, baseball manager Billy Beane used a complex statistical analysis to recruit hidden talent. Beane did this by avoiding the most commonly used statistics, such as home runs, runs batted in, batting average, and so on, and focusing on the real measures of talent.
Modern education statistics “are primitive, limited, and often misleading,” like the original baseball stats. “Education’s moneyball moment awaits the collection of deep, systematic data on the processes of teaching, learning, and school operations,” Hess wrote in his book.
6. Minimizing the role of parents.
In 2013, Education Secretary Duncan told state superintendents that “white suburban moms” were rebelling against the Common Core because their kids have done poorly on the tests. “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought … and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said.
Dismissing the concerns of parents was not a good idea, as it alienated parents and prevented the possibility of reforming Common Core to make it better suit everyone’s needs.
“It’s not that reformers ought to feel that they have to give in to this group or that group of parents all the time, but parents usually care a lot more about their kid than reformers,” Hess explained. Dismissing parents’ concerns is “a surefire way to convince parents that reformers are not working for their child.”
7. Overlooking history.
Many reformers get frustrated at the difficulty of changing the school system, but even a cursory understanding of the history of schooling in America explains why reform is so difficult, Hess explained. In his book, he noted that schooling in America grew slowly and was intended to do different things over the centuries.
Because the United States is a huge country and different school districts were established at different times for different reasons, a one-size-fits-all approach that encourages radical changes will run into a great deal of unnecessary problems.
If Common Core advocates understood this, they would have said, “Let’s start with the places that get this, that are excited about it, and everybody else is going to see how helpful it is to be a Common Core-aligned state,” Hess argued.
Instead of growing Common Core in a few states that were excited about it and willing to make changes, advocates used the federal government to bribe states into accepting it. “That’s not a good way to change organizations that are six or eight or twelve generations old,” the AEI scholar said.
8. The virtues of school choice.
The best lesson to learn from the failure of Common Core is how to avoid repeating it. Unlike this program, the school choice movement is local. Education reform does best when “focusing on people who want to do it, letting them do it, and growing it in an environment of trust,” Hess argued.
The virtue of school choice isn’t that it “works” in some nebulous way. Rather, this reform is helpful because it creates a sort of free market in education, which allows reformers, teachers, and parents to “create school communities where teachers want to be there, students want to be there, and where there’s a clear vision.”
School choice, charter schooling, education savings accounts, and school voucher programs have had to “grow from the ground up in the past 25 years,” the AEI scholar noted. Since these initiatives never had a big federal push, they had to develop slowly.
Hess warned that President Donald Trump, by championing school choice from Washington, D.C., would actually harm this important reform. “Having Obama be the pitch man for the Common Core ended up being a huge mistake for the Common Core,” he argued. “It became Obama Core,” and if school choice “becomes Trump Choice, a lot of hard-earned trust starts to come under the same pressure that Obama created with the Common Core.”
The AEI scholar encouraged President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to champion school choice, but only by giving states flexibility to choose federal funds to support it, and to curb regulations that block needed reform.
“What matters in school reform is much more how you do it rather than whether you do it,” Hess explained. “No matter how well-intentioned, when the President and Secretary of Education go to the head of the school reform parade, it often creates more problems than it solves.”
Freeing up education for local school choice reforms is a great way to achieve reform, because it allows different school districts to adjust in different ways. For more reform tips and some great wisdom from his 25 years in education, read Hess’s new book — it’s just a short 150 pages!