Tuesday, November 3, 2015

WSJ: The High-Priced Death of Common Core

I've been saying this for a while, but yesterday the Wall Street Journal put it out in the main stream media-- the Common Core as a single unifying force in US public education is dead.

The actual headline for Michael Rothfeld's piece is "Financial Woes Plague Common-Core Rollout." But "plague" is a generous description of the situation Rothfeld describes.

Five years into the biggest transformation of U.S. public education in recent history, Common Core is far from common. Though 45 states initially adopted the shared academic standards in English and math, seven have since repealed or amended them. Among the remaining 38, big disparities remain in what and how students are taught, the materials and technology they use, the preparation of teachers and the tests they are given. A dozen more states are considering revising or abandoning Common Core.

In other words, the dream that Common Core would be the single educational vision of the entire country-- that dream is dead. Dead dead deadity dead.

But Rothfeld's piece lays out a not-always-recognized (at least, not by people who don't actually work in education) culprit for the demise. He lists the usual suspects-- politics, testing, federal overreach. But the article is most interested in another malefactor-- finances.

The total cost of implementing Common Core is difficult to determine because the country’s education spending is fragmented among thousands of districts. The Wall Street Journal looked at spending by states and large school districts and found that more than $7 billion had been spent or committed in connection with the new standards. 

That's billion-with-a-B (and that rhymes with P and that stands for "Probably still underestimating the total cost"). WSJ looked at all sorts of records and figures that still doesn't count things like the training budgets that have been turned into Common Core training budgets.

Rothfeld's picture of the nature of the Core is cute and quaint.

Common Core advocates hoped to make standards uniform—and to raise them across the board. Their goals were to afford students a comparable education no matter where they were, to cultivate critical thinking rather than memorization, to better prepare students for college and careers, and to enable educators to use uniform year-end tests to compare achievement. They wanted to give the tests on computers to allow more complex questions and to better analyze results.

And he allows Vicki Phillips to repeat her claims about the awesomeness of Kentucky without being challenged. In fact, Rothfeld doesn't really challenge anything about the Core, and in a way, that's what makes this article so brutal-- whether the Core is any good or not is beside his point, which is that the whole business just isn't working, and it's costing a ton of money to boot.

The plan of having everybody take the same test failed, in part because they turned out to be hella expensive (or at least charged big ticket prices). So we can't really compare results. And the adoption of the actual standards? The WSJ has whipped up a cool little map:

Rothfeld notes that people won't even say the name any more, but say "higher standards" instead. He quotes Council of Great City Schools executive director Michael Casserly insisting that Common Core still made US education better somehow, no matter how messy it has been. And then he turns back to examples of how expense sunk the whole process.

He uses Philadelphia schools as an example. The system had a large-ish grant, but then it had a financial crisis and dumped 4,000 jobs, including some people responsible for the implementation. Training is necessary but expensive (New Mexico spent $5.2 million to train half its teaching force). And now the grant money is running out, the work isn't done, and the states are already short the money they need to meet basic requirements of running schools.

We go back to Philadelphia for the most telling quote of the piece:

“It was something of a perfect storm, where expectations were rising while resources were diminishing,” says Christopher Shaffer, Philadelphia’s deputy chief of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Dang-- it is like a perfect storm. It's almost as if someone wanted schools to fail, so that they would just have to be replaced by privately run schools set up to provide investment opportunities for hedge fund managers. But no-- that's crazy talk.

Finally, those computers that were going to allow "more complex questions" (seriously? exactly how is that supposed to work) and "to better analyze results" (yeah, we know how that's supposed to work). It turns out that buying computers for entire school systems is super-duper expensive as well-- millions of dollars for districts that are worried about new roofs and other non-frilly infrastructure.

There's plenty that goes unsaid in this piece, particularly about the actual merits of the Common Core, and in fairness to Rothfeld, that's kind of beside his point. Still, it's more likely that people will find a purchase "too expensive" if they discover they are purchasing something that is technically "a piece of crap."

And no, the Wall Street Journal does not, technically declare Common Core dead. They just describe how the body is laid out on a slab, its nationally unifying heartbeat stilled and its collective testing brain silent. Is a thing true if we describe the condition but don't say the word? I don't know. That's such a complex question that I need a computer to answer it.


  1. Even if Common Core is dead (at least as initially envisioned), a lot of money was extracted by a lot of people building this Frankenstein's monster (and then doing away with it).

    And really, it was grifter vs grifter. Common Core grifters vs Charter/Privatization grifters.

    And when people get used to the grift, it's hard to leave it behind. I don't think we've seen the end of the madness yet.

  2. Given that total expenditure on public K-12 education is around $620 billion (or at least was in 2012-13, the most recent figures I could find), spending $7 billion, or a little more than 1% on curricular changes does not seem excessive.

    1. Well if $7 billion isn't that much, give it to me. Can't promise I'll "fix" education, but then, don't think I'll do too much worse than Coleman and his Common Core. Aw heck, since I'm such a generous gal, I'll do it for the bargain price of $1 billion.

    2. That is generous. I don't think I'd do it for less than $3.2 billion

    3. Don't forget, TE, that the $7 billion is an *estimate.* The actual amount spent could be more. (Sure, could be less, but *could* be MORE)

      That is a LOT of teachers, a LOT of smaller classes, a LOT of art/music/PE, a LOT of actually-decent professional development, a LOT of enrichment, a LOT of wraparound services, a LOT of pre-K that schools could NOT spend that money on.

    4. Crunchy,

      Lets suppose that the actual expenditure is three times the estimate. That would make the total spending on the Common Core (past, present and projected future) a little over 3% of the annual spending on K-12 education. Still does not seem like a large amount to spend in revising the curriculum.

