Education Gets Trumped, Pt. 2: Ending Common Core

| TBS Staff

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Donald Trump hates Common Core. He told us so in as many ways as he possibly could during an election season in which little was otherwise said on the subject of education. He hates it. But does he fully understand it?

When prompted to discuss education on the campaign trail, Trump's most frequent refrain was his vow to repeal Common Core. He promised voters that he would take steps to return control to states and local communities. While discussion on education was rare during the campaign season, this is one position that Trump returned to both repeatedly and with unwavering consistency.

In our first installment on Trump's education policy, we examined an idea that he explored loosely during his run-up to the presidency: the elimination of the Department of Education. During the campaign, Trump toyed casually with the idea, noting that if he couldn't erase the Department entirely from existence, he would at least see to its defunding.

Though Trump equivocated somewhat on the question of eliminating the Department in its entirety, he has been less measured in discussions on Common Core. This initiative, he has assured repeatedly, is destined for the butcher's block.

This, the second installment in our three-part series—Education Gets Trumped—examines Trump's promise to roll back the Obama era reform known as Common Core. We will ask the same series of questions that framed our conversation on elimination of the Department of Education. First, we'll examine whether or not it's possible to eliminate Common Core. Second, we'll ask what its elimination would look like. Finally, we'll discuss the most likely set of outcomes based on the combination of feasibility, political will, and probability.

What follows is not a critique of the philosophy underlying this policy idea, nor a defense. We recognize that Common Core is an inherently controversial subject, one that drives passionate debate. We recognize that there is validity to the often harsh criticism levied against Common Core and we recognize that there is plenty of room for discussion about its improvement or its replacement. But that's not what this article is about. Do not take the absence of debate over the nature of Common Core as either a tacit endorsement of or attack upon Common Core. The goal here is to discuss the legislative realities surrounding Common Core, particularly in the context of Donald Trump's promise to eliminate it. This is not a debate about the merits of Common Core or a lack thereof, though we encourage you to explore this debate at your leisure. You can even check out our own series of articles on the subject. But as long as you're here, note that this a discussion on the feasibility, practical implications and likely fallout of Trump's promise to eliminate Common Core...nothing more, nothing less.

Trump's Promise

Back in November, Trump outlined the plan for his first 100 days in office. Item #4 on this 10-point plan is the School Choice And Education Opportunity Act (SCAEOA). This policy proposal “Redirects education dollars to gives parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice. Ends common core, brings education supervision to local communities. It expands vocational and technical education, and make 2 and 4-year college more affordable.”

This is, for all intents and purposes, the most expansive discussion on Trump's intended education policy that we yet have at our disposal. Naturally, Trump also tweeted his position on numerous occasions.

In January, he pledged: “I will end common core. It's a disaster.”

And again in February: “I have been consistent in my opposition to Common Core. Get rid of Common Core—keep education local!”

How Trump intends to keep this promise and what steps he would take to get there is not entirely clear. Indeed, it isn't totally clear that Donald Trump fully understands Common Core. Moreover, the topic was conspicuously absent from the statement issued by Trump's Secretary of Education pick Betsy DeVos during her shaky Senate confirmation hearing on January 18th. Oddly, alt-right outlet Breitbart published an article ahead of the hearing with the headline: “Betsy DeVos to Steer Clear of Common Core in Confirmation Opening Statement.” No explanation was provided for the subject's omission in the article that followed.

But if we could posit a theory, it's possible that both Trump and DeVos are just now coming to truly understand Common Core, how it works and why, in essence, repealing it is not actually plausible at the federal initiative. Even as the new administration moves quickly to repeal or dismantle federal policies like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, it isn't clear how exactly it intends to proceed on Common Core.

Common Core has been at the center of hostility since its 2009 inception, not just from conservatives but from a broad cross-section of educators and parents. But can the Trump Administration simply “repeal” Common Core?

Can Trump Repeal Common Core?

No. He really can't. The president, federal government and even the Department of Education lack this authority. This is the reality that faces both Trump and his presumptive Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

Time magazine writes that the new administration's “power to revolutionize the K-12 landscape will likely run up against institutional limitations, such as Common Core. Both Trump and DeVos have promised to ‘end' the controversial state-based achievement standards. But the Education Department is forbidden under the new federal law passed in December 2015 from either setting such benchmarks or incentivizing states to adopt them. Common Core was adopted by state lawmakers, and will also have to be dismantled by them.”

