The Orphaned Subjects of Common Core

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If you liked reading War and Peace, you'll love the saga of Common Core standards. Of course War and Peace is only 1,400 pages or so, while legislation for Common Core and its related programs ­– No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds, and the supporting legal framework – is vastly longer…and far more confusing.

It all started in 1965 when Congress, under President Lyndon Johnson, enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA – brace yourself for a lot of these abbreviations). This marked the beginning of high-profile federal involvement in public education. Until then the feds' role was mostly to gather and disseminate information, analyze and suggest policy, and identify goals and objectives. Now, for the first time, the government tied major monetary grants to school operations and performance, authorizing more than $1 billion to help districts with a disproportionate number of poor or otherwise disadvantaged students. The Act has been reauthorized several times since then, each time with a few tweaks here and there.

Anatomy of a Disaster

Then came No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a 2001 reauthorization of ESEA that completely reconfigured the relationship between the federal government and local schools. The legislation, championed by politicians as diverse as John Boehner (R-Okla.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), was approved overwhelmingly and signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. Like many government regulatory laws, it didn't actually require the states to do anything. It only required their compliance if they wanted any money from the federal government. Since local districts are scrambling frantically for every dollar they can get their hands on, the practical effect was that schools had to comply to survive. Again technically, NCLB was not a universal set of standards for all states. Rather it was left up to the states to set their own standards and assess yearly progress in ways that satisfied the government overseers.

Under NCLB each school had to make “adequate yearly progress,” meaning that based on a statewide standardized test, this year's eighth graders had to perform better than last year's eighth graders. States also had to measure improvement for individual students broken down into categories such as those with limited English and students with disabilities. Schools that failed faced increasingly severe consequences, ending with the possibility of closure or conversion into a charter school after six consecutive years of inadequate performance.

Looking back after fifteen years—despite its worthy goals and near-universal support—NCLB was a disaster. Teachers and school administrators desperate to meet federal guidelines for improvement jettisoned subjects not covered by standardized state tests. Teaching to the test became the order of the day. Out went art, music, theater, history, geography, foreign language, and other “enrichment” courses in favor of more time spent on math and English, testing of which directly impacted both school budget the professional trajectory of teachers.

And yet the schools had an impossible task. Children with limited English background or learning disabilities struggled to meet standard requirements. More important, as teachers well know, this year's eighth graders may be brighter than last year's or they may not. They may in fact be behind their predecessors. One class may have an unusual concentration of gifted students (whose unique academic needs were often also overlooked under NCLB), while the next is filled with troublemakers. Students are not data points on a chart. All classes are not created equal and will not rise to the same level regardless of the curriculum or the skill and dedication of the teacher.

Common Core to the Rescue?

Within a few years, teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, advocates for poor, minority, and disabled children were clamoring for change. The law required schools in every state to rise to their own self-determined rate of acceptable proficiency by 2015. Not one state made it. Acknowledging that NCLB required states to achieve a standard that was simply not possible, the government gave states the option of ditching NCLB mandates in exchange for adapting other standards that adequately prepared students for college or a career.

Meanwhile in the summer of 2009, during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Obama Administration announced Race to the Top (R2T). This was, in effect, a contest among schools to come up with successful innovations for educational improvement. Winners would receive government cash and the others would be encouraged to adapt policies that had achieved top results. One criterion for competing was that states adopt their own common standards.

Enter Common Core

Because the U.S. Department of Education is technically prohibited from influencing school curriculum, Common Core standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, both of which, despite their names, are Washington-based nonprofit corporations. The work was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation, and others. Their objective has been the source of lively debate. Some say it was to find a workable combination of standardization and flexibility where NCLB had failed, while others saw it as an end run around local public control of education by murky special interest groups determined to force their own agenda upon America's schools.

The De Facto Standard

Whatever their aim, Common Core standards gave states a way to escape the unworkable mandates of NCLB. To get a waiver from NCLB, and to gain points in the R2T competition, states had to develop their own standards and procedures that state institutions of higher learning approved or – and this is a big “or” – they could adapt the pre-approved structure of Common Core as a basis for their state assessment programs. States didn't have to go with Common Core, but the alternative was to develop and implement programs acceptable to the feds out of their own pockets.

Guess which path almost all of them (42 at last count) decided to take in order to keep the federal dollars flowing? Common Core became the de facto standard nationwide.

The result, according to education historian Diane Ravitch, was to exchange one educational policy disaster for another. In a speech to the Modern Language Association in 2014, Ravitch said that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both relying on standardized testing, “produced a massive demoralization of educators” and “an unprecedented exodus of experienced educators” along with “the closure of many public schools, especially in poor and minority districts” and many other maladies. Common Core standards were developed, Ravitch continued, in order to cut costs, standardize the delivery of education, and transition away from teachers and toward less expensive technology.

On the other hand, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, President Obama, and others saw Common Core as “a way to raise test scores by making sure that students everywhere in every grade were taught using the same standard,” with rigorous new benchmarks that would improve student performance nationwide. Along with ExxonMobil and other major companies, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce also cheered the advent of Common Core.

Adjusting to Reality

Ravitch reports that wherever they have been implemented, Common Core tests “have caused a dramatic collapse of test scores. In state after state, the passing rates dropped by about 30%.” In the spring of 2013, three percent of English language learners in New York passed. And the costs of cranking up Common Core will run into the billions; Los Angeles alone will spend about one billion dollars to enable online testing and assessment that is integral to the program.

In conclusion, Ravitch advises, “Those who like [Common Core standards] should use them, but they should be revised continually to adjust to reality. Stop the testing. Stop the rating and ranking….Use them to enrich instruction, but not to standardize it.”

In 2015 Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. As with NCLB, the bill received strong bipartisan support, including praise from the president and from senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). States still have to test students, but not as often. Though the emphasis on testing will be reduced and the measure of “adequate yearly progress” is gone, states have to measure other markers of improvement such as graduation rates. This will eventually reduce the influence of Common Core.

The Washington Examiner reports that previously under NCLB waivers, “the Department of Education has been pressuring states into adapting the controversial Common Core education standards. Most, but not all, of the states operating under Department of Education waivers have adopted Common Core. Now that the Secretary of Education cannot incentivize or punish states based on their academic standards, the pressure to adopt Common Core is gone.”

This does not mean that Common Core is disappearing any time soon. As the Examiner notes, “Implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't mean Common Core is instantly repealed in all the states that adopted it under pressure from the Department of Education. States will still have to go through their own processes to repeal or revise their standards.”

Current waivers remain in place until August 1, 2016. After that, it's unclear how Common Core or any other standard will fit into ESSA enforcement. There will still be standards for performance and improvement. And districts will be hesitant to toss out billions of dollars worth of testing hardware and software along with curriculum and textbooks purchased for their Common Core-based programs.

One question looming large is what happens now to the flute lessons, theater presentations, world history, penmanship, and other subjects that have been abandoned in the name of emphasizing math, science, and English to the detriment of everything else? How does their continued absence affect the education landscape and our culture in general?

We take a look at those questions in our series on valuable academic disciplines that have been orphaned by Common Core. And don't worry – we won't need anywhere close to a thousand pages to do it.

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