by Karen R. Effrem, MD
A thorough new white paper from the Pioneer Institute titled “Common Core, School Choice and Rethinking Standards-Based Reform” expertly discusses the mountain of evidence showing the flaws and failures of the Common Core standards and their aligned curriculum, as well as how damaging the centralized standards reform movement is to school choice. The report is authored by Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom; Theodor Rebarber, head of the nonprofit AccountabilityWorks; and Patrick J. Wolf, Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.
With regard to the quality and success of the Common Core standards, the report discusses the recent declines in math in 4th and 8th grade on the NAEP and the lack of improvement internationally. NAEP reading scores were also stagnant in 4th and 8th grade, with lower scores for struggling students.
This is in line with articles and papers by Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman, who have discussed California-specific Common Core related achievement declines, and Sandra Stotsky — a member of the English Common Core validation committee that refused to sign off on the final standards — who has noted similar declines in Massachusetts. Both articles discuss the harm to minority and vulnerable populations. Stotsky rightly notes:
Common Core-aligned standards and tests seem to have negatively affected the low-performing groups in Massachusetts. And that seems predictable, given the lower standards of Common Core.
Another likely contributing factor to poor public school performance under Common Core not discussed in this paper is state destruction of teacher autonomy based on professional judgment and experience. The Miami Herald chronicles the removal of literature texts containing the classics from classrooms in favor of a digital selection that emphasizes informational texts. Dr. Stotsky and Dr. Terrence Moore of Hillsdale College have long warned of damage from Common Core’s de-emphasis of classic literature.
The other very important point made by the Pioneer Institute paper is that many school choice programs, especially private school vouchers, severely damage private school autonomy because they require the state-mandated public school tests in the name of “accountability”:
In the name of poorly designed “accountability,” nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of school choice programs that involve public funds require that participating private schools administer a single curriculum-based test as a condition of participation. Even less well known is that such tests inherently pressure schools to adopt the curriculum on which they are based in order to permit students to score well. Therefore, they should never be mandated. Often, such mandates were not originally part of a choice program but were added at a later date.
I am very glad to see this robust discussion and review of the grave danger to private school autonomy, especially in the Common Core era. This has long been a major sticking point to support for school choice for many conservative organizations and commentators, including Conservative Review‘s Michelle Malkin, the Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick, and the late Phyllis Schlafly (in addition to my own reservations). Bedrick captures the heart of the issue:
Common Core is already moving the nation’s education system toward greater uniformity. If states adopt Fordham’s proposal [to require state Common Core tests with vouchers], they would almost entirely eliminate any viable alternative to the Common Core regime.
The articles cited above also note the strong connection between proponents of Common Core and the required use of state tests in voucher programs. Malkin mentions “big-government Republicans such as Jeb Bush and flip-flopping Mike Huckabee who pay lip service to increasing school choice and supporting charter schools, private schools and homeschooling,” having been “among the loudest GOP peddlers of the Common Core ‘standards’/textbook/testing/data collection regime thrust upon schools who want nothing to do with it.” Bedrick also notes the Gates-funded Fordham Foundation, and I discuss the “groups representing large corporate interests, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the Business Partnership, who have always been in favor of nationalized curriculum, standards, and tests and even international standards.”
In addition to the required use of the state tests, there are other ways that government may gain control over curriculum via voucher programs. Florida’s latest school choice program, called the Hope Scholarship, gives a voucher to students bullied in the public schools to go to private schools using public funds. There are many problems with this approach:
Sending public funds to private schools, especially religious ones, greatly risks opening these private schools to control by the state, which will eventually mean imposition of public Common Core curriculum on private schools. Given the support for this program among the same corporate establishment groups described above, this seems to be what a significant portion of these pro-Common Core groups have wanted all along.
That is why seeing the apparent takeover of conservative Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis’ campaign by these establishment forces is so disconcerting to education freedom advocates and anti-Common Core parents who helped him win the primary. Instead of keeping his promise to get rid of Common Core, his platform now speaks of merely doing a review of the standards, which is what was used to rebrand but not significantly change Common Core in Florida and other states. There is also much promotion of school choice without addressing the dangers of Common Core-aligned testing and curriculum. All of this is then endorsed by Jeb Bush, whose promotion of Common Core was an electoral disaster. This is potentially a significant reason why DeSantis’ campaign has been having difficulties since the primary.
Hopefully, he will reject the bad advice he is receiving, read this excellent Pioneer report, and make public his intention to follow through on what I and many others believe to be his sincere promise to actually get rid of Common Core. He could do that by enacting the report’s excellent recommendation to flee centralized standards and testing at the state and federal levels, first via waivers under federal law, and eventually fighting to change that law to remove the mandated (since 1994) statewide standards and tests. This would allow local public and private experimentation with standards and curriculum to best fit local needs.
The report’s other recommendation to promote tax credits instead of vouchers will not, according to their citation of Supreme Court precedent, use public funds for private education, therefore lessening the danger of imposing government mandates like Common Core tests on private schools. Although many of us are still concerned about government strings with tax credits, it is comforting to see the report note that “95 percent of the (more numerous) tax credit school choice programs do not include harmful mandates of this type.” Mr. DeSantis could perhaps somewhat calm those in the public sector by backing off of direct public funding of private schools via vouchers, as well as assuage conservatives’ justifiable concerns about government control of private schools by pursuing tax credits instead. He could also call for more accountability for charter schools. Stay tuned.