    5. That's where we differ. You see a small *percentage*, whereas I see a ginormous AMOUNT.

      We revised a curriculum to lousy standards and spent BILLIONS doing it. We spent it using your money and mine in the form of taxes.

      Why doesn't that enrage you?

    6. Crunchy,

      There are about 50.1 million public school students in the country. The 7 billion dollar expense, divided by 50 million works out to something around 150 per student. That seems like a reasonable amount for a one time expenditure to revise a curriculum.

      I am curious about your characterization of the math CCSS as lousy. Perhaps you could expand your criticism of these standards.

    7. CCSS is not a curriculum. It is not a teaching tool. It is not a teaching strategy.

      I have no problem with trying improve standards across the board if that is a state's wish, or if a state's standards were clearly subpar (which to me is the only legitimate purpose for the federal D of Ed.) CC was forced down states' throats by the lure/threat of federal funding. States already had standards, and have a process for reviewing and updating their standards. There is no common agreement that the CC standards are superior to those they replaced. I challenge your assertion that spending this enormous amount of money is reasonable. I don't see any perceptible productive outcome, except for testing and textbook companies. Can you elucidate the positive outcomes you have witnessed?

    8. I also question your assertion that 3% is insignificant. Given the fixed costs of running a school system (bricks and mortar, maintenance, deferred maintenance, buses, utilities, insurance, salaries and benefits for teachers, custodians, trades, nurses, administrators, counselors, psychologists, lawyers, other support staff, payroll . . . technology, including initial costs, maintenance, troubleshooting, scheduled replacement . . . textbooks, paper, copiers, . . . music equipment, art supplies, sports equipment, science labs and supplies) -- the dollars available for curricular materials and training are already extremely limited. 3% of all spending is a HUGE chunk of the remaining available budget. It had damned well better be worth it.

    9. And if we're going to go down the finance road, I would suggest that there are thousands of professionals already out there in schools all over the country who know how to "fix" whatever is wrong with our schools, without needing CCSS as a guide.

      The whole CCSS thing has entirely missed the point. It is a solution to a misdiagnosed problem. It is all based on the assumption that we can "fix" American education on the cheap, if we just put those "higher" standards in place and fix those teachers.

      We already know what works. But it's expensive. Giving kids the attention they need is expensive. Kids with cognitive, emotional, or behavioral challenges need a lot of qualified attention. Every kid benefits from small classes. Every kid benefits from arts, music, physical activity, hands-on experiences.

      Nobody in power wants to admit this is what's necessary, if we truly want our children to be well-educated, happy, productive, caring citizens. So instead we talk about how much we're already spending, as if it's already too much. Federal taxes are lower for most people than they've been in 50+ years, but we're still whining about spending too much. We look to Finland for answers on how to educate our kids. I'm guessing they pay a lot more in taxes than we do. We talk about competition, and scarce resources, and efficiencies. It's all BS. There's plenty of money to do what we need. We're already too "efficient" for our students' good. Competition is a way of keeping costs down. We know what it costs. Competition doesn't change what it costs to do right by our nation's children. Thus endeth the sermon.

    10. TE: My criticisms of the K-3 standards would take more space in the comments here and more time to write out than I have right now, but they are many and myriad and can be distilled in more general terms to "Why the hell are we asking children in the Early Childhood window to do stuff that's better left until middle school?!?" If we mess up the foundational years - and make no mistake, we are blowing it big-time in K-3 ELA *and* math - then I am very much concerned that in later grades we are in for a rude awakening. It'll be interesting to see what the next round or two of NAEP reveals.

      As for your $150 per student calculation: in my neighborhood elementary school with about 600 kids, that's two teachers right there - three if we get rid of the full-time Instructional Data Specialist (because MCPS is "data-driven," doncha know) - and that's just in ONE school (and not a particularly large one for MCPS). Smaller classes in early grades is a PROVEN successful academic intervention; Common Core is NOT.

    11. Crunchy,

      Does your neighborhood elementary school have the empty classrooms for those two extra teachers to teach in?

      You might want to think about the cost of fringe benefits as well. Paying health insurance, dental, life, retirement, etc for two teachers out of $90,000 will not leave much for salary.

    12. Actually, the classroom space *is* there, even with the special programs in place in our school. And while you make a good point about the cost of benefits, I'd be happy with a single additional Kindergarten teacher, frankly, or another Special Ed teacher, and perhaps a paraeducator or two if not another FT teacher, or maybe another pre-K teacher (even half-time) to reduce those class sizes by 1/3 (it's a half-day program here). Far more effective - and targeted - benefits than Common Core implementation for sure.

      Another strategy I've seen used to great effect in the absence of extra classroom space is a 2-teacher classroom; I saw it years ago in another MD school district (not MCPS), and it really did work well to have those 2 full-time teachers coordinating their work with the 25 or so lower-income kids in the room.

  3. When I think of the services that could have been provided, the class sizes that could have been reduced, the art and music and PE that could have been offered more often, the enrichment that could have been provided....I weep for what could have been. :'(

  4. I think the 7 billion figure probably just covers the cost of the copy paper used for the test themselves and all of the prep materials.

  5. I wish Common Core was done. But like a bad virus, it has only mutated into many different forms as states, driven by reform polliticians, tie their cut scores to NAEP. So we can still compare, I suppose. The tech driven mirage goes on. That is why I received a tech package for my classroom, with a 59 inch screen, web cam, doc cam, and most important because it can generate daily data for my district, a set of clickers so I can force students to take a multiple choice test every day.

  6. If they are going to tie their cut scores to NAEP, then they should have made sure that the CCSS standards aligned with the material that is tested on the NAEP.

  7. Vicky Phillips and Melinda Gates got a double extra large helping of crow with Kentucky's NEAP results . . Can they spin that?