Policymakers and reform advocates alike have rallied around introducing a set of national content standards, suggesting that this will jump start the stagnating achievement of U.S. students. As history clearly indicates, simply calling for students to know more is not the same as students actually knowing more. The largest problem is that the discussions of common core suck all of the air out of the room, distracting attention from any serious efforts to reform our schools.
To be sure, it is a real problem when students in one state learn very different things than those in other states, and in particular when students from some states lack the skills needed for our modern economy. We really do have a national labor market, and significant numbers of our population end up living and working in a state different than that where they were born and went to school. The presumption behind having national standards is that having a clearer and more consistent statement of learning objectives across states would tend to lessen the problem of heterogeneous skills that students bring to the labor market. Again, however, the fundamental problem is lack of minimal skills and not the heterogeneity of skills per se.
We currently have very different standards across states, and experience from the states provides little support for the argument that just more clearly declaring what we want children to learn will have much impact. Proponents of national standards conventionally point to Massachusetts: strong standards and top results. But, it is useful to expand thinking from just Massachusetts to include California, a second state noted for its high learning standards. California balances Massachusetts: strong standards and bottom results.
In other words, what really matters is what is actually taught in the classroom. Just setting a different goal – even if backed by intensive professional development, new textbooks, and the like – has not historically had much influence as we look across state outcomes.
The continuing emphasis on common core standards, including the debates about the legality of them, is often interpreted as indicating that the common core is a really big deal in school reform. The data suggest otherwise.
The one possible complementary gain from the move to national standards is that the assessments of performance might become better. It is widely recognized that the current tests used to judge outcomes within individual states tend to be quite weak. If the new standards lead to better tests – something that might come out of the two testing consortia funded by the U.S. Department of Education – we might have the basis for improved school policies. But, that is also not certain and cannot be used as a primary justification for the focus on common core standards.
Indeed, moving to these new, untested tests may make it impossible to have continued accountability of the schools for results. At the very least it will cause a moratorium in continuation of state accountability programs even though these programs have had a consistently positive impact on student performance.
One interpretation of the emphasis on developing the common core curriculum is that these debates provide a convenient diversion from potentially more intractable fights over bigger reform ideas like using improved teacher evaluations for personnel decisions, expanded school choice, or enhanced accountability systems.
I am not against having better learning standards, but I also believe that we cannot be distracted from more fundamental reform of our schools. My recent book with Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann, Endangering Prosperity, argues that the future economic well-being of the U.S. is entirely dependent on improving the achievement and skills of today’s students. The Common Core per se does little to ensure improved student outcomes.