Obama’s Education department gets a reality check as Common Core supporters’ fantastical promises disintegrate five years after the bigs pushed this impossibly utopian project on our country.
Maybe that’s why Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced his resignation, a curious seven years into his tenure with Obama. There’s no political advantage to “needing to spend more time with his family” at this very moment—unless his Common Core chickens are coming home to roost. And they are.
Unfortunately for Duncan, and even more unfortunately for the millions of American kids, his promises are proving false. Here are just 9 promises Common Core has already broken. Don’t worry. More will come.
1. End ‘Lying to Children and Parents’
The big news on the Common Core front lately is that, despite oodles of pledges to the contrary, states using the barely operative national Common Core tests Arne funded have done exactly what he said they would not. Namely, Ohio and Arkansas have decided to use lower benchmarks for student proficiency than their compatriots using these tests. So in the first year of Common Core results states are already bending to the political pressure we were promised Common Core would block. (Facing an uproar, Arkansas backed down—for now.)
It’s not just those two. Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Florida, and North Carolina (at least) have done the same, The New York Times reported. Louisiana struggled to maintain the line this year, which “does not bode well for the future,” an in-state editorial board opined. “This was exactly the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” the director of a Bill Gates-funded Common Core PR shop told the NYT. When states did this before Common Core, Duncan blasted it as “lying to children and parents.” So what is it now?
2. Test Scores Comparable Across States
That failure creates another closely related one. Duncan promised us that national Common Core tests means, “For the first time, it will be possible for parents and schools leaders to assess and compare in detail how students in their state are doing compared to students in other states.”
Even though Common Core has subsequently failed to live up to this promise (see item No. 1 above), this was actually a lie at the time Duncan said it. I say “lie,” as in “deliberate falsehood,” because at the same moment he was saying this he was in charge of a set of national tests that “detailed how students in one state compare to those in all the others,” called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP has been providing nationwide data on student performance in core subjects since 1969, with state-by-state results available since 2001.
3. ‘Actionable’ Test Scores Released Quickly
One of the major complaints teachers have about federally mandated annual tests in reading and math is that the results are “an autopsy, not a diagnosis.” Meaning kids take the tests in April, a good two or three months before exiting school, but the results typically didn’t arrive until late summer or fall, when those same kids were off into the next grade. So teachers couldn’t use the results to, as the lingo goes, “inform instruction,” meaning to actually help children improve.
Duncan and the rest of the Common Core cabal promised us Common Core tests would be different. In announcing the federal grant to these tests, Duncan touted tests “that are instructionally useful and document student growth—rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.” He also promised these tests would provide students “immediate feedback.”
Now, I know bureaucracy is slow, but reality has stretched that “immediate” beyond recognition. Does “immediate” mean “six months later”? If it doesn’t, Duncan’s promises have proved false once again. Most of the Common Core exams were administered in April of this year, with some in March and May. It’s October, and states are finally just releasing the results.
4. ‘Transparent’ Results
Common Core was also supposed to let teachers and parents know exactly where children in each grade were in their dull trudge up the education-industrial treadmill towards the workforce hamster wheel. “For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers—and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction,” Duncan promised us back in 2010. He pledged tests that were “transparent, intelligible, and consumer-friendly.”
Yeah, that’s not happening, either. Chester Finn Jr. helped Duncan and Co. herd states into Common Core especially by riding hard on Republican lawmakers through his former leadership of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Now, as a member of Maryland’s state board of education, Finn is annoyed with the very thing he helped set in motion. “Most parents [of students with lower scores] receiving this report will not understand that their child is not on track for college or a career,” he complained this fall about Common Core test reports. “It is not clear.”
Louisiana’s state board of education has had to issue an open records request to its Common Core testing organization to find essential data about the students and the parents it is supposed to be accountable to.
5. ‘Beyond the Bubble Tests’
When announcing federal funds for Common Core, Duncan said, “For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills…”
Turns out Common Core tests are not much different from “fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills.” They threw in some computerized window dressing that covers this up, but the bulk of these tests comprised the same multiple-choice kinds of questions we’d been promised these tests would transcend. The Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a private organization that includes several consultants to the federal Common Core tests themselves, said these tests “will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.”
6. ‘Reliable’ and Accurate Test Results
These tests are still mostly multiple-choice because open-ended test questions do not produce results that are as reliable as multiple-choice. Open-ended questions have to be graded by human readers or artificial intelligence, both of which are not as accurate as objective, true-false grading systems. So Common Core tests could either be reliable, which would mean retaining a format their pushers promised us they’d jettison, or they could fulfill their promise of being different, which would mean less-reliable results.
So Duncan can, and did, promise “valid and reliable assessments that will truly foster better teacher [sic] and college and career readiness” all he wants, but it’s just not possible for the kind of tests he’s pushing to get the kind of results he promised us.
7. We’ll Know If Kids Are ‘College- and Career-Ready’
Linked with all these false and impossible promises is perhaps the top talking point on Common Core PR sheets: Common Core will get kids “college- and career-ready.” These tests, as Duncan proclaimed to the world in 2010, were supposed to let “schoolchildren, parents, and teachers…know if students are on-track for colleges and careers.”
But the only way to actually do this is to have children encounter Common Core for their full K-12 career, then track them through college and into their careers to see its effects. For the most accurate results, any such study would have had to randomly assign kids to Common Core classrooms versus non-Common Core classrooms; or, second-best, compare kids who happened to be in Common Core classrooms to kids who hadn’t.
Needless to say, this hasn’t happened. Even in states that were “the first to embrace Common Core,” which Common Core bankrollers Bill and Melinda Gates say is Kentucky, not one child has run the Common Core gauntlet. They can’t have. It’s only at most five years old.
8. ‘Teachers Will Consistently Have Timely…Formative Assessments’
There’s another small item promised to teachers as part of the Common Core package: It’s called “formative assessments,” sometimes “interim assessments,” or mini tests students take throughout the year to track their progress towards the big, end-of-year exams. Those were supposed to come packaged into the Common Core testing regimen to help teachers gauge student progress towards these centrally determined curriculum mandates.
Well, that never materialized, either.
Here’s Duncan in 2010 again: “For the first time, teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth—rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.”
Contrary to Duncan’s promises, federal aid recipient Smarter Balanced, the larger of the two supposedly national Common Core testing organizations, announced this spring it had delayed these exact assessments, sending some schools into a scramble:
Visalia Unified Superintendent Craig Wheaton said he wished that the interim assessments had been available six months earlier. He said his district has pulled together a group of teachers to use them in a systematic fashion, and that some began using them as soon as they became available.
‘We were really trying to have an organized pilot and were exploring how to share them,’ he said. But their late delivery thwarted plans to use the assessments extensively in the district, he said.
The other federally funded Common Core testing organization, PARCC, did the same with Duncan’s express permission.
9. Common Core Has Beat Back Opponents
By now it should be clear that Common Core has been not a sleek, “next generation” rescue ship for America’s children, who genuinely deserve better from public education, but a tornado ripping through the mediocre school system we have, reducing its quality further by accelerating curricular chaos.
That’s probably why states are jumping ship. It’s true, as Politico notes, that they are keeping the first half of Common Core–its curriculum mandates, called “standards.” But they’ve trashed the second half like a rotten apple. PARCC used to include 26 states. It now includes seven, with three showing signs they may drop. Smarter Balanced started out with 31 states (some states joined both groups, so the total is more than 50). It now has 18, with at least three getting wobbly.
When people promise something that sounds too good to be true, it usually is just that.