Common Core and the specter of “implementation lite”

Last week, Tom Loveless penned an Education Week op-ed where he (again) argued that the Common Core standards don’t matter—that the quality of a state’s standards has little correlation with how well students in that state fare on the NAEP.

Loveless’s main point—which is mostly right—is that statewide standards implementation has not led to dramatic student achievement gains. He notes, for instance, that “from 2003 to 2009, states with terrific standards raised their National Assessment of Educational Progress scores by roughly the same margin as states with awful ones.”

It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results.

Yet, we do know that teachers, schools, and even districts that set high standards for student learning, hold teachers and principals accountable for reaching specified goals, align curriculum and instruction to the standards, and intentionally use short- and long-term data to drive instruction are able to make significant gains for kids. It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results. At least on the school and district level.

Therein lies the challenge: we have yet to see equally dramatic results on the state level.

Of course, we at Fordham have long argued that standards alone won’t drive achievement—they need to be linked to meaningful implementation and accountability to have any hope to impact student learning.

Loveless does try to address this by arguing that existing standards—good and bad—have been implemented. He reasons:

Past standards-setters were neither as naive nor passive as the portrait suggests. Professional development, curriculum, assessment, and accountability were not invented yesterday—nor was alignment. As a 6th-grade teacher in California for most of the 1980s, I experienced the adoption of several sets of new standards (called "frameworks") and new textbooks in all of the academic subjects. I was professionally developed up one side and down the other. Once a year, my school's test scores were published in the local newspaper. In case we teachers ignored the scores—or the standards—a "program quality review" team visited the school every three years to remind us of what the state recommended. And the team wrote reports that suggested curricular materials and teaching strategies as alternatives to those we were using.

Let’s be clear, though: There is an important difference between engaging in implementation “busy work” at the state level, and meaningfully using expectations to drive planning, assessment, and instruction at the classroom level. The implementation described above sounds like classic “paint-by-numbers” implementation. It’s pro forma and empty. I suppose you can argue that states that have followed a similar path have implemented the standards and that that proves that standards don’t matter. But to me, that’s like saying that, if a state gives a treadmill to every obese person in the state and the obesity epidemic continues, then that proves that treadmills don’t aid in weight loss. It’s just not true.

In the end, though, Loveless is right to challenge us with the hard facts of the failed approaches of the past. And the only way for states to see the kinds of achievement gains that the small handful of gap-closing schools have seen is to focus less on forcing the compliance-oriented implementation that Loveless describes and more on trying to understand how to empower teachers and leaders on the ground level to embrace the standards and to actually use them as the starting point for all curriculum development, formative and summative assessment, and instruction.

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