New York Times Columnist Gets It Mostly Right On Common Core. Mostly.

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In her recent New York Times op-ed, “The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students”, Diane Ravitch describes the effects of Common Core as compared to its promise. I do agree with much of what she says there, about the way Common Core was a rush job funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation money — and, incidentally, written by ill-qualified authors — and the way it was sold as a panacea that will “improve achievement and reduce the gaps between rich and poor, and black and white.” And I do agree with her when she attributes the recent sharp drop on NAEP achievement to Common Core — after all, it is difficult to see any other national level educational change in recent years that could have produced such a broad and sharp dip in achievement across the nation.

Yet her unqualified attribution of “poverty and racial segregation” as “the main causes” of poor student achievement caught me short. Surely she must be wrong. If poverty and racial segregation were the causes of, rather than correlated with, poor achievement, then we would never see racially segregated but academically successful schools, or successful schools with largely poor kids. A few successful and disadvantaged kids? Sure. But there is no way schools with hundreds of such kids can beat statistical odds against success if poverty — or segregation — are the causes of poor achievement.

Yet such schools do exist! We have numerous examples of effectively segregated schools, and of high-poverty schools, that bring their students to high achievement, and they typically do this without significantly different expenditure per student. One needs only to plot school poverty (or race) versus achievement (such as here) and one immediately notices that there are always a few very high-poverty schools that easily beat the odds. How can they do it, if poverty and race are the causes of low performance? Simple. Because they are not. Schools with good curricula and competent staff are successful with any kind of kid, rich or poor, black or white!

It is true, however, that in the case of so many schools with incompetent staff or wrong-headed curriculum, educated parents — who tend to be affluent — work around school deficiencies by providing outside-school tutoring, whether by the family or by the likes of Kumons and Sylvans. Yet such support is rarely available for poor kids, who tend to come from black and Latino families. Further, affluent parents are less tolerant of poor school performance and effect changes through exerting political influence on the school board; this rarely happens in areas with high poverty. Hence the correlation — rather than causation — between poverty and race, and scholastic achievement. School quality determines student success, but when school quality is poor, affluent parents can ameliorate its impact, while poor parents rarely can or do.

Ravitch goes on to criticize the onerous annual testing regime introduced by NCLB and doubled under Common Core. She discusses the resulting demoralization of teachers, the redirection of funding from the untested arts and sciences into — the tested — math and reading, and the large imposition of testing and test-prep on instructional time. I find her criticism correct in general, but not very discerning. Specifically, there seems to be little wrong with testing per se once in a few years (e.g, grade-band testing), particularly if its results are important for the students themselves. Such testing tends to promote student achievement.

Yet she is right that the current annual testing is unnecessarily onerous — no reason to externally test students every year. In fact, I am unaware of any country, whether educational leader or laggard, that tests most of its kids grade-by-grade every year. Further, making the tests high-stakes for teachers rather than for students — as is done today — creates incentives for teachers to spend extravagant amounts of time on test-prep. Because the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that replaced NCLB does not require using assessment results for teacher evaluation anymore, there seems no reason to keep the annual testing in place. Yet it is. It is almost as if today’s ESSA-era testing regime in grades 3-8 was designed by education researchers for their own needs rather than for the needs of students or teachers.

 Ravitch continues then to argue that “[s]tandardized tests are best at measuring family income.” As I have explained above, achievement and income are correlated for variety of reasons, but correlation doesn’t equal causation. Hers is more of a political rallying cry than an insightful statement.

Ravitch continues then to argue that “[s]tandardized tests are best at measuring family income.” As I have explained above, achievement and income are correlated for variety of reasons, but correlation doesn’t equal causation. Hers is more of a political rallying cry than an insightful statement. Ravitch then goes on to confound norm-referenced and criterion referenced tests, arguing that the “quest to ‘close achievement gaps’ is vain indeed when the measure of achievement is a test based on a statistical norm. If we awarded driver’s licenses based on standardized tests, half the adults in this country might never receive one.” Ravitch is confused and confusing — no state in the nation administers norm-referenced tests anymore. With criterion-referenced test we now can have all students succeed … or all of them fail.

In view of the all above, Ravitch recommends to “give teachers the autonomy to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the children in front of them and to write their own tests.” She is mostly right — it is, indeed, foolish to expect an identical curriculum and identical test for every student in a country as large and as diverse as ours. That is what Common Core believers were peddling — not only in math and reading, but also in “history, geography, the sciences, civics, the arts, foreign languages, technology, health, and physical education.”

Yet Ravitch’s suggestion to focus instead on “well-maintained schools” or on “classes of reasonable size” is wrong-headed too. There is little evidence that American schools are generally ill-maintained, and we already have some of the smallest class sizes in the world. Educational ranking is dominated by East Asian nations such as Singapore, South Korea, or Japan, while their class sizes are frequently double ours. Not coincidentally, these countries can also afford to pay their teachers more as a result.

What really will make a difference is Ravitch’s last suggestion, that of developing expert teachers. Evidence indicates that despite our teachers’ very high level of formal college education, with many having graduate degrees, the level of actual content knowledge and cognitive skills of our teaching cohort is rather low. While content knowledge in itself is insufficient to make a teacher into an expert, clearly one cannot teach what one doesn’t know.

I would add to that another element: school administrators’ qualifications and autonomy. The more schools are ruled by one-size-fits-all and by zero-tolerance policies from some central office, whether federal or state, the less autonomy, initiative, and flexibility is left for the administrative staff to do whatever is necessary to effectively educate children. It is probably not a coincidence that, overwhelmingly, schools that beats the odds on educating poor students are charter schools that have the flexibility of managing themselves. Not every charter beats the odds, but almost all those that do are charters. Which is another strike against Washington’s takeover of schools that Common Core and its testing reflects: it is nigh impossible to change or fight federal rules; it is much more likely to change them at the state level.

In summary, Ravitch is right in her conclusion: Common Core cost America dearly in terms of treasure, student achievement, and damage to federalism. Consequently, we should dismantle it as soon as we can. Yet her focus on poverty, race, and class-size is wrong and unnecessarily distracts us from where the true improvement lies: improving schools through improved teacher education and certification, and through school flexibility to adjust to local conditions rather than governance by rigid rules from a remote authority.

Ze’ev Wurman is a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.