Common Core’s manifesto war

Bill 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.

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  1. The assessments provided by the two national consortium are mandatory for only one year if a state is in the governing category. After that states can mix and match a variety of assessments from the numerous sources that are producing them. In the required year, states may be able to use matrix sampling to get a statewide sample.

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  2. I don’t see Mr. Evers argument as a conspiracy argument.  I think it is a slippery slope argument, which doesn’t require intent just simple human frailty.  And the facts of the situation lend credibility to this type of argument.  The federal government starts to provide funding for schools, people become concerned with the amount of federal money being spent without sufficient outcomes so the federal government enacts NCLB, as a result states game the system by lowering academic standards and hence the states and federal governments sponsor common core.  Given this history I would think that people should anticipate another “patch” in the future, which of course is not intended at the moment.
    On the lighter side — I repeat on the lighter side –, a real conspiracy story would go something like this:  Bill Evers and company know that their objection to the funding of Common Core will help galvanize support for same, public schools slowly become more homogenous making it harder for them to be different and try new approaches to education, therefore charter and private schools are the only schools left that can be different,  parents eventually flock to charters/privates to escape the stifling pubic schools,  and the right-wing Hoover Institute agenda comes to pass in America :)  Or maybe the situation is just a bunch more complicated and nuanced.

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  3. John, you clearly lean against accepting the arguments of Evers’ and Wurman’s counter-manifesto, but it’s not clear why you would, particularly when your statement that “the accepted and logical process, as has been done in California, is to go from broad standards to curriculum frameworks” clearly supports the manifesto’s point that national standards will lead to national curriculum.  As a founding signer of the manifesto, I think it’s a safe bet that a cash-cow like RTTT, force-fed to the country through a process of dangling grants in front of insolvent states and school districts, would have no compunction about replacing CA standards, deemed by Fordham to be superior to Common Core, with standards containing loopholes through which the terrible ideas of the past (e.g. Whole Language and fuzzy math) could come creeping back in, and many of the names on the list of CCSSI supporters suggest that is a widespread expectation.
    I note also that you seem comfortable with Fordham and Chester Finn’s support of CCSSI, and his criticism of the manifesto, apparently overcoming your earlier misgivings, expressed in response to a previous post from me, that when Fordham deemed the CA standards as superior to the Common Core, that showed that Fordham should be called the “Palin Institute.”  Are you saving the term “conservative” for critics of your views, and “liberal” for supporters, even when they’re the same people?  That’s a smart strategy in this state, but it does have a flip-flopping quality.

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  4. I find it difficult to believe that a state will go to the long and expensive effort to prepare for taking a given consortium test in 2005, and at the same time plan for switching away from it the following year. This seems to me an unrealistic position, even if theoretically possible.
    And any mix-and-match idea for matrix assessment will have to meet with NCLB’s “every child needs to be tested every year” policy. And possibly with Obama’s proposal to approve only “career & college ready” tests for high-schools. Both consortia will presumably almost-automatically get such blessing, whatever it may mean, while any other test will have an intentionally-made-hard battle to show that it does too.

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  5. (My previous comment was entered as a reply to Mike Kirst’s comment yet it shows up as a regular in-line one. Whatever.)
    John, I take exception to your point that “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.
    Here is what the Shanker manifesto says:
    We also caution that attaining the goals provided by these [Common Core] standards requires a clear road map … Shared curriculum in the core academic subjects would give shape and substance to the standards. …
    But now, in an era when states are coming to recognize the national importance of a coherent education system, they are working together to find ways to raise expectations for all. They are showing a willingness to trade state-by-state invention and reinvention for a more shared implementation … with the possibility of greater economies of scale
    If this is NOT a call for a national curriculum and for giving up on state authority, what is it? And the Shanker manifesto does not stop with math and English:
    While the work before us begins with the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics, we want to stress that a quality education should also include history, geography, the sciences, civics, the arts, foreign languages, technology, health, and physical education. Standards-setting and curriculum development must be done for these as well.
    This is a call for nationalizing everything, including civics, health ed, and PE.
    Seems to me you are confusing between “federal” and “national.” The Shanker manifesto clearly calls for a national curriculum, and the feds are promoting it through incentives such as Race to the Top or funding of the assessment consortia. U.S. Department of Education hides behind this semantic distinction claiming it is not promoting Federal Curriculum, yet the law that created the Department clearly says that it cannot “exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction“. What ED is doing certainly falls under “direction” and arguably also under “supervision” (ED supervises government grants such as given to the consortia.) It does not make any distinction between “federal” or “national.”

