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Common Core Doesn't Seem to Be Working; That May Be Just Fine

18 Oct 2018

Neal McCluskey

This week the latest in what have been a series of disappointing
standardized test reports came out. This time it was
ACT scores for high school seniors
who graduated in 2018. The
average composite score, and scores in all subject areas, fell from
2017, and were the same or lower than in 2014. This follows
dropping scores on the
National Assessment of Educational Progress
since 2013 and
continued mediocrity on
international exams
. Which makes one wonder: What good has come
from the Common Core curriculum standards, which were apparently so
promising that supporters
used the federal government to coerce their installation
?

The answer is no good, at least discernible through test scores.
It is impossible to conclusively lay the blame for testing futility
on the Core—myriad variables ranging from student motivation
to the national economy can matter—but we certainly
haven’t seen major improvements several years after the Core
was
expected to be implemented
.

Part of the problem could be that Core implementation
became a shambles
as people vociferously objected to it in the
midst of installation. Much of the culpability for that belongs
with Core advocates themselves, who used Washington to coerce
adoption before the standards had even been completed, much less
widely and publicly debated, using a
relatively small bit
of the gargantuan anti-Great Recession
“stimulus.” Never letting a good crisis go to waste
resulted in the public not finding out about the Core until
suddenly they and their school districts were confronted with the
need to conform their curricula to standards they had never heard
of, and that sometimes
did not seem to make much sense
.

What good has come from
the Common Core curriculum standards, which were apparently so
promising that supporters used the federal government to coerce
their installation?

But bad implementation is hardly the only reason—if it is
a reason at all—that the Core seems to have been impotent. As
Theodor Rebarber and I discuss in a new Pioneer Institute
paper—Common
Core, School Choice and Rethinking Standards-Based
Reform
—the Core’s content may be unable to
deliver on its promises. It is not well benchmarked to the
standards of top-performing countries, promises notwithstanding,
and is pedagogically questionable, focusing, for instance, more on
talking about mathematical reasoning and less on actual
computation.

My guess is that the Core’s content may indeed be part of
the problem. But much more is going on. Foremost, despite decades
of reforms focused on standards and tests, Americans
aren’t nearly as geared toward academic achievement
,
especially, perhaps, as measured by standardized tests, as people
in other countries. And that may be just fine. While our scores
languish,
emerging research
suggests that they may be poor predictors of
future success. Meanwhile, countries that dominate international
exams are often
searching for ways
to enhance attributes possibly crucial to
economic growth that are not easily captured on standardized
exams—that may even be antithetical to them—such as
creative thinking. Those are attributes that America’s
relatively free-wheeling, entrepreneurial culture
definitely has
.

The system of education best suited to a dynamic, innovative
society is a decentralized one, grounded in autonomous educators
and freely choosing families. Embracing freedom is how we enable
new ideas, and different and innovative ways of thinking, to be
developed and nurtured while minimizing the risk of pathbreaking
notions that turn out to be wrong inflicting harm on large swaths
of children. It is also a system, Core fans, that would allow
educators committed to the Core to faithfully implement it with
families also committed to it, rather than trying to impose it on
everyone and seeing it hobbled by non-believers.

Alas, as Rebarber and I explain in the paper, nationalized
standards are a huge threat to such a system, even to private
schools with no connection to government. If all public
schools—roughly
90 percent of the K-12 market
—are forced onto one
standard, textbook publishers and
test makers
will move onto that standard, kneecapping the
ability of private schools to find something different. More
directly, voucher programs—but largely not
scholarship tax-credits—often impose testing mandates on
participating schools.

Thankfully, the Core War may not have been in vain. While the
degree to which states have moved off the Core, and how much
Washington loosened the reins with the Every Student Succeeds
Act
, are contentious, there is little question that scads of
policymakers have felt the need to at least appear to move away
from standards-and-testing, and the Core itself. Indeed, that the
education system is less fixated on raising test scores might be a
reason the scores have dropped. And that’s not necessarily a bad
thing.

Neal
McCluskey
is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for
Educational Freedom and author of the book “Feds in the Classroom:
How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American
Education.”

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal