Education

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That's Why They'll Never Work

Why do we keep enforcing more and more standards and testing that educators don't trust?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/YanLev

U.S. public education has a long relationship with pursuing high standards for students, teachers, and schools, reaching back to the Committee of Ten in the 1890s proposing a uniform curriculum for college-bound students. Advocates of child-centered education, such as psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) challenged establishing standards and core courses (such as English and math); however, eventually the business model of efficiency based on standardized goals and test-based accountability won the debate. American schools were destined for decades of policies designed to raise standards and increase test scores.

A Nation at Risk (1983) sparked high-stakes accountability built on state standards and testing. By 2001, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reinforced and expanded the state-based accountability era to the federal level. U.S. education has experienced thirty years and fifty separate experiments in standards and testing. Yet, high-stakes accountability has not produced the outcomes politicians promised: raising test scores, increasing graduation rates, and improving international rankings.

Throughout the accountability era, advocates for better standards and testing have focused exclusively on in-school education reform, discounting that regardless of standards or accountability mandates, measurable student outcomes (test scores) remain primarily a reflection of out-of-school (OOS) factors:

[R]oughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms. (Di Carlo, 2010)

Also, despite the presence of standards and accountability, “doubly disadvantaged” students who live in impoverished households and communities produce test scores reflecting the socioeconomic status of those communities. Most of the challenges facing education have nothing to do with the quality or presence of standards.

Ignoring the failure of standards-based accountability as well as the educational impact of poverty and led by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education, market-based education reform has produced another wave of standards and testing, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative first proposed by Achieve at the National Education Summit for governors and business leaders and funded by a number of private and philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Adopted by all except a handful of states, CCSS are poised to be national standards for U.S. public schools, guiding the content of core courses and national high-stakes testing.

The stampede to implement CCSS has ignored that standards-based education reform has not worked in three decades of implementation and accountability built on standards and high-stakes tests is the wrong policy model for education reform. More accurately identified as Common Corporate Standards, this movement will fail students and schools as long as political and corporate leaders discount the history of standards-based education, the research base on accountability, and the overwhelming influence of OOS factors on measurable student outcomes. Focusing on new standards, tests, and accountability as education reform and not confronting that inequity of opportunity in children’s lives and schools remains the essential problem that must be addressed before debates over standards can matter.

Standards, Rigor: Policies that Have Failed, Repeatedly

Who advocates for CCSS? What claims drive that advocacy? And who stands to benefit from CCSS implementation as well as the connected tests?

Typical of contemporary education reform, CCSS began as a political process driven by business interests—not as an educational process designed by classroom teachers or educational researchers. In the 1980s during the first wave of accountability, state governors became the primary voice for educational reform. Those governors often used their educational bully pulpits to pursue economic and business goals—improving the workforce or attracting new companies.

Since then, education reform has been evaluated primarily against market goals such as linking international test score rankings with workforce or international economic competitiveness. A powerful example of the connection between education reform and business practices is the development of CCSS through Achieve, a partnership formed among governors and corporate leaders. Soon after Achieve was founded, the seeds of CCSS were planted. Just over a decade later, Achieve published a report, announcing: “All students should graduate from high school prepared for the demands of postsecondary education, meaningful careers and effective citizenship [emphasis in original].”

Two years later, CCSS were released by the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School. Development of the standards themselves was headed by David Coleman, labeled the “architect” of CCSS and now president of the College Board. Coleman’s background includes consulting and assessment, not education, and Coleman also represents the entrepreneurial backing CCSS have received, including funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The process creating CCSS reveals that business interests and non-educators have driven the call to implement national standards, while educators—such as teacher and activist Susan Ohanian, principal Carol Burris, educational historian Diane Ravitch, and literacy scholar Stephen Krashen—are often the only voices challenging both that process and the standards themselves.

Beyond the process for developing CCSS, typical of the discourse supporting the standards is that used by Secretary Duncan. Speaking at an Achieve conference, Duncan discussed the promise of new high-stakes standardized tests built on the new CCSS, mentioning “assessment(s)” over 80 times, “test(s)” and “standard(s) over 20 times each, but never mentioning “poverty.” The focus of standards-based reform remains on in-school factors, avoiding the impact of OOS factors. Duncan and other CCSS advocates promote high standards, but never examine whether or not students will be assured equitable access to those higher expectations. If equity of opportunity is not assured, the quality of the standards is irrelevant.

