Common Core’s manifesto warBill Evers predicts a national curriculum
Opponents of the Common Core standards and the standardized tests that two consortia of states are designing see a plot by the Obama Administration to create a national curriculum. Common Core supporters say the opponents, primarily small-government conservatives, are twisting facts and connecting dots into patterns of their imaginations.
Opponents are hoping to turn what has been framed as a contest of manifestos into a battle in Congress. They definitely got plenty of buzz this month – and perhaps attention of conservatives in Congress – with the proclamation “Closing the Door on Innovation: Why One National Curriculum is Bad for America,” which now has more than 350 signers. In a video interview (look right), the co-author and organizer of the document, the always forceful Bill Evers, a Hoover Institution researcher, said the Obama Administration used its financial leverage first to coerce states to adopt Common Core, and then to fund $350 million in assessment development that will inevitably lead to a national curriculum. (Click here for a transcript of the Evers interview).
“Once the national government decided it was going to promote national tests, it almost perforce had to set up … what we call in California ‘curricular frameworks,’ and it had to get even into detail of lesson plans, and that’s what it’s doing,” Evers said.
Evers is either being insightful or conspiratorial. There’s no question that the Obama Administration encouraged the creation and adoption of national standards to replace the flabby, poorly constructed standards that many states had adopted.
Of course, Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan aren’t alone. That’s been the goal of CEOs and many mainstream educators for decades, although “Closing the Door on Innovation” asserts “there is no constitutional or statutory basis for national standards, national assessments, or national curricula.”
Obama used the incentive of applying to Race to the Top to achieve it; states that didn’t adopt Common Core by last summer were docked big points on their applications (California’s State Board of Education adopted it on the last day, Aug. 2). Never mind it’s states, through consortia that they are running, not the federal government, that will create at least two versions of a standardized test that states can choose to use. Manifesto signers view this as a distinction without a difference: The assessments are the federal government’s foot in the door and will erode the states’ autonomy over curriculum and classroom content.
“Because we are deeply committed to improving this country’s schools and increasing all students’ academic achievement, we cannot support this effort to undermine control of public school curriculum and instruction at the local and state level – the historic locus for effective innovation and reform in education – and transfer control to an elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy,” said the document. (Ze’ev Wurman, who, along with Evers, was a dissenter on the state commission that recommended Common Core last year, came up with the catchy last phrase, Evers told me.)
Tests to dictate curriculum
Evers’ main point is that the compressed deadlines that the assessment consortia are facing will lead to mischief. “So if you’re going to have national tests, you can’t just go from your academic standards, which are just a list of topics, to the tests,” he said. ”You have to have some idea of what curricular material there is, how things are taught, what kinds of lesson plans are involved.”
He’s far from alone on this point. The accepted and logical process, as has been done in California, is to go from broad standards to curriculum frameworks putting flesh on the standards, to adoption of textbooks and materials teaching the frameworks, to assessments, the last step. The Common Core process is leaping from standards to assessments, which states are supposed to implement by 2014-15. Under this ambitious timetable, assessments will dictate curriculum development, instead of the other way around, Evers and other signers assert, and the federal government, as assessment funder, will eventually call the shots.
Chester Finn, president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation and leading supporter of Common Core, has criticized “Closing the Door on Innovation,” while also expressing some concern. He has called on one of the consortia, Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) to abandon its concept of a series of assessments during the school year, because it would constrain what’s taught in districts and charter schools and lead to a rigid, standardized curriculum.
The two groups of states’ consortia do plan to develop curriculums and model lesson plans in math and English language arts, but so do others, including an alliance – some consider it unholy – between the Gates Foundation and the Pearson Foundation, funded by one of the nation’s largest textbook publishers. Many districts across the country are not waiting for curriculum guidance; they’re beginning to train teachers in the new standards and creating lesson plans and formative assessments. In California, foundations are funding the California Office to Reform Education, led by seven school districts, Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach Unified and San Francisco Unified among them, to do just that.
Evers framed his document as a “counter-manifesto” to a proclamation in March published by the Albert Shanker Institute, “A Call for Common Content: Core Curriculum Must Build a Bridge from Standards to Achievement.” It called for common curricular guides that would “illuminate grade-level expectations for teaching and learning progressions for students. They would provide a coherent, substantive, sequential plan that clarifies the knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn in the core academic subjects.” The “manifesto” was signed by several Californians, including Stanford Professor of Education Linda Darling Hammond, Marshall “Mike” Smith,* a former Stanford education dean and senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Hung-Hsi Wu, emeritus math professor at UC Berkeley.
Contrary to the repeated claims of Evers and the counter-manifesto signers, nowhere does the Shanker Institute document call for a national or nationalized curriculum. To the contrary, it talks about groups of states working individually or collectively, with teachers and content specialists, to produce multiple curriculum guides that would cover 50 to 60 percent of what is taught – leaving room for districts and teachers to fill in the rest with localized content.
In his rebuttal of “Closing the Door on Innovation,” Finn said the “counter-manifesto” is “full of half-truths, mischaracterizations, and straw men.” While acknowledging the “heartburn” that the Common Core assessment process gives to promoters of innovation and diversity of education, he said, “So let us be clear: While the assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards will be mandatory (for schools and districts in states that choose to use them), the use of any common curricular materials will be purely voluntary. We don’t see any evidence to indicate otherwise.”
Evers, in the interview, called Finn “naïve, and not knowledgeable about how tests actually operate” and called for a retreat from both national tests and a national curriculum.
* Smith also serves on the TOP-Ed advisory board.