New Standards, Familiar Problems

The following op-ed is the John Locke Foundation’s Daily Journal for Friday, October 28, 2011:

If you thought the federal No Child Left Behind law was bad, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Next year, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction will introduce new curriculum standards for all public school students. This will include Common Core State Standards in K-12 English and mathematics. North Carolina’s adoption of the Common Core standards is a testament to the growing influence of the federal government in matters that traditionally (and constitutionally) have been state and local responsibilities.

Unlike No Child Left Behind, the Common Core State Standards are the product of two independent organizations: the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. While these groups coordinated the standards’ development, neither had the financial or political influence to convince states to sign on. After all, education officials in North Carolina and elsewhere had little incentive to adopt standards created by two Washington outfits. Enter the feds.

The federal government joined forces with these organizations and made states an offer they couldn’t refuse. The U.S. Department of Education declared that a state officially adopting the common standards would receive “bonus points” toward its application for a piece of the $4.5 billion federal Race to the Top fund. In June 2010, the State Board of Education unanimously approved Common Core English and math standards. Three months later, North Carolina won a four-year, $400 million Race to the Top grant. In fact, all 10 states that received round-two Race to the Top grants adopted Common Core standards.

The federal government is also bankrolling the development of common tests. Predictably, most states are falling in line. The Education Department will distribute $360 million in grants to members of two state consortia. North Carolina became a member of the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. In its role as a governing state in this group, North Carolina will work with public education agencies from 28 other states to shape test-design policy.

Of course, the burden of implementing common standards and tests will fall on North Carolina’s English and math teachers. They will have the difficult task of quickly turning a catalog of new standards into sound classroom instruction. And research indicates that the shift to Common Core standards will not be easy. In a study published in Educational Researcher, a University of Pennsylvania research team concluded that the Common Core standards represent considerable change over existing state standards and tests. Researchers also found that the proposed standards are no better, and likely worse, than academic standards created by state education agencies.

While researchers disagree about the English standards’ quality, there is a growing consensus that the Common Core math standards are abysmal. In fact, few academics, policy analysts, and education officials have been willing to defend the math standards publicly. For example, the executive editor of Education Next recently complained that, after three months and numerous rejections, he has been unable to find anyone willing to write a short defense of the math standards for his widely read journal.

Parents, public school teachers, and school board members throughout North Carolina have joined a growing number of opponents of the Common Core standards. During a recent school board meeting in Durham, two board members publicly voiced their concerns about the standards. They worried that the implementation of dramatically different standards has the potential to harm struggling students. Durham Public Schools superintendent Eric Becoats warned them that delaying implementation of the Common Core standards would prompt state education officials to punish the district. He responded, “I’m not sure if we would receive funding from the state.”

In other words, Becoats suspects that the state would employ the same kind of “carrot and stick” strategies employed by the federal government to get North Carolina to adopt the Common Core State Standards, as well as No Child Left Behind, in the first place.

Dr. Terry Stoops is the Director of Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation