In a speech in Washington earlier this year, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the education standards known as the Common Core a “disaster” and proclaimed: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”
The reality, however, is that the Common Core is still very much alive. As indicated in a recent report from Achieve, 24 states have “reviewed and revised” their English and math standards under the Common Core. In some instances, such as in New York, the revised standards are known by a different name.
This is worth pointing out because, as a political scientist and as I argue in my new book, the Common Core has soured many people on public education and civic life in general. When one group of people decides the national education standards, other people feel alienated from the schools and the democratic process.
Criticism and praise
Many families oppose the Common Core and have refused to allow their children to take the associated end-of-year tests such as the PARCC, SBAC, ACT Aspire, or New York State Common Core 3-8 English Language Arts and Mathematics Tests. Critics argue that Common Core math expects students to justify their answers in ways that are “unnecessary and tedious.” Others note that the standards will not prepare many students to major in a STEM discipline in college. And for some scholars and parents, the “close textual reading” under Common Core makes learning a chore rather than a pleasure.
In 2013, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the Common Core may “prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.” For Duncan and others, the Common Core promised to prepare all students to succeed in college, career and life.
But that view did not align with popular support for the Common Core, which dropped from 83 percent to 50 percent between 2013 and 2016. For many parents and educators, the Common Core has made public education worse.
For critics such as author and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, the Common Core is “fundamentally flawed” because of the way that the standards were developed. Common Core work group members included more people from the testing industry than experienced teachers, subject-matter experts or early childhood educators. According to some early childhood health and education professionals, the standards conflict with research about how children learn and how best to teach them.
What political opponents said
When President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., stated that the Republican congressional majority had “kept its promise to repeal the federal Common Core mandate.”
As a candidate for president, Donald J. Trump tweeted how he had been consistent in his opposition to the Common Core and argued that the federal government should “Get rid of Common Core — keep education local!”
It seemed only a matter of time before many states moved away from the Common Core.
As of 2018, however, nearly every state that adopted the Common Core during the Obama administration has kept the most important features. Across the country, students will take end-of-year tests that align with the Common Core.
Why the standards are still here
Alexander’s claim that Congress has repealed the Common Core mandate is misleading. The federal government has made it an expensive gamble for states to adopt education standards that differ from the Common Core.
According to the Every Student Succeeds Act, states that wish to adopt an alternative to the Common Core must now prove to the secretary of education that the standards are “challenging.”
According to the law, “each state shall demonstrate that the challenging state academic standards are aligned with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the system of public higher education in the State.” Most states adopted the Common Core as part of their “Race to the Top” applications during the Obama administration. Race to the Top gave an incentive to states to align high school graduation requirements and college entrance requirements with the new standards. States that keep the Common Core do not have to change anything to satisfy this provision. States that adopt new standards must prove to the secretary that high school graduates will be able to take credit-bearing courses as soon as they enter a public college or university.
In addition, the law requires states to adopt standards that align with “relevant State career and technical education standards.” The main Common Core reading standards are called the “college and career readiness anchor standards.” For states that want to meet this criterion of the law, the safest bet is to keep the Common Core.
States have a strong financial incentive to meet these criteria. The Every Student Succeeds Act directs approximately US$22 billion a year to states around the country, including over $700 million to Ohio, $1.6 billion to New York, $2 billion to Texas, and $2.6 billion to California. If a state fails to meet any of of the requirements of the law, “the Secretary may withhold funds for State administration under this part until the Secretary determines that the State has fulfilled those requirements.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has approved virtually all plans that include the Common Core or a slightly modified version. According to Education Week, even when states have revised the standards, “the core of the Common Core remains.”