Thursday, October 2, 2014

Hess's History of Common Core's Failure

Rick Hess, one of my favorite writers that I often disagree with, has been scolding CCSS backers pretty severely of late. In the fall issue of National Affairs, he presents a pretty thorough explanation of how Common Core went wrong, and it's well worth a look. Hess has long been a serious reformster (as an AEI guy, he's more the free market reform type), but he's generally a sharp thinker and willing to call shenanigans even people from his own side of the reformy tracks. So his opinion of how the Core came off those rails is worth considering.

Here's his thesis:

The trouble with the Common Core is not that it was the handiwork of anti-American ideologues or anti-teacher dogmatists, but that it was the work of well-meaning, self-impressed technocrats who fudged difficult questions, used federal coercion to compel rapid national adoption, and assumed that things would work out... In reality, the disingenuous manner in which the enterprise has been pursued has ensured tepid buy-in. This, coupled with the entirely foreseeable politicization of the issue, has created a mess for America's students.

Let's take a look at how he lays out his case.

Early Success

Hess covers the early days of CCSS, from "A Nation at Risk" on through Bush I's governors' summit of  '89. He even name checks the spectacular 1995 defeat of national history standards in the Senate (99 to 1). Then on through NCLB and its entirely predictable but largely unpredicted pressure to fudge numbers any which way the states could. Then Achieve, Benchmarking for Success, and ultimately the CCSS.

Hess presents some selected standards to say, "See? Just a simple checklist of educational goals." But he also repeats his criticism that CCSS advocates were speaking out their butts when they threw around phrases like "internationally benchmarked," "evidence-based," and "college- and career-ready."

Early seeds of failure were also sown, Hess suggests, by the adoption path involving a stealth blitzkreig endrun around the democratic process, making the adoption of CCSS both "astonishing and unsurprising." By trying to look mild and harmless, the Common Core was able to slip past checkpoints without raising alarms. The public simply wasn't paying attention. But while advocates may have thought they were bypassing objections and disagreement, they had merely postponed it until the day when the public noticed.

Once the public started to pay attention, and the advocates' carefully crafted talking points were exposed to the harsh reality of implementation, support for the Common Core began to unravel.

Broad Impact (And a Dynamite Sentence)

Hess notes that "straight-talking advocates" (like Chester Finn and Mike Petrilli at the core-loving Fordham) have always acknowledged that standards can end up about as dusty and useless as a corporate mission statement. And then he unloads this sentence:

The real power of standards lies in their ability to change what is tested, and thus to change how curricula and textbooks are written, how teachers teach, and how students learn.

That's as clear, brief and direct explanation as anyone has written (including me, and I've tried more than a few times) of why CCSS and high-stakes testing are not made to be decoupled. The Core drives the testing, and the testing drives the curriculum.

Hess then moves on to advocate for standards and testing, particularly as tools for comparing schools, students and educators (I disagree, but I recognize that reasonable people can believe as Hess does). Standards and testing also ease the marketplace for providers of school materials and for edtruepreneurs like charter operators to work across state lines, as if standardized curricullum and testing somehow erases the regional differences between Florida and Alaska.

And then Hess tries to use the manufacturing standards argument, which is beneath him. Instead of railroad gauges or electrical outlets, he goes with pipe fittings. It doesn't matter. Students are human beings, not manufactured goods. And educational standards have nothing in common with manufacturing standards except the same set of letters.

Here Comes the "I" Word Again

Hess sees the seeds of serious suckage sown in (surprise) implementation. Here's how.

First, the Core was "neither necessary nor sufficient" for fixing the problem of test-gaming that had resulted from NCLB. The NAEP tests were already right there, usable for state-gauging purposes, but instead, CCSS came attached to slackadaisical testing guidelines from the feds that allowed gamesmanship to continue polluting the small pond of barely-useful data.

Second, the states that are committed to the Core just aren't that committed. Yep-- when you pay somebody to be your friend, you end up with a pretty lousy friendship. States committed to not liking federal ed money. But the standards themselves...meh. This has led to sloppy implementation. aThe fast pace (which was required to get the standards accepted at all) guarantees that technology, materials, tests, etc will lurch forward in a discombobulated keystone coppian mess.

Third, the CCSS push hurt a bunch of other reformy priorities. For instance, the race to attach the tests to teacher eval reform involved missteps guaranteed to make critical links like, say, teaching staffs hate them ("See this crappy test that you had no chance to prepare for? We're going to set cut scores really high, make the tests really hard, and decide your career based on the results! How do you like them standards now??")It has also wedged some reformster co-alitions. There's a hilarious bit here where Hess calls DFER a left-leaning group, but he does correctly note that turning CCSS into political kryptonite has sent many previously-cooperative GOP politicians running away from the Core like lightning.

Fourth, the whole Core initiative has become a lever for federal over-reaching into state education programs. The feds have pushed their nose into just about everything from charter schools to testing to teacher evaluation. Advocates of the Core have left their own flanks open by failing to do simple tings like creating a means of commenting on and revising the standards. Leaving gaps like that is just an open invite for the Dept of Education to step in.

Common Core in the Classroom

The ambiguity that suffuses the Common Core was not an accident: The enterprise's early success was fueled by the conviction that it was simultaneously a technical, apolitical exercise not requiring public scrutiny and that it was the engine that would transform American schooling. Because the Common Core had no practical import at first and because it received little media scrutiny, advocates were able to peddle both claims successfully.