This clarification is important and lends to a necessary discussion about the actual nature of Common Core. In order to effectively discuss the notion of repealing the initiative, we really need to be sure that we understand what it is and what it isn't. While on its surface it seems like a big federal government program that deserves the blame for all of our current problems, there is a bit of misunderstanding, and some melodrama, clouding this conversation.

According to Teach Hub, Common Core's national standards offer “an opportunity for an across-the-board, agreed-upon set of college and career readiness standards. Ideally, this would allow for more data-driven educational changes that ultimately could improve student performance in a number of academic areas. The standards also focus on not simply providing content to students, but helping students become more solution-oriented and able to apply concepts to real world situations.”

In spite of the role that the Department of Education (and thus the federal government) plays in distributing funding, Common Core standards and priorities were actually shaped at the state level. It was the National Governors Association (NGA) that convened a working group to develop Common Core's standards in 2009.

It did so under the auspices of providing “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.”

The copyright for the resulting standards is jointly owned by the NGA Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The latter of these controls use of and licensing of Common Core standards. This organization avails these licenses to the U.S. Department of Education, but it is in fact, a state-driven agency.

According to its own website, “The Council of Chief State School Officers is a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions. CCSSO provides leadership, advocacy, and technical assistance on major educational issues. The Council seeks member consensus on major educational issues and expresses their views to civic and professional organizations, federal agencies, Congress, and the public.”

In other words, Common Core standards have been shaped by the achievement of consensus among state-based representatives. Moreover, the language that underlies the initiative provides a fair amount of latitude to individual states when it comes to acquiring licenses. A state must use standards that are “in support” of Common Core. It merely requires attribution and copyright notice when a state has only adopted portions of the Common Core standards (as opposed to adopting the standards in full).

At the time of writing, 42 U.S. States and the District of Columbia are aligned with Common Core State Standards. Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina were original adopters who have since repealed involvement. Minnesota only adopted the Common Core English Language Arts standards, devising its own mathematics standards. Texas, Virginia, Alaska and Nebraska declined to adopt Common Core standards.

Just as with its adoption, repeal would have to take place on a state by state basis. While Trump's proposed SCAEOA initiative claims it would repeal Common Core, no details have been released yet on how it would pursue this aim or how it would the president would overcome the limits of executive authority in this area. It also isn't clear how the SCAEOA or the White House would influence repeal on a state by state basis.

States V. Feds?

Ignoring for just a moment the fact that Trump's campaign promise is probably unfeasible, let's consider the underlying grievance that Washington D.C. exercises far too much control over state education policy under Common Core. Again, this is not a debate about whether Common Core is good or bad. This is merely a response to the broad-based observation that Common Core is dictated at the federal level.

In reality, Common Core is a program which allows a fair amount of autonomy and self-determination on the state level relative to its immediate policy predecessors. According to Teach Hub, Common Core promotes the use of national assessments (read: standardized tests) and dispenses Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers to those states which adopt its uniform assessment standards.

This is the federal role that draws the most ire from conservative critics, Trump among them. Common Core's detractors have argued that this arrangement places too much control of the classroom into the hands of federal policymakers. But in reality, this influence far less than it was during the advancement of No Child Left Behind. Moreover, with the approaching implementation of Obama's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), federal influence is already on the legislative path to becoming even less pronounced.

Again, one of the most oft-spoken grievances against Common Core is its use of grant money to incentivize state by state adoption of federal standards. But evidence suggests there has been flexibility in this area. For instance, though neither state adopted the Common Core standards, both Virginia and Texas authored their own college and career-readiness standards, consequently making themselves eligible for Race to the Top grants.

This suggests that the Common Core initiative does not deprive states of federal funding for failure to fall in line. It merely asks that in the absence of adoption, each state provide its own suitable replacement.

And returning once more to the subject of No Child Left Behind, one of the keystone's of the Common Core Initiative has been national waiver program. Here, states were granted waivers allowing access to federal funding in spite of their failure to meet the federal testing proficiency benchmarks established by NCLB. Critics accused the Department of Education of trading these waivers in exchange for adoption of Common Core standards.

But this arrangement is, as of this moment, a thing of the past. The slow death of No Child Left Behind is now complete. In December of 2015, Obama signed the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) into law with widespread bipartisan support. Passing easily through both houses of Congress—by House and Senate votes of 359-64 and 85-12 respectively—ESSA not only supplants NCLB, but it returns a fair amount of control to the hands of states.

According to its own language, the Department of Education is no longer allowed to “influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards ... or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States.”

In fact, the ESSA bill was largely viewed as a victory for conservative ideals. While it retains the elements of standardized assessment that NCLB infused into educational policy, it reduces the connection between these assessments and federal funding.

