How Did Common Core Happen

My wife is a smart person, and great and committed teacher. But she rarely reads this blog because mostly she says that it’s over her head. She’s a reminder to me that for every one of us who have been wading in this stuff for what feels like ages, there are many other concerned professionals who feel like they just walked in on the second season finale of Game of Thrones and aren’t sure how to figure out what the hell is going on.

So I’m making a commitment to create and curate material for those folks. These occasional columns will be different from my usual stuff. Straightforward titles, clear explanations, basic materials for smart, interested people who are just coming in on the middle of this Nightmare on School Reform Street movie festival.

To keep myself honest, I’m going to imagine this first entry as a conversation between me and my wife. To all readers who are actually married to me, let me just say that this will be done with nothing but love and respect.

So where did Common Core come from anyway?

Well, back in 1983 with A Nation at Risk–

You promised this would not be like six seasons of How I Met Your Mother

Right. No Child Left Behind put school districts under a lot of pressure. We had to get a certain percentage of students to get above average scores on a standardized test every year. The above-average percentage ramped a little every year until 2009, when it ramped up like a sumbitch.

Same year George Bush was out of office, right?

Exactly. We were supposed to hit 100% this year, which meant that everybody was either going to be failing or lying. Schools were feeling highly motivated to do something else. It turned out that something else was already waiting in the wings. In 2009, the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Operators formed a committee to write standards. This whole process was pretty murky because A) it was done in secret and B) it involved people and groups that had already been working on this stuff for years. If you want to get into more detail, you can find it here and here. Most of the shadowy previous work was connected to a group named Achieve.

There were two groups that did the writing. Those 25 people included folks from the College Board, the ACT, and Achieve. There was also a feedback group of 35 people; 34 college profs and 1 classroom teacher. Some of those people quit in protest during the process.

They say these are so all students will be college and career ready. How do they know that?

At this point, nobody has seen a shred of the research or data that supports that. The Gates Foundation has paid the bills for most of the support for CCSS that you see, and Bill called this a “best guess” and that we would have to wait ten years to find out if it was right.

So why do they keep saying teachers worked on the Common Core?

As near as anyone can tell, some teachers were allowed to see drafts and provide comments. There’s no shred of evidence to suggest that anybody paid any attention to what the teachers said. By the time they saw it, the work was already done.

And the states?

Yeah, they didn’t have a leadership role here, either. You’ll noticed people don’t make the state-led, teacher-involved claim quite so much any more. Everybody who follows this stuff knows that it was federally pushed without the benefit of research or teacher input.

So if the states didn’t really develop the Core, why did they adopt it?

You remember they were in a tight place, NCLB-wise. The Obama administration offered them a way out. Two, actually.

First, they could compete for free federal money by joining the Race to the Top. We didn’t hear much about that in PA because it required a whole lot of people to sign off on the application, and in PA, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t because there was a whole lot of mystery language in it. But if you wanted to compete you had to agree to do a couple of things:

1) You had to agree to collect a boatload of data.

2) You had to agree to being measured by beaucoups testing.

3) You had to agree to evaluate teachers by using testing data at least a little.

4) You had to adopt some college and career ready standards and pretend that you were helping develop them. (You can read about that whole business here.) This also meant in some cases that you were agreeing to them sight unseen.

Wasn’t it only a few states that won Race to the Top? What about the rest?

It was only a few. But that No Child Left Behind kept squeezing, and it became obvious that nobody in Congress was going to rewrite the law. Even though everyone could see we were headed for a cliff, nobody wanted to touch the stupid thing. But the administration said states could get a waiver and be excused from NCLB 100% above average requirements.

I bet the list of requirements to get a waiver sounds familiar.

Good bet.

So can’t states just rewrite it to suit themselves?

The Common Core State Standards are actually copyrighted. States aren’t allowed to change a thing, and can only add 15%. Now, whether that would just void the warranty or invoke fines or lose federal money or put a sheriff on the statehouse steps I don’t think anybody knows. But you can’t mess with them.

Can anybody ask them to change the standards?

Nope. There’s no toll-free service number, no appeal process, no feedback system, no nothing. I don’t know about the math, but the guy who wrote the English standards has a completely different job at this point.

So if this really wasn’t the states bringing a bunch of teachers together to develop standards that would make sense for everybody, then why did this happen? Why would anybody do this?

The short answer is money and power and who knows. The long answer is a piece of writing for another day.

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