Why the Common Core Will Be Declared a Failure

Cross-posted at Education Week

Critics are pointing out that early adopters of the Common Core—Kentucky, New York and others—have had four or five years to implement it and now have very little to show for it. As Tom Loveless, writing in a Brookings Institution publication put it, NAEP scores in those states that have made the greatest effort to implement the Common Core have scores slightly higher than those in the states that made the least effort, but by a difference so small that it is less than one fifth of what most researchers would regard as “noticeable….[I]t will be difficult to explain stagnant or falling NAEP scores in an era when implementing CCSS commands so much attention.”

Common Core advocates, of course, say that it is far too early to expect to see results.  Critics will say that five years ought to be enough to see at least some “noticeable” progress.  The Common Core, they will say, has obviously failed.

Well, actually, no. It is not obvious that it has failed at all.  The 42 or so states that are still embracing some version of the Common Core do not have to show up for the funeral of the standards they have chosen.

Close your eyes for a moment and do a little thought experiment with me.  Imagine that you have in your hand a set of fuel injectors for a modern automobile.  These devices, used for making sure that each cylinder in your car’s engine gets just the right amount of fuel at just the right moment, are high precision devices, a key component of the car’s engine. Now suppose that a time traveler from 1910, having made this exciting discovery, races back to 1910 and sticks a purloined fuel injector into his brand new Model T, expecting it to produce a remarkable improvement in the performance of his car.  Of course, nothing of the sort happens.  His Model T won’t work at all.  Why?  Because a car engine is a system, all the parts of which have to be designed to work with the other parts.

Education systems are, well, systems, and, like cars, don’t work very well if their parts and pieces have not been designed to work in harmony with one another.  Only a fool would expect that putting a 2016 fuel injector into a 1910 Model T would enable the Model T to perform like a modern automobile.  Similarly, anyone who expected the Common Core standards to produce big improvements in student performance by themselves, without major changes in many other aspects of our education system, was expecting the impossible. Well crafted student performance standards are an essential ingredient in the educational equivalent of the modern high performance education system, but they will make no difference at all to student performance unless the other parts of the education system are crafted to use those standards to get the desired results.

What are those other parts in this case?  There are, as it happens, a long list of them:  tests or examinations that measure the kinds of skills and knowledge called for by the Common Core; texts and other instructional materials that include the concepts, content and skills demanded by the Common Core; training for teachers that will give them the skills needed to teach the new material at the level required for students from many different backgrounds and abilities, teachers who themselves really understand the material covered by the Common Core at a level that is deep enough for them to help students who do not understand it.


Let’s take this list—and it is only a very partial list of what it has actually taken to successfully implement high standards in the countries with the most successful education systems in the world—and ask ourselves whether Kentucky was able to put those essential factors in place to support the implementation of the Common Core.

First, when the Common Core was first adopted, neither Kentucky nor any other state had available any tests that they could afford that could measure the knowledge and skills required by the Common Core. In the top performing countries, new standards are not released until tests and examinations are available that are based on those standards and teachers have been thoroughly briefed on how those tests and examinations work and how they will be scored.  None of that happened in the United States.  Kentucky considered using the University of Cambridge examinations, which they thought could measure the Common Core knowledge and skills, but concluded that the state could not afford them.  Singapore, one of the world’s top performers for many years, and not so long ago a poor country, uses a very expensive customized version of these exams, but the United States got hooked a long time ago on multiple-choice, computer-scored exams that measure only a small slice of what the Common Core calls for.  They cost only about a quarter of what the Cambridge exams cost.  The new exams developed with Race to the Top funds during the Obama administration were supposed to solve this problem, but many observers think that, although they are certainly better aligned with the Common Core than the tests they are supposed to replace and test a wider range of skills, they still fall well short of their original goals.  In any case, many states are abandoning them in favor of mostly homegrown solutions or low-quality commercial tests little if any better than those available before the Common Core was adopted.

Meanwhile, some of the top researchers in the country were reporting that none of the major textbook publishing companies were producing textbooks aligned with the Common Core, although many said they were.  That made it virtually impossible for teachers to get materials that were designed to provide the concepts, facts and procedures they were supposed to teach and the students were supposed to learn.  In the top-performing countries, it is almost impossible to find instructional materials available for sale to the schools that are not tightly aligned with the state standards and the courses the state has developed to reflect those standards.

In the top-performing countries, the teachers’ colleges are expected to teach prospective teachers how to teach to that country’s content standards and, indeed, how to teach the courses that the state designs and expects the schools to use, courses that incorporate the standards.  I know of no state in the union that requires its teachers’ colleges to teach its teachers how to teach courses that were created to embody the Common Core.

That would require another revolution.  My own organization’s work in many states makes it clear that, in the rare instances in which the tests given to the students are set to the expectations incorporated in the Common Core, many teachers have a hard time doing what the tests intended for the students requires them to do.  This should not surprise us.  We take most of our teachers from the bottom half of college-going high school graduates and we know that the typical high school graduate writes poorly and has a hard time doing middle school math.  This would argue for a massive effort to upgrade the knowledge and skills of our teachers.  But no state that I know of has thus far made such an effort.

This is a bit like having a fuel injector designed for a high performance engine, but an engine block, head, cylinders, fuel pump and drive shaft designed for a low-performance engine.  The reality is that the Common Core has not been implemented in a way that would give it a fighting chance.

I can guarantee you that no standards, whether the Common Core or any other set of standards, will produce measurable results unless the kinds of system features I have described here–and many others besides–are put in place.  This is not a guess.  It is a conclusion based on close study of the countries with the most successful education systems in the world.

Treat standards like a silver bullet, and they will go down to defeat just like all the other silver bullet solutions.  Treat them like an essential component of a high performance system and put the other components of the systems in place and get out of the way before you are run over by the improvements you will see in student performance.  A few states are beginning to accept this challenge.  Those are the states to keep your eye on.