Should California Have Second Thoughts on the Common Core?


Arguing that case in an online forum are Eric Premack, the founder and director of Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento and Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer who served on the state commission that reviewed the Common Core standards in 2010. 

Premack writes:

Nearly 15 years after adopting state academic content standards, aligned curriculum, and a standards-based high-stakes assessment system, California has precious little to show for its massive investments in “systemic” education reform. Yes, Academic Performance Index scores and proficiency rates are up, suggesting many students have acquired additional basic academic proficiency. At first blush, this sounds like progress.

Sobering data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, however, suggest stalled progress. Though NAEP tests aren’t tightly aligned with California’s state standards, they reflect a loose national consensus and, for the past several years, are nearly flat. These results strongly suggest the apparent increases in student achievement on California’s state-specific tests stem from teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum rather than real increases in learning.

The price of standards-based reform is very high, including costly textbook and material adoptions, massive investments in staff development, testing, and often-disruptive interventions. Off-budget costs are much higher, including lost instructional flexibility, decimation of career/tech-prep instruction, millions of hours of lost instruction, and turning the teaching profession into a mechanized, assembly-line job (and we wonder why “smart” kids don’t join the teaching profession). Worst of all, a half-generation of students who aren’t engaged by the mile-wide, inch-deep, textbook-driven modes of instruction are lost.

Despite this track record, California is bellying up to drink a second pitcher of systemic reform Kool-Aid. It adopted new Common Core standards in a hasty, unsuccessful bid for federal Race to the Top funding and is now signing on to implement costly curriculum, testing, and other changes.

California is heading down this costly and ineffective path when it simply cannot afford to do so. Even if the systemic reform track record suggested success, ongoing implementation should be subject to cost-benefit analysis relative to other reforms and options. The State Board of Education and Legislature should hit the “pause” button and reconsider California’s commitment to a second round of standards-based reform. They might retain arguably essential elementary grades reading, arithmetic, and science standards, but should make state standards optional in upper grades to create options for high-demand career/tech-prep programs as well as other alternative programs such as multiple foreign languages, the arts, and in-depth critical thinking and analysis. The benefit may be large in terms of a richer range of programmatic options, student and teacher engagement, and a more comprehensive range of achievement measures – at little or no cost.

Wurman writes:

The Common Core standards are mediocre: They are clearly better than those of about 30 states, as good as those of 15 about  states, and clearly worse than those of three states, California among them. Despite claims to the contrary, Common Core is not on par with international high achievers, nor will meeting Common Core qualify students for entry to either CSU or UC. In fact, California had to significantly supplement the standards just to close the gap between the Common Core and our current standards, which incidentally are based on those of high-achieving countries and will qualify students for CSU.

EdSource estimated the implementation cost of the Common Core for California to be $1.6 billion. That estimate does not include the massive technology infusion needed for the federally peddled national assessment, nor does it include the cost of restructuring the teacher preparation courses, the licensure examination, and principal training. Recently, the state Department of Education published its initial estimates of implementation costs. If we just take three basic numbers from them – $203 per student in new textbooks in K-8, $2,000 per each math and English teacher training, and $1,000 for English Learning training for almost every teacher – this comes to $850 million, $360 million, and $260 million respectively, close to EdSource’s original estimate.

Based on the number of existing classroom computers in the state, we need to spend $220 million to buy additional computers to bring their number to the minimal ratio of one computer to four tested students, and another $60 million to install and wire them, to provide bandwidth, and to train the staff. These sums amount to one-time spending over the next 2-3 years; afterward, we will need to spend an additional $35 million annually for assessment (at an optimistic $10 per student more than today) and $75 million more for computer support and amortization. All this just to … bring us back to a state worse than where we are today.

What is the logic behind adopting the Common Core, anyway? Do we really believe that a diverse country like ours needs some central planner in Washington, D.C., to tell us what to teach in our California schools? Canada and Australia don’t think so, yet they are high educational achievers. Are we really willing to sacrifice our independence just to satisfy Obama and Duncan in Washington? And for those who think so today, do they also look forward to the day when President Gingrich and his Secretary of Education will dictate our curriculum from Washington?

California should bail out and return to its own standards as soon as possible. Losing the Race to the Top was a blessing in disguise; we should now take advantage of it.