U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the American Enterprise Institute conference yesterday and reading through her prepared remarks, discussing education reforms by President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, here are three observations.
1. Common Core is far from dead.
Where the Bush administration emphasized NCLB’s stick, the Obama administration focused on carrots. They recognized that states would not be able to legitimately meet the NCLB’s strict standards. Secretary Duncan testified that 82 percent of the nation’s schools would likely fail to meet the law’s requirements — thus subjecting them to crippling sanctions.
The Obama administration dangled billions of dollars through the “Race to the Top” competition, and the grant-making process not so subtly encouraged states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. With a price tag of nearly four and a half billion dollars, it was billed as the “largest-ever federal investment in school reform.” Later, the Department would give states a waiver from NCLB’s requirements so long as they adopted the Obama administration’s preferred policies — essentially making law while Congress negotiated the reauthorization of ESEA.
Unsurprisingly, nearly every state accepted Common Core standards and applied for hundreds of millions of dollars in “Race to the Top” funds. But despite this change, the United States’ PISA performance did not improve in reading and science, and it dropped in math from 2012 to 2015.
Then, rightly, came the public backlash to federally imposed tests and the Common Core. I agree – and have always agreed – with President Trump on this: “Common Core is a disaster.” And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.
Sure, the U.S. Department of Education is not actively pushing Common Core, they don’t need to. The standards and assessment consortiums don’t need to be funded anymore. The damage is done.
They don’t need to publicly push it because ESSA essentially codified Common Core.
Peter Cunningham, the former assistant secretary for communications at the U.S. Department of Education, served under former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says to say ESSA gets rid of Common Core is nonsensical.
He wrote in an op/ed he wrote shortly after the bill was passed:
(Alexander) begins an op-ed in the Tennessean with the outlandish claim that he ran for reelection last year on a promise to “repeal the federal Common Core mandate and reverse the trend toward a national school board.”
Sorry, Senator, but there never was a Common Core mandate so your new law can’t repeal what didn’t exist.
There was an incentive to adopt “college- and career-ready” standards in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program and some conservative pundits and politicians viewed this incentive as “coercive.” But it wasn’t a mandate. It was voluntary and 46 states and D.C. leaped at the opportunity to compete for those dollars by adopting higher standards.
Ironically, the new law that the senator from Tennessee is so proud of, the Every Student Succeeds Act, now mandates the very thing he rails against. Under the new law, every state must adopt “college- and career-ready” standards. Thus, the new law all but guarantees that Common Core State Standards—or a reasonable imitation under a different name—will likely remain in place in most states.
So, unfortunately for Secretary DeVos (and us), status quo keeps Common Core in place.
As a requirement of the ESSA, states must “demonstrate” to the Secretary that they have adopted standards that are aligned to the same definition of “college and career” standards used to force states into adopting Common Core under NCLB waivers.
Also, we noted that “The state accountability system must be structured as per the federal bill.”
Then, we observed, “Bill language appears to require standards that align with career and technical education standards, indicating that the standards must align to the federally approved Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.”
And voila, while states may have changed the name of their standards or revised some of their standards all have essentially rebranded and tweaked Common Core. No one has gotten rid of root and branch.
So while Common Core may be dead in the U.S. Department of Education, I have my doubts as many Common Core advocates now work there, but it certainly is not dead in the states.
2. She says federal mandates don’t work, but supports a federal mandate.
Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem. Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.
Perhaps the lesson lies not in what made the approaches different, but in what made them the same: the federal government. Both approaches had the same Washington “experts” telling educators how to behave.
The lesson is in the false premise: that Washington knows what’s best for educators, parents and students.
Rick, you’ve rightly pointed out that the federal government is good at making states, districts, and schools do something, but it’s not good at making them do it well. Getting real results for students hinges on how that “something” is done.
That’s because when it comes to education – and any other issue in public life – those closest to the problem are always better able to solve it. Washington bureaucrats and self-styled education “experts” are about as far removed from students as you can get.
Yet under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Washington overextended itself time and time again.
Educators don’t need engineering from Washington. Parents don’t need prescriptions from Washington. Students don’t need standards from Washington.
That’s a nice sentiment, but what is Secretary DeVos going to do about it? If this is something she truly believed she would support the repeal of ESEA instead of touting it in its current form as the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The Every Student Succeeds Act charted a path in a new direction. ESSA takes important steps to return power where it belongs by recognizing states – not Washington — should shape education policy around their own people. But state lawmakers should also resist the urge to centrally plan education. “Leave it to the states” may be a compelling campaign-season slogan, but state capitols aren’t exactly close to every family either. That’s why states should empower teachers and parents and provide the same flexibility ESSA allows states.
But let’s recognize that many states are now struggling with what comes next. State ESSA plans aren’t the finish line. Those words on paper mean very little if state and local leaders don’t seize the opportunity to truly transform education. They must move past a mindset of compliance and embrace individual empowerment.
Under ESSA, school leaders, educators and parents have the latitude and freedom to try new approaches to serve individual students.
States still have to play “Mother, may I” with her department.
Until she actively fights to decouple federal mandates from states and local school districts the rhetoric is meaningless.
3. She says she opposes top-down reforms but then touts one.
She gave kudos to personalized learning without actually using the term:
Our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journey.
Sitting in front of a screen. Personalized learning is another education fad pushed by education “experts” and embraced by education technology providers who have dollar signs in their eyes.
This is also just another dataless reform pushed from on high like Common Core, not only that, but the concept contradicts what we already know to be true as Jane Robbins recently pointed out:
How does PL conflict with this scientific reality? Because students who are controlling the content of their learning, usually by finding information on the Internet or clicking through an educational-software program, are highly unlikely to commit that information to long-term memory. They scan it, they click it, they’re on to the next task. Certainly there are exceptional students who will delve deeply enough to implant the information in their brains, but the vast majority of students simply won’t, unless they’re made to.
If by personalized learning, we mean smaller class sizes, individualized attention, homeschooling, etc. That’s great, but where personalized learning is headed it may be personalized, but it is hardly learning.
And the U.S. Secretary of Education just gave it a shout-out.