A testimony on the Common Core standards

The following is the text of Kathleen Porter-Magee's testimony to the Wisconsin State Legislature's Committee on Education, delivered on May 22, 2013.

My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a senior director and Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the great state of Ohio. We support a variety of education reforms, with a particular focus on school choice and standards- and accountability-driven reform. In addition to my own policy work, I’ve spent several years working to implement rigorous standards in urban Catholic and public charter school classrooms. Fordham’s president, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration, and its executive vice president, Mike Petrilli, served under George W. Bush. Both are also affiliated with the Hoover Institution in California.

I’m honored to be with you here today, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about what I believe is one of the most important education initiatives of the past decade: the development and adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

I hope to help explain why the Common Core holds such promise, to demystify what the standards are all about, and to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions.

For nearly two decades, state standards have been a cornerstone of our modern education system. State governments have long set minimum expectations for each grade level or grade band across all grades, K through 12. These are meant to ensure that all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status are held to the same rigorous standards. And there is ample evidence that, without clear objectives, teachers will—often unconsciously—raise or lower their own expectations based on the abilities and background of the students in front of them, rather than based on what will help ensure students are on path towards college or the workforce.

Yet, we have known for a long time that, in far too many states, including Wisconsin, the existing state standards set the bar far too low, leaving a content and expectations gap between schools and classrooms.

But are the Common Core the right solution to this problem? In order to answer that question, it’s important to understand five facts:

1.   The Common Core effort is and has always been a state-led effort to improve the quality and rigor of K–12 academic standards, of which Wisconsin leaders have been full participants.
2.   The Common Core State Standards are significantly stronger than the Wisconsin standards they replaced.
3.   Common Core English language arts standards emphasize the importance of reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses.
4.   The Common Core math standards prioritize the most important math content at each grade level, including a heavy dose of “math facts” and arithmetic in the early grades.
5.   By adopting the Common Core, Wisconsin benefits from much stronger standards while retaining full control over curriculum, instruction, and pedagogy where it belongs—at the local level.

Let’s dive deeper into rigor of the standards. If I leave you with nothing else, I hope I will be successful in underlining this critical point: The Common Core are significantly clearer and more rigorous than the Wisconsin English language arts and math standards they replaced. In fact, the gains made by replacing the Wisconsin standards with the Common Core are some of the largest in the nation.

We at the Fordham Institute have been evaluating state standards for more than fifteen years. In 2010, we released a comprehensive review of the clarity, specificity, content, and rigor of every state’s existing ELA and math standards, along with our evaluation of the final draft of the Common Core. In that analysis, the Common Core earned a B-plus from our ELA experts and an A-minus from our math experts. In the same evaluation, Wisconsin’s English language arts and math standards earned a D and an F, respectively. By choosing to adopt the Common Core, Wisconsin has dramatically boosted the quality, clarity, and rigor of its expectations in these two critical areas.

When judged against international standards for ELA and math, the Common Core fares equally well. Between 2009 and 2010, we reviewed the quality of the standards that provide the foundation for several national and international assessments: the NAEP, the PISA, TIMSS (for math), and PIRLS (for ELA). In math, the Common Core scored as well as the TIMSS, and better than both the PISA and the NAEP. In ELA, the Common Core outperformed all three: the NAEP, PISA, and PIRLS.

What’s more, research by William Schmidt, a leading expert on international mathematics performance and a previous director of the U.S. TIMSS study, has compared the Common Core to high-performing countries in grades K–8. The agreement was very high between the Common Core math standards and the math standards in place in the highest performing nations. In fact, Schmidt and his colleague found that no state's previous math standards were as close a match to those of high performing countries as the Common Core (not California’s, not Indiana’s, not Massachusetts’s).

Perhaps even more critically, Schmidt’s research found that “states whose previous standards were most similar to the Common Core performed better on a national math test in 2009.”[1]  That means that, across the nation and the world, students whose learning was driven by standards that closely resembled the Common Core fared better than students who lived in states whose standards looked very different.

In spite of the evidence of rigor of the Common Core, a small but vocal set of critics have spent the past year in Wisconsin and around the country spreading countless myths about what the standards ask, who is behind them, and what they mean for our teachers and students.

For the purposes of today’s conversation, let me address four of the most prominent critiques to demonstrate how these attacks don’t hold up under scrutiny.

First, many critics mistakenly believe that the Common Core inappropriately prioritize nonfiction over literature in language arts classrooms.

This is based on a misreading—or deliberate manipulation—of a two-paragraph section found on page 5 of the introduction to the CCSS that mentions the NAEP assessment framework, and suggests that teachers across content areas should “follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” Following NAEP’s lead would mean that fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders would spend 50, 55, and 70 percent of their time (respectively) reading informational text.

Some critics have led people to believe that these percentages are meant to direct learning exclusively in literature classrooms. They are not. In fact, the Common Core immediately clarifies that “the percentages…reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts.”

What’s more, the Common Core devote a disproportionately large amount of attention on demonstrating the quality, complexity, and rigor of the texts students should be reading each year. Appendix A includes a list of “exemplar” texts, the vast majority of which are works written by literary giants like Throeau, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Harper Lee, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The small number of technical documents included in these lists are dwarfed by the volume of great authors and works of literature and literary nonfiction that the Common Core holds up as exemplary.

Second, many critics complain that the Common Core standards promote low-level mathematical skills, or that they prioritize mathematical “practices” or “fuzzy math” over critical content. Again, a close reading of the standards reveals the opposite is true.

The Common Core math standards prioritize essential content—and allow the time and space needed for deep mastery of that content. In the early grades, this means that arithmetic is heavily weighted, that students are asked to learn to automaticity their basic math facts, and that they are asked to master the standard algorithms. This is content they need to know—cold—in order to be prepared for the upper level math work they will do in high school and beyond. If there is one thing we know with certainty, it’s that math is cumulative. You can only move on to more advanced content when you have fully mastered essential prerequisite knowledge and skills.

Some critics complain that the Common Core don’t require Algebra in the eighth grade, something that many think is essential to prepare students for advanced math in high school. The reality, however, is that the Kindergarten through seventh grade Common Core standards include all of the prerequisite content students will need to have learned to be prepared for Algebra I in the eighth grade. And that means that it’s the states, districts, and/or schools who decide for themselves course and graduation requirements.

Third, despite some heated rhetoric to the contrary, the Common Core was at its founding and remains today a state-led effort. The Obama administration has certainly tried to claim credit, but the truth is the work on Common Core started before Barack Obama was sworn in as president. And while his administration did try to incentivize adoption of more rigorous state standards like Common Core through the Race to the Top competition, no other federal money is tied to Common Core adoption. The states who have opted not to adopt the Common Core—Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska—receive exactly the amount of federal aid they would have received had they adopted the Common Core. Even more critically: any state that opts out of the Common Core today or in the future will not lose any future federal education funding.

Some claim that the Obama administration tied Common Core adoption to its ESEA waiver process. Yet, Virginia won a waiver without ever adopting the Common Core, proving that the two were not inextricably linked.

Similarly, there is no single national assessment being forced on states. There are two federally funded assessment consortia, but states have no obligation to join either, as was evident when Alabama and Utah backed out of both. In fact, private assessment developers continue to compete for state assessment contracts. Pearson has developed an assessment in New York that the state may choose to stick with even when the consortia assessments are ready. The ACT is in the process of developing its own version as well. Others will no doubt join them, and the federally funded consortia will be a helpful comparison—much like the NAEP is now—but will not lead to a sole “national” test for all American schoolchildren.

Finally, some argue that adoption of the Common Core—or any K–12 academic standards—will usurp local control over curriculum and instruction. On the contrary, by setting standards, rather than adopting statewide curricula, state education leaders are ensuring that local district, school, and teacher leaders remain in control of the decisions that most directly impact the students they serve. On the ELA side, this means that local leaders and teachers can and will choose the texts students will read. On the math side, it means that schools can decide whether to fast-track students to Algebra I, and so on. Standards set a minimum bar—a floor, not a ceiling. They are designed only to help define student outcomes to help ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn the content they need to succeed. But educators still drive curriculum and instruction. Leaders still make critical, school-level decisions. In short, by setting standards, states can help preserve local autonomy, rather than taking it away.

The decision to adopt the Common Core in Wisconsin has set this great state on the right path. Whether this decision leads to improved outcomes depends entirely on your commitment to getting this right for Wisconsin’s schoolchildren.

[1]  For a fuller description of the findings, see here: http://edwp.educ.msu.edu/news/2012/study-supports-move-toward-common-math-standards/#sthash.qqbNrGdb.dpuf.

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