Friday, March 7, 2014

Brookings Wins Gold in "Most Clueless CCSS Commentary" Olympics

Brookings Institution released a paper yesterday by Joshua Bleiberg and Darrell M. West entitled "In Defense of the Common Core Standards." Do they have anything useful to add to the conversation? And will I be able to understand a paper written by economists?

Their starting point is simple. The CCSS "are under attack from the right and the left. Liberals fear that policy makers will use the standards to punish teachers. Conservatives believe the Common Core is an attempt by the federal government to take over schools." Oversimplified version of the opposition, but okay. Their goal is to mount "a fresh defense of the Common Core."

They explain how educational standards are supposed to work in paragraphs that seem designed to explain human schools to Martians (or, perhaps, economists). They summarize many of the objections to the CCSS, and get most of the major ones into a few sentences, including referencing the research that shows no connection between standards and student achievement.

And then this "fresh defense" goes off the rails.

"Common Core will succeed where past standards based reform efforts have failed," they boldly declare. Why, you ask? Sadly for this "fresh defense," you already know all the answers.

The CCSS were designed with teacher, researcher, and pedagogy expert feedback. This is duly cited with a reference to the CCSS website, so you know it must be true. A recent analysis of standards show that the Core are better than many states (citing the Fordham Institute research bought and paid for by CCSS backers).

The CCSS assessments are better. You can even take them on computers! The authors argue that this is better because computer testing is cheaper (!), it eliminates written answers (hard to score!) and can include accommodations for special needs students (someday, probably). And those tests can be adaptive so that they match the skill level of the student. Not a word about test validity, but hey-- at least they're cheap, right?

The cost of CCSS implementation is difficult to predict. I would recommend addressing it in an easily-scorable multiple choice tests; select between a) a bunch, b) very much, c) holy smokes, and d)Oh my God!! Brookings here repeats the talking point about how states currently buy separate tests, and their combined buying power will totally drive costs down. You know-- like buying standardized tests at Costco.

Next comes a technical discussion of economics and standards. This involves a long explanation of how standards work in many fields, leading up to a conclusion I'll summarize as "Educational standards don't work anything like all these others." So thanks for that explanation, Brookings. Also, standards' effects on books can be better predicted than their effect on teaching. I'm beginning to suspect these boys may be better with books than with carbon-based life forms.

Next come the benefits of standards. This again begins with a general discussion of how standards work in economics, which leads to some writing about the Great Baltimore Fire which is quite zippy and seems to have been written by an actual live human being, in contrast to the rest of the paper. The fire was an unnecessary mess because of 600 different fire hose couplings in the country. So, standards.

Eventually we arrive at a point. "Standards...are meant to simplify complicated problems." And here's our next standard talking point. "We ask too much of teachers. It is unreasonable to give them a classroom full of students and take full responsibility for teaching them on their own." And I'll take a moment here to get a glass of water so I can do a spit take. Yes, teachers-- we need CCSS because our jobs are too hard for us. Why, gosh, thanks, boys.

There will be indirect network effects for individuals and for district who adopt the standards. I think we're back to massive buying power because we're all getting the same textbooks at Costco. And this sentence: "Minimum quality standards can help ameliorate information asymmetries." I can't tell if districts will have better info for buying books, or students will have better info for selecting schools. Maybe both. Myself, I'm just excited about going out this weekend with the wife and ameliorating some information asymmetries, if that's what the kids are calling it these days.

Standards can help because we'll reach a tipping point and then everybody will have the standards. So standards are good because they'll get people to have them? Also, personalized learning systems will be totally awesome and perhaps the best thing to come out of standards. [Insert standard PR about personal learning systems here.]

Finally, some policy recommendations.

1) Common Core should enforce their licensing so that textbook publishers can't randomly slap "CCSS aligned" on anything and everything. Protect your brand. Try not to think about SONY and Betamax.

2) The feds should offer more money for CCSS adoption. Ideally they could put this in a reauthorized version of the ESEA. Great idea, Brookings. You should probably call for the reauthorized ESEA to include ponies for everyone, plus snowmobiles for traversing hell (because that's when ESEA will be reauthorized by Congress-- har!).

3) Government (all levels) should be curriculum agnostics and standards fundamentalists. Give schools more money for implementation, if they need it. Can I have a show of hands for needing it?

4) "The leaders of the Common Core need to engage teacher unions." Wait-- there are leaders of Common Core? Is that a real job description. Because if we could find guys who would actually claim that title, I think it might be kind of awesome. Oh no wait-- it gets better. "Formal support of the Common Core from the NEA and the AFT would serve as a huge boon to the process of national standards. Government officials ought to make the compromises necessary to gain such support."

Okay, first I'm going to get a bucket of water so I can do a triple spit take. Then, I will borrow from my colleague from South Carolina, look at these Brookings boys and say, "Oh, aren't you sweet." How can you not know that the unions have been giving CCSS big wet kisses, or that government compromise wasn't nearly so necessary as Giant Gates Foundation Grants. I'm beginning to imagine that Brookings Institute is just a big collection of guys like the ones on Big Bang Theory.

I actually scrolled back to make sure I wasn't accidentally reading something from five years ago. But no-- yesterday's date. So with that, I award Brookings the gold medal for Most Clueless CCSS Commentary of 2014. Boys, sadly. your "fresh defense" is a collection of time-worn, over-used, discredited CCSS talking points. I mean, it does have the virtue of cramming as many of them into one space as I have ever seen. But fresh? I've seen fresher things on the Sci-Fi channel on a Saturday afternoon.


  1. Absolutelly wonderful analysis and brilliantly funny. Way to go, Peter. I am having "Minimum quality standards can help ameliorate information asymmetries" tattooed on my chest. LOL

  2. Peter, they are not clueless. They know exactly what they are doing. When I first learned, a couple years ago, that the new standards were to be copyrighted, I wondered whether the CCSSO was going to set itself up as a censor librorum and start issuing a "nihil obstat" for curricula nationwide. Now we know.

    As usual, you have written a delightfully witty piece here, but what Brookings is calling for is extraordinarily chilling. This should be national news. It's really, really disturbing.

    Here's why: If a state has adopted the CC$$, and if a publisher isn't allowed to say that it's product is aligned, then that product effectively cannot be sold in that state. So, this makes the CCSSO the arbiter of what can be sold and what cannot. It makes the CCSSO into the national curriculum Thought Police.

    1. I always some sort of brand protection would be put in place, and I've been surprised that there hasn't been more policing of the publishers who are just putting old wine in new skins. But on reflection it makes sense to me-- one of the big goals here was opening up a market for materials, and the publishers aren't likely to let anyone get in the way of that.

  3. I am surprised, Peter, that people are not reacting to this call by Brookings with shock and outrage. If, indeed, it is the long-term goal to have the CCSSO/NGA extend its imprimatur or not, that means that there will be, de facto, a private curriculum approval agency in the United States.

  4. Brilliantly funny, simply brilliant. Thanks. Brookings Brown Center, as well as several other of its centers, have long left behind any pretense of independent thinking. They represent the truthiness of the reformsters. Also, the authors are tech analysts (read advocates) so naturally they prefer technology to people. The good thing is that the news is out about Brookings' availability to promote whatever brings in money. See, for example,