Is There Anything Common Core Gets Right?

Printed from:

Most books on public education in any country do not favor workforce preparation for all students in place of optional high school curricula or student-selected post-secondary goals. Nor have parents in the USA lauded Common Core’s effects on their children’s learning or the K-8 curriculum. Indeed, few observers see anything academically worthwhile in the standards funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and promoted by the organizations it has subsidized to promote them (e.g., the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence).

Joy Pullmann’s The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids (Encounter Books, 2017) is a recent addition to the critics’ side of the Common Core controversy.  Her purpose is to explain what Common Core is and how it got to be implemented in almost every public classroom in almost every state in a remarkably short period of time (less than five years). She does so chiefly from the perspective of the many parents and teachers she quotes.

Organized in seven chapters, her book describes how the Gates Foundation promoted and continues to promote one extremely wealthy couple’s uninformed, unsupported, and unsupportable ideas on education for other people’s children while their own children are enrolled in a non-Common Cored private school.  It explains how (but not exactly why) the Gates Foundation helped to centralize control of public education in the U.S. Department of Education. It also explains why parents, teachers, local school boards, and state legislators were the last to learn how the public schools their local and state taxes supported had been nationalized without Congressional knowledge or permission; and why they were expected to believe that their local public schools were now accountable for what and how they teach … not to the local and state taxpayers who fund them or to locally-elected school boards that by law are still supposed to set education policies not already determined by their state legislature … but to a distant bureaucracy in exchange for money to their state department of education to close “achievement gaps” between unspecified groups.

Overnight, teachers discovered they were accountable to anonymous bureaucrats for students’ scores on tests these teachers had not developed or reviewed, before or after their administration. Amazingly, state boards and governors believed all teachers were accountable to the federal education department despite the fact that the federal government pays for only about 8 to 10 percent of the costs of public education on average across states, and not for teachers’ or superintendents’ salaries.

The complex story of how sets of English language arts and mathematics standards (and, later, compatible science standards) created by non-experts selected chiefly (so far as we know) by Gates got adopted legally by mathematically- and scientifically-ignorant state boards of education is carefully told in a relatively short book. What we miss are analyses of four crucial topics:  the academic quality of Common Core’s standards, why they were adopted by mathematically-illiterate state boards of education, why “school choice” doesn’t address the problems in Common Core’s standards, and how the peer review process for approving a “State Plan” under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) ensures continuing federal control of a state’s public schools.

The first topic is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Common Core project — the inferior academic quality of its standards. The mission statement in the first documents released by the Common Core project claimed that its English language arts and mathematics standards “… are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” Yet, curiously, there is no chapter in Pullmann’s book on whether independent academic experts in mathematics, science, or literary scholarship have ever judged its “college readiness” standards and the tests aligned to them as “robust.” Pullmann does make it clear in a subsequent blog post how Common Core’s mathematics and English language arts standards limit if not damage the education of all children, including those it claims to want to make “college ready.” But there is no cogent discussion of this central issue in her book.

Second, since the Common Core standards were never judged by independent academic experts as reflecting the “knowledge and skills” needed for success in college and careers, why did state boards of education (often appointed by a governor) make a decision in 2010 to adopt them knowing that billions would be needed to implement them, alter textbooks and other curriculum materials, prepare new teachers, retrain practicing teachers, and, above all else, assess them, and that more billions would eventually be needed for continuing implementation? Pullmann’s book offers no analysis of this situation. Case studies might shed light on why mathematically- and scientifically-illiterate state boards of education across the country chose to adopt secondary mathematics standards (and, later, compatible science standards) without a public meeting with academic experts at their own public universities. Why did they think they could rely on the staff at their own departments of education or on a sales pitch from organizations subsidized by the Gates Foundation, rather than on those who actually teach mathematics or science at the post-secondary level to their own high school graduates?

Third, how does “school choice” address any of the problems with the Common Core project? Pullmann’s commendable effort to describe the spider web spun by two wealthy people to ensnare all the nation’s children in their misconceived education agenda ends with a puzzling recommendation extolling school choice, as if giving low-income parents a choice of school building or school management solves the many problems that parents have had with Common Core’s standards, tests, and data collection activities. Where readers might expect suggestions for how states or school districts might escape or have tried to escape from the spider web, we find, instead, a justification for school choice. It is common knowledge that charter schools or vouchers for private schools (the forms in which school choice most often occurs) are available chiefly to low-income parents and their children. No means test was used for many of the original charter schools in the 1990s. But by 2017 it is quite clear that charter schools and vouchers are to be designed for low-income children to help them escape “failing” schools.