Advocates of CCSS and high-stakes testing remain committed to prescribed standards, teaching to those standards, and standardized testing as the best avenues for improving teaching and learning. For example, in his speech Duncan claimed that high-stakes tests have been inadequate because they were built on weak standards, but:

We want teachers to teach to standards—if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.

For Duncan, standardizing the curriculum and the high-stakes tests needed for accountability at the national level are essential to achieve “the American promise of education as the great equalizer.” Herein are corporate interests masked behind social justice discourse advocating for CCSS.

Are “rigorous” standards needed because a lack of high-quality standards is the reason recent accountability policies failed? Appears not: “There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards,” explains William Mathis of the National Education Policy Center.

Are “rigorous” standards needed because a lack of high-quality standards has impeded the U.S. from being “globally competitive”? Appears not: “Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards,” adds Mathis.

Are “rigorous” standards needed because states have “dummied down their academic standards and assessments” over the past thirty years? Well, yes, because that is the essential nature of high-stakes accountability built on testing: “Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum,” Mathis confirms. But Duncan’s sole accurate claim serves as a warning to end the commitment to new standards and new tests; it doesn’t justify adopting CCSS as Duncan intends.

Ultimately, the rush to implement CCSS without considering the evidence showing the historical failure of standards- and test-based accountability perpetuates a commitment to high-stakes testing and thus masks that standardized testing remains class and race biased as well as gender biased. In other words, high-stakes testing labels and creates achievement gaps; it doesn’t help close the gap. Since the history of accountability has shown that all standards that are linked to high-stakes tests become what is tested is what is taught, CCSS are destined to the same failure as found during the preceding thirty years.

Another snapshot of the flaws behind supporting CCSS are captured in a debate between authors and educators Miller and Carlsson-Paige (2013, February 13; 2013, January 29) and Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch. This exchange represents the tension between content acquisition and content awareness—the difference between memorizing a set of facts and understanding or discovering a larger concept that incorporates those facts, as Miller and Carlsson-Paige explain in The Answer Sheet (The Washington Post):

Hirsch believes, along with these “reformers,” that children’s heads need to be filled up with facts.

But teachers of young children know better. Most of them agree with Plutarch, who said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” They know that, especially in the early years, children learn through active engagement with each other and the world around them. And they learn at widely different rates.

Noted earlier, the evidence from standards-based education has revealed that standards, testing, and accountability do not succeed in raising test scores. Related, the evidence on teaching shows that focusing on direct instruction and content acquisition is also ineffective. Standards-based reform committed to content acquisition, then, asks less of students, not more. Additionally, we have ample evidence that standards and high-stakes tests do not create the democratic outcomes we seek in schools such as critical thinking, creativity, and equity of opportunity.

With the poor track record associated with standards-based reform, that raises another important question about why leaders continue to support new standards: Who benefits from the call for new and better standards and tests? Commitments to CCSS are commitments to commercial and corporate, not educational, interests, explains professors Pennington, Obenchain, Papola, and Kmitta:

[W]e call for a reframing of the CCSS from redeemer to rainmaker. Rainmakers are defined by their ability to generate business by using political associations. The need to implement and assess the established CCSS situates those who created the standards as rainmakers for educational publishing companies and educational consulting non-profits they are affiliated with.…Therefore we raise the following questions, (1) Is education destined to be guided by the testing of national standards created by a small group who profits from the test they are paid to create? (2) What does that mean for historical notions of public education for all with local decision making rights? and (3) Are the CCSS the national beginnings of the corporatization of education?

In sum, CCSS has been developed by political and corporate leaders without expertise or experience in education. Top-down, standards-driven education de-professionalizes teachers, devalues the field of education, and reduces students to passive learners. And commercial interests, not students, will gain from implementing CCSS, the most damning lie of all behind CCSS, and thus needed reform will not be addressed, according to Ohanian:

Here’s a central problem: despite all the money and policing that goes into this, the poverty rate of children attending most urban and many rural schools exceeds 50 percent — and that remains the elephant in the room. The fact that so many of our children live in poverty, not teacher incompetence or a dearth of rigorous texts, is what should concern us.

Ultimately, instead of standards-based reform, ensuring an equity of opportunity to rich learning experiences trumps any of our concerns about how to measure those experiences or what counts as challenging curriculum.