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    • Ze’ev: Not sure who is confusing “federal” and “national.” You are the one who makes the leap from talking about the states’ consortia to shifting “control to an elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy.” Nice phrase, but full of assumptions.
      Doug: I thought I was clear in what I wrote. Bill Evers raises valid concern regarding the power of the states’ consortia to set curricula. The Shanker Institute signers believe there will be latitude for groups of states and individual districts to have plenty of say. Evers and his signers do not. I did not characterize this as a liberal vs conservative issue. (Chester Finn certainly would not see himself among the former.) It is fair to say that the opponents are small-government conservatives – wary of federal incentives, funding of assessments, curricula — even when developed by states. (When it came to using Reading First, though, conservatives in the Bush administration were happy to use federal grants to push curriculum but that’s another story.)

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  6. John,  the “latitude” you refer to is not necessary in CA.  It is latitude that permitted Whole Language, which entailed the belief that children teach themselves to read so there’s no need for teachers to do it (thus the prohibition on instruction of grammar, phonics or spelling); it is latitude that allowed fuzzy math (which held that the times-tables impeded a kid’s ability to learn math). The current standards were brought in largely to correct those aberrations, but the losers of that battle are very much with us.  For instance, support for Whole Lang. and fuzzy math are dominant in our colleges of ed., and it is likely these advocates will do what they can to re-introduce their ideas.  Concepts currently touted by the consortia, even seemingly sound ones, can easily be used as cover for approaches that downplay mastery of material, for instance Performance Based Assessment, which “concentrates on the problem-solving process rather than on just obtaining the correct answer” (NSF,  “Just” the correct answer?  Would you like your doctor, or the architect who designs the building you work in, to be educated under such an ideology?  I see no reason to give latitude in such an unstable environment, especially at a cost estimated by EdSource at $1.6 billion for implementing new standards.
    Regarding the question of Fordham’s finding that the CA standards are better than Common Core, I’m glad to hear you no longer regard that as far right-wing propaganda (is that a correct reading of your statements above?).  As a member of Fordham’s team who concurred in that assessment of the CA standards, I can tell you there were no politics involved (if there were politics involved, the finding would not have appeared).  That being the case, why pay over $1 billion to dump our standards and open the door to charlatans?

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  7. Please note that “elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy” can refer to both the federal government or any national organization like CCSSO, NCTM, or NSTA. Yeah, I know — NCTM is 5 miles outside the Beltway.
    Neither one of them will allow state citizenry to have much say about what its children are learning, and neither one showed itself in the past producing great educational products. Enough said.

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  8. Response to Michael Kirst: Both notions expressed in your Comment # 1 above are extremely problematic for any well designed K-12 assessment system. The notion of using an assessment system for only one year and then mixing and matching a variety of assessments is totally incompatible with the goal of generating valid and reliable trend data over time, a major driving feature for any K-12 assessment system. And the notion of using matrix sampling is incompatible with getting accountability data at the school or district level — matirx sampling effectively erases comparability of school and districtwide data (except for perhaps the largest half dozen districts in California). Matrix sampling is also not compatible with current NCLB assessment requirements at the student level, and no one is suggesting these requirements will change when ESEA is re-authorized (whever that may be . . . . .). Doug McRae, Retired Test Publisher, Monterey, CA

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  9. Concern about the shift to federal standards and assessments is not limited to conservatives and content-fascists.  Many folks in the center and left have grave concerns as well.
    We’ve had rather similar standards and high-stakes assessments in California now for several years with precious little evidence that they’ve led to higher achievement and a great deal of evidence that they’ve led to a lot of teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum.  The price in terms of lack of instructional flexibility, ignoring a generation of kids who aren’t going to college, and massive amounts of time-on-test has been huge.  Perhaps it’s time to try a fundamentally different approach, or at least allow for some alternatives so as to avoid putting all of our reform eggs into one basket.

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  10. Whoa, there USA: I hear alarm bells ringing!
    Two stories today:
    Proliferation of high stakes tests in order to evaluate single-subject teachers: If pay is linked to tests, then we must have tests for every subject!
    Bribing students with a grade bump in exchange for test performance: If pay is linked to tests, then students must be motivated to take the tests seriously!
    My own tin foil hat concerns: NCLB spawned a multi-billion dollar industry of assessments and consultants.  After 10 years, that market is stable, but the growth has flattened.  How to feed the beast? New standards!  New assessments!  New training!  Once we have a national curriculum, the barrier to entry for national for-profit charter CMOs and virtual schools a la K12 Inc., plummets as profits soar.
    It’s mind boggling that a gathering of international education experts recently laid out clear evidence that professionalized teaching and emphasis on critical thinking and creativity are driving success in Finland, Singapore, South Korea, yet we continue headlong in our bobsled of insanity, doing a generation of young minds great harm.
    Through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole!

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  11. The Kool-Aid is starting to show. The variety of choices are the direct results on trashy curriculum and instruction pushed upon the children, especially at-risk ones.

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