If the entire system of public education is trapped in Common Core’s spider web, what helps children of low- to middle-income families (the bulk of those in our public schools) to escape the curriculum shaped by its standards, state-mandated tests, and data collection activities in the schools they apparently must attend unless they are homeschooled? How can charter schools (mostly public schools) escape the Common Core net?

Fourth, despite the oft-stated intention of the Every Student Succeeds Act’s major sponsor — Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — to reduce federal control of public education and restore some modicum of control to state and local government, ESSA does not give parents or state/local taxpayers any freedom to shape their own public school curriculum. Instead, it not only mandates that all states must submit a State Plan to to the U.S. Department of Education in 2017 in order to get Title I and other federal funds, ESSA also mandates that all State Plans must be approved by peer reviewers appointed by a federal education department.  (A State Plan, developed by a state’s unelected department of education, indicates what the state will commit to for at least four years, regardless of cost, to address ESSA’s many requirements for closing “achievement gaps,” including the standards and tests it will use.)  Even when the current use of a variety of state tests (to judge by their titles) might suggest that federal education officials would not be able to control the curriculum in all public schools in the country, there was no public debate or media analysis of how the left hand took away what the right hand gave.

The deceptive strategies used by Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the past year to pretend they were/are mandating better tests than those aligned to Common Core’s standards (implying the K-12 curriculum would be strengthened) give away the game embedded in ESSA’s approved State Plan.  The game involving Common Core-aligned tests began in November 2015 when the Massachusetts Board of Education agreed to a “compromise” on what to call a Common Core-aligned state test. It could choose between a test called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, created originally with Race to the Top funds as part of a U.S. Department of Education initiative) and a test called MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) mandated in the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act and until 2010 based on the state’s pre-Common Core standards. By 2015, MCAS was based solely on Common Core’s standards, which the Board had adopted in 2010. The Board’s compromise was to call the one test it would henceforth give MCAS 2.0.

The compromise (over what to call a Common Core-aligned state test) grew out of controversy over the use of Common Core’s standards and the PARCC tests. In fact, a large statewide group consisting mainly of parents had sought to place a question on the November 2016 ballot allowing voters to decide whether they wanted to keep Common Core’s standards and tests. Gates Foundation grants to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (over $400,000, according to an article in Bay State Parent) had enabled the alliance, a small organization that had played NO role in the development of the state’s first-class pre-Common Core standards, to hire Foley Hoag, a very expensive law firm in Boston, to challenge the constitutionality of the question that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office had declared in 2014 was constitutional. Justice Margot Botsford on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court agreed with Foley Hoag’s peculiar legal reasoning that the release of used test items was unrelated to a test’s transparency and therefore took away the opportunity for the state’s voters to decide on the use of Common Core’s standards and tests. She declared unconstitutional the question that the Attorney General’s office had declared constitutional a year earlier. In addition, she apparently persuaded her colleagues on the court to follow her (and Foley Hoag’s) reasoning.

MCAS 2.0 tests were given to Bay State students in March and April 2017. At this time, Rhode Island’s Department of Education decided to adopt these tests in place of PARCC’s tests, which had also been used in Rhode Island, although there, too, they were disliked by parents.  Even though MCAS 2.0 consists mainly of PARCC test items and has been called PARCC in disguise, we do not know if Rhode Island state officials really believe that tests called MCAS 2.0 resemble the original MCAS tests. 

Unfortunately, they bear no resemblance. (Example: original MCAS tests featured four teacher-corrected Open Responses at every tested grade level. The new test doesn’t.) But Rhode Island’s commissioner of education and his staff have so far told Rhode Island parents little about the source of the test items in MCAS 2.0. What is likely is that PARCC’s sale of its test items to Rhode Island (and possibly to other states in the future), on the deceptive grounds that tests called MCAS are different from tests known to be aligned to Common Core’s standards, would get PARCC out of its current financial hole.

More important, it would serve the Every Student Succeeds Act’s goal of nationalizing public education in this country. Other states may/might be encouraged by federal education officials’ peer reviewers to commit to tests called MCAS in the future, with common test items developed by PARCC and pass/fail scores determined by wizards behind a green curtain at the U.S. Department of Education — all designed to make parents everywhere think their state was using the original MCAS tests and the standards on which they had been based.

There has been NO transparency about who if anyone has vetted the contents of Common Core-aligned tests against the content of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests in math and science and who would determine the pass/fail scores for all performance levels of “college readiness” tests in high school. As valuable as Pullmann’s current book is, parents badly need a follow-up — soon.

Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here. Some of the material in this article appears in a different form in a review of Joy Pullmann’s book for The Independent Review (, Volume 22, Number 2, Fall 2017).