Equity and Opportunity: Rich and Engaging Learning for All

Fifty years ago, in the context of standardizing education as a tool of the international arms and space races, the essential flaws of seeking efficiency above democratic goals for education included, as Emeritus Professor of Education at Washington University in St. Louis Raymond Callahan confronted:

that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened.

Implementing CCSS and national high-stakes tests will replicate these ineffective patterns once again: To the exclusion of equity, standards and testing are guided by efficiency, a goal not suited to education reform.

CCSS continues that essential flaw of standards-based schooling: “Technical standards that focus simply on performance on standardized tests remove the all-important meaning-making process from the everyday life of the classroom,” critical scholars and educators Kincheloe and Weil note. An alternative to technical education reform acknowledges that “the significance of information that students learn is important, not just the acquisition of such data,” they argue, adding:

Decontextualized technical standards that are easy to statistically manipulate for good public relations perfectly fit the needs of the re-educators. . . .The public buys into "simplistic answers to complex problems," and as long as it does, technical standards will remain extremely popular. . . .Reductionism, thus, helps create an illusion of educational improvement in the minds of citizens.

Instead of reducing public education to the transmission of state-endorsed standards from scripted teachers to compliant students, Kincheloe and Weil value “standards of complexity” that address equity and opportunity, honoring the authority and choices of teachers and their students, and not interests of the state or textbook and test corporations.

CCSS as the newest version of “technical standards,” then, is “an illusion,” but rejecting CCSS is not accepting the status quo of failure. Rejecting CCSS is based on rejecting a bureaucratic solution to a social problem. In other words, CCSS as national standards to be transmitted by teachers and received by students—all under the claim of objectivity—perpetuate the status quo of inequity found in segregated classrooms and schools. Through standards, education, then, may become efficient but not an opportunity for social change, a direct contradiction of the promise voiced by Duncan, “education as the great equalizer.”

Educators have known not only what and how to teach for decades, but also that content (or identified and sequenced standards) is far less important than what choices and activities teachers and students make and do with that content. In other words, prescribing standards does not address educational reform needs since teaching strategies and environments matter, issues of power must be addressed in all decisions about teaching and learning, and teaching and learning are chaotic, unpredictable. Calling for new standards and testing ignores the evidence-based and rich bodies of knowledge that constitute the field of education and are better suited for reform policies.

The political problem with equity-based education reform is that the next wave of that reform must confront that some privileged students receive high-quality opportunities while most impoverished students receive efficient test-prep schooling. Those dynamics have little to do with the standards while the high-stakes tests identify the privilege and inequity, not the achievement of the students or the efforts and quality of the teachers or schools.

Instead of standards-based reform, equity-based reform would include discontinuing tracking (often based on biased testing) so that all children enter classes that offer common rich opportunities to learn. Another equity-based reform would be to balance school funding regardless of the affluence of the community in which that school sits. Reform addressing equity of opportunity must also confront teacher assignment, unspoken practices that assign privileged children to experienced and certified teachers while impoverished children, children of color, English language learners, and special needs students are assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers.

Education reform must start with the purposes of universal public education (to support democracy, social justice, and individual freedom) and the clearly defined problems blocking those goals (social and educational inequity of opportunity). CCSS are more of the same failed reform pattern that is destined to waste precious resources of time and money that would be better spent addressing equitable access to learning. If reform policy does not address the equity of opportunity for children in their lives as well as in their schools, adopting CCSS and developing elaborate testing programs around those standards are destined to the same failures as all the other standards cycles that have come before. Instead, in-school equity of access to rich learning opportunities must be the guiding priority of reform.

Advocacy for CCSS serves the commercial, corporate, and political interests of those already in power, at the expense of those living underneath the inequity of poverty that characterizes more and more families and children in the U.S. For public schools to honor “Dr. Martin Luther King[’s]…‘the fierce urgency of now,’” referenced by Duncan, education reform must dig deeper than simplistic civil rights rhetoric, as King argued himself:

As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

All children in the U.S. deserve equity and opportunity in their lives and in their schools, regardless of their home or community. CCSS and more high-stakes testing will continue to narrow their experiences, label and sort them in ways determined by the conditions of their home and communities, and not by the quality of their efforts or of their schools and teachers.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.

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