As an article in Vox explains:

“The new education bill would keep some of No Child Left Behind's ideas. But states, not the federal government, would largely be in charge of holding schools accountable, reversing a trend toward greater federal control.

  • Students would still have to take tests every year from third to eighth grade.
  • Schools would have to report the results of those tests, including breaking out the scores for "subgroups" of students: racial minorities, students learning English, students in special education, and students from poor families.
  • States would have to come up with a system to hold schools accountable for their progress toward goals. But the goals themselves would be up to states, and other factors besides standardized test scores will have to weigh in.
  • States would be required to do something about the bottom 5 percent of schools, and to identify schools where individual subgroups of students were struggling.

On the surface, this would appear to correct one of the biggest failures of current educational policy. Since NCLB, America's schools have placed entirely too much emphasis on standardized testing, consequently wasting countless hours of perfectly good classroom time teaching to said testing. This policy orientation has never been popular. Teachers, parents, and students collectively agree that this approach is wrongheaded and even destructive.

ESSA loosens the grip of this most problematic NCLB legacy, allowing “states to create their own testing-opt-out rules and abandon teacher evaluations based on student performance. It's a change of pace from George W. Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind law that previously ramped up the federal government's role in local schools.”

In fact, as the article in Vox resolves, ESSA actually reflects the first rollback of federal control since the 1980s.

States have been given an 18-month lead time to align with the new standards or identify schools in need of intervention. This means that ESSA will go into effect to start the 2017-2018 school year. It also means that, as Trump takes office, many states are now more than a year into the process of preparing for implementation. As you can probably guess, considerable hours and dollars have been dedicated to this implementation.

What Would Rollback Look Like?

So this opens up a discussion on the feasibility of eliminating Common Core. Trump would need to convince each state to reject the initiative. Just how attractive can the Trump administration make repeal to each individual state?

This is something that is likely to vary from one state to the next based on an array of factors, from political identity and education culture to economic needs and the degree to which the educational infrastructure is already invested in Common Core.

There is plenty of evidence that states which traditionally take an anti-federalist view are likely to pull out of Common Core, especially as grant and waiver rewards become detached from adoption. Indiana provides the best case in point. Though it had been an early adopter of Common Core, Indiana took a more pronounced interest in self-determination under the governorship of Mike Pence. Now that Pence is the Vice President of the U.S., it seems likely his experience in repealing Common Core will be instructive to the new administration.

During his time in the Indiana Governor's mansion, Pence accused the federal government of overreach through Common Core and pushed for his state to define its own standards. In 2014, this effort came to fruition. As Indiana departed the CommonCore initiative, Oklahoma and South Carolina soon followed suit. Any number of other states have had proposals on the books to erode or repeal Common Core standards. This serves as evidence that many states adopted the initiative strictly for access to federal funding, and not necessarily because of their philosophical commitment to its structure or implications.

There is an irony in this state-by-state pullback, however. While Indiana and its fellow Common Core defectors are in the early stages of reshaping policy, there isn't much evidence that these states will do much differently now that they've been left to their own resources. According to Teach Hub, Indiana “passed legislation that simply requires the state board of education to adopt new college and career readiness standards that align with federal standards and international benchmarks. This, some criticize, means that Indiana might just end up with ‘common core' standards under a different name. South Carolina opted to actually keep the Common Core standards in place for the 2014-2015 school year to allow it time to develop its own unique set of standards. Oklahoma simply chose to revert to their pre-Common Core standards, at least until 2016, when it can replace its reading and math standards.”

In each case where Common Core has been repealed or is facing repeal, Common Core standards have generally provided the blueprint for states creating their own standards. Now that ESSA has further loosened the federal grip on how these standards are shaped or implemented, the primary grievances that many conservatives have expressed toward Common Core have been blunted.

In fact, it isn't so much a failure of curriculum, teaching or testing that has made Common Core a target of conservative hostility (even if there is room for criticism in each and every one of these areas). Instead, it is the mere fact that it appears to descend from far reaching federal authority. Such is to say that objections to Common Core are, at this juncture, more ideological than practical in nature. Perhaps even more to the point, an article in the Washington Post quotes South Carolina's then-Governor Nikki Haley and several other prominent Republican Governors as suggesting much of Common Core's unpopularity in conservative circles stems simply from President Obama's vocal endorsement of the initiative.

Haley—recently confirmed by the Senate to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.—observed, “‘I don't think [Common Core] is as extreme as a lot of people paint it out to be. What I do think it is, is you're treating South Carolina kids like they're California kids,' South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who runs a state where opposition to Common Core has been especially fierce, said in a November [2013] interview.”

The freedoms afforded states under ESSA would seem, on the surface, to actually respond to this one-size-fits-all critique. Indeed, especially as funding incentives disconnect from Common Core adoption in the next year, the grievances of many conservatives are becoming increasingly irrelevant and misdirected. This is more than a matter of opinion. This is the calculus that each state will undertake in order to determine whether it will be among those that move toward a repeal of Common Core.

Any repeal and replacement of the current set of initiatives would carry massive transformational costs. Obama's Every Student Succeeds Act is already scheduled to supplant No Child Left Behind this year. In doing so, it would replace a massive federal program widely panned as a failure with a program that expands the rights and autonomy of individual states. Many states have, consequently, greeted ESSA as an opportunity. What's more, many have already invested in considerable efforts to make this transition. While states like Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina bailed before ESSA was passed into action, any number of other states have pressed forward with implementation. For strong adopters like New York and Illinois, this means that millions of dollars have already been invested into ESSA adoption.

As we reported in our discussion on Trump's desire to eliminate the Department of Education, states like Illinois are already steeped in the process of developing their individual ESSA state plans. Most states plan to continue with these efforts over the coming months. Asked if the election results could impact this process, Illinois State Board of Education Director of Media and External Communications Jackie Matthews said in an email:

“ISBE will continue developing its State Plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, based on stakeholder feedback gathered online and at listening tours across the state.”

As we noted in that article, in the place of ESSA, “Republicans could attempt to reintroduce the A-Plus Act, which would allow states to opt out of ESSA without surrendering federal funding. But even this is just a gradual (and decidedly expensive) rollback of programs and policies that states have dedicated the last half-decade to propping up. The billions spent would basically be scrapped as yet another array of billions are invested in the as yet unidentified alternative.”

A repeal of Common Core at the individual state level would make this a sunk cost. The expense of pulling out now and developing a set of standards at the state level would be a pretty tough sell, particularly when one considers how little likely difference there would be between these and the preexisting Common Core standards.

In addition to the newer emphasis on ESSA, states and districts have invested billions in curriculum, training, materials and testing over the last decade that all align with Common Core standards. At the time of writing, 42 states adhere to these standards.

The Trump administration would have to do a lot more than incentivizing states to pull out of Common Core. It would have to punish them for their failure to do so.

So What Can Trump Do?

Well, just as the Obama Administration connected its dispersal of grants and waivers to those states which adopted Common Core standards, the Trump Administration could find ways to deprive states of funding for upholding or remaining party to Common Core. This is to say that while Trump can't actually repeal Common Core, he could dismantle it piecemeal by sapping it of participants on a state by state basis.

Of course, it really is hard to see there being a tremendous amount of political will behind this type of state by state defunding. Trump would have to calculate that Common Core is so unpopular that each and every state will yield its involvement before its grant funding can be detained. But with the investments that have already been made into Common Core and ESSA, this doesn't seem like a very sound calculation.

Just how likely Trump and DeVos are to disrupt ESSA efforts already in progress is hard to say. Chances are pretty good that the hassle will far outstrip the political value of doing so. That said, we can't rule it out. Nor can we begin to deduce just exactly what might emerge in place of today's standards.

We're not indicating our support for Common Core one way or the other. We're just saying the as massive, centralized government-controlled policy initiatives are concerned, this one is fairly unobtrusive, decentralized, and outside of federally-concentrated authority. At the end of the day, the ability of an executive—even one as determined as Trump—to dismantle Common Core will depend on his ability to coerce each and every state to do the dismantling for him. It doesn't seem likely that the majority of states will go along with this effort. It also seems that, for those that do, little will actually change on the ground level.

In fairness, Common Core isn't necessarily the most popular of Obama's legacies. It is an initiative riddled with flaws. Engage any educator on the subject and you are bound to learn all about those flaws and how they impact students, teachers and classrooms in real time. So any effort to dismantle the initiative at the state by state level would likely be met with negotiation rather than outright resistance. But that's really the point. A realistic confrontation of Common Core would involve a nuanced debate regarding its flaws and coordination between both federal and state education leaders in arriving at something better. The idea of simply eliminating Common Core, in addition to misconstruing the legislative intricacies surrounding it, appears to skip these very crucial steps.

In the absence of these steps, efforts at dismantling Common Core would amount to a lot of political bang for very little educational buck. If we were to stand back and make a prediction, it's that Common Core isn't going anywhere.

Check Out Education Gets Trumped, Pt. 1: Eliminating the Department of Education.

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