In other words, the Core started out being whatever you thought it was. But once the rubber met the road and specifics started emerging, the public took off their beer goggles and started muttering "Good God, what have we done!"

First, there's the Ridiculous Lesson problem. This was so predictable. Every education reform in ever has the same problem-- by the time it filters down to the classroom, college profs and consultants and book publishers have stapled on their own ideas about what it should be, and some of those ideas are terrible. Hess has a great line here when considering the wide-open gates of CCSS: "It hardly seems misguided to question whether the champions of rigor are likely to beat back the forces of faddism." Is it an irony overload to note that rigor is itself a fad?

Second, advocates only care about the supposedly sharp line between standards and curriculum when it suits them, and it hasn't suited them many times. If the Core isn't curriculum, it is certainly detailed instructions on how to write one.

Third, the Core is hell on history and social studies (and art and music and everything else not on the test, but Hess holds himself to the history complaint).

Fourth, the Core poses a threat to the study of literature, no matter what its advocates say.

In short, advocates have tried to wave off concerns by even well-researched and well-thought critics, who, Hess says, often have a better intuitive sense of the messy reality of CCSS "than do the self-confident technocrats who blandly promise that everything will be fine."

The Way Forward

Hess believes that the Core could be okay, particularly if it were pursued "on a practical (rather than political) timeline." It could have been tested by willing states. It could have developed a groundswell of enthusiasm and market-conquering momentuym. It could have been a contender. Hess sees the flaws as based more in hubris than ideology, and a big lack of guts. The proponents didn't trust the public or their own PR departments, so they went all federal-powered stealth (Hess is silent on the role of big-pockets backers like Gates).

Hess believes that scaled down Common Core could still fly. Here's how he thinks that would work.

First, states should actually take the lead. Right. Because there might be one or two states left where taking point on Common Core wouldn't be political suicide. Hess says somebody would have to repudiate the feds, renounce their previous probably-illegal behavior, and promise to shoe them away should they try to get involved again. Meanwhile, the Department of Education would have to scrub all standards talk from the NCLB waivers (or, you know, Congress could finally get off its collective fat ass and re-authorize the ESEA).

Second, Hess says that CCSS advocates would have to get serious. They have failed to put mechanisms in place to insure that the standards are "professionally governed" and that tests are actually reliable. Hess language is a bit opaque in this section, but it appears that he would like to de-politicize the whole business, and put it in the hands of a governance board that would oversee the standards, the tests, and the interpretation thereof (set cut scores, etc). Who, I wonder, would be on such a board? It sounds kind of noble and all, but I'm imagining something more like the military-industrial complex or the revolving door between Monsanto and food regulation agencies.

Third, states should make the whole business more transparent. There should be evidence, evidence, evidence, evidence for every cockamamie thing someone wants to do in the name of Common Core education.

Real Reform

Hess pulls out the "Obamacore" sobriquet, saying that it's not without merit. Two attempts to rewrite giant chunks of American life, done quickly, sloppiliy, mysteriously. And federally.

What ultimately matters is not whether states stay signed on to the empty words of the Common Core standards, but whether those standards are used to engineer the deep, sustained change that advocates seek. 

Hess acknowledges that his idea is unlikely to happen, that in fact there are plenty of still fully-hubrised-up advocates who think they can stay the course, gut it out, and still stick it to those fershlugginer opponents. And that insight was underlined a few days later as Hess considered the responses to this piece, which he says did include Core advocates calling him a big wimpy sell-out traitor (I'm paraphrasing).


Hess sees promise in the Core that I do not. But I do not disagree with most of his assessment of how things went wrong. I don't see an alternate universe where they could have gone differently-- the corporate backers (who are oddly absent from Hess's history lesson) were not interested in waiting for payday, nor were the politicians who were looking for an easy win back in the days of economic meltdown and no-consequence bankster malfeasance.

Fast was the only way CCSS was going to happen at all; anything slower would have simply allowed opponents to gather the same arguments we're unleashing now, and advocates wouldn't have been able to cry "But we've already invested so much in it." Without speed, stealth, corporate investment, and federal arm twisting, I feel certain that the Core would have been DOA.

Because it wasn't just the implementation. It was the idea of national standards. And that they weren't very great standards, but the work of rich amateurs. And that they came handcuffed to high stakes testing. And that there's no reason to believe that national standards in education accomplish much of anything. And that they represented a huge dollar cost to cash-strapped districts.

And now the bar is higher, because we've had them, and still no advocates can point to signature success that the Core has reaped.

So I think there's a lot more to CCSS failure than Hess has laid out. But what he has laid out is useful and mostly on point. And remember-- if you think he's out there and not tough enough on the Core, there are Core advocates in the world who think he's a big soft squish on the subject.

1 comment:

  1. To be honest, I'm not sure they had to go fast. I don't understand what people think would have happened if they'd just used the Common Core Achieve came up with from ADP. It was already done, already nominally supported by most of the states. It could have been pitched as a distillation of the best existing US standards, which is pretty much what it was, and NOT THAT BIG OF A CHANGE unless you were in one of those states that had truly whacked standards.