High standards, but at what cost?

As states and districts strain their budgets, the cost of the impending transition to Common Core State Standards has generated a disconcerting lack of attention from state policymakers. At a time when money is a key element in education-policy discussions, the dearth of such cost projections is not only alarming, it has left the entire standards effort vulnerable to opponents eager to spread fears about—inter alia—its fiscal viability. Those who are still pushing states to repudiate the Common Core would have us believe that its price tag is huge—and that all those costs are new. Wrong. Most states have been implementing their own academic standards (good, bad, or mediocre) for years and money that they’re already spending for that objective can (and should) be repurposed for Common Core implementation. Nor do all implementation strategies carry the same costs. Which, especially in an era of tight budgets, is why the nuanced findings of Fordham’s latest study, Putting A Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?, come at a crucial time.

CCSS costs video
Watch Amber Winkler explain how much Common Core implementation will cost. 

Our analysts (Patrick Murphy of the University of San Francisco, Elliot Regenstein of EducationCounsel LLC, and Keith McNamara) targeted the three primary cost drivers of standards implementation—instructional materials, student assessments, and professional development—to estimate the initial costs of putting the Common Core into action. They did so by crafting three hypothetical approaches to that implementation:

  • Business as Usual. This “traditional” approach means buying hard-copy textbooks, administering paper student assessments annually, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.
  • Bare Bones. This low-cost alternative employs open-source materials, computer-administered assessments, and online professional development.
  • Balanced Implementation. This blended approach uses a mix of instructional materials (commercial and open-source plus teacher self-published texts and/or district-produced materials), interim and summative assessments, and a hybrid approach to professional development (e.g., train the trainers).

Cost projections naturally vary with the approach chosen. As shown in the table below (in columns 2,3,4), the total Business as Usual cost exceeds $12 billion while Bare Bones comes to just $3 billion. Balanced Implementation, of course, falls in between, around $5 billion.

National Estimates for Gross and Net Transitional Costs, by Approach

(Dollars in millions)

CCSS costs

Note: The transitional time period could span from one to three years. Figures shown here, therefore, should be viewed as total, not annual, transitional costs. Also note that the Bare Bones option would produce a negative net cost number. We include this scenario to demonstrate that it is possible to make the transition to the CCSS using resources that are already included in budgets—not that it will result in a surplus .

The most expensive option equals about 3 percent of annual K–12 education spending—and these transitional costs will likely be spread over more than one year. That’s not very much. But that’s also the gross cost estimate. In reality, recall that states are already spending significant sums on instructional materials, assessment, and professional development. Observe how much in column 5. Then subtract those current expenditures from the gross costs and watch the net new cost shrink (columns 6,7, and 8). Under Business as Usual, current national expenditures cover about one-third of the gross transitional costs, equating to a net cost of about $8.3 billion. Under the less expensive Balanced Implementation approach, current outlays could cover three-fourths of Common Core transition, yielding a national net price tag of $1.2 billion. By opting for the low-cost Bare Bones alternative, it is possible that CCSS states would cover their transitional costs via existing expenditures and even come out in the black.

There are two important lessons here.

First, high-quality implementation need not break the bank.

Common Core critics love to depict the standards as a pricey new mandate with little potential impact on student achievement. In February, for example, the relentlessly hostile Pioneer Institute released a paper estimating that, over the next seven years, CCSS implementation costs would total roughly $16 billion across participating states. No, that number isn’t nuts; it’s not far from our Business as Usual national estimate if you also throw in a ballpark figure for technology infrastructure (which Pioneer did)—and if you limit yourself to gross costs.

But that big number also assumes 1990s-style implementation. As Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee has pointed out, it assumes that states will do what they have always done, meaning they will not "rethink professional development delivery or imagine savings in this area.” To pretend that there’s one best way to implement the Common Core—which does not consider technological or scale efficiencies and does not net out current expenditures—is more a political ploy than a serious public debate about CCSS costs.

Second, the Common Core offers states and districts the opportunity to rethink standards implementation, even education delivery writ large.

The potential of the CCSS lies not only in its alignment to assessments and professional development, but also in its impact on the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning. Properly implemented, more rigorous standards mean more rigorous teaching and the application of better tools and materials to do it. Multi-state collaborations are already exploiting the “common-ness” of CCSS via shared assessments, instructional materials, and online professional development. Creation of new and better instructional tools by multiple vendors will help more teachers teach the new standards. And the rise of innovative school-delivery models, such as charter networks and virtual schools, means that lessons gleaned from them can benefit more teachers—all of whom are teaching the same standards.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Of course it will be challenging to implement the Common Core standards well. But it doesn’t have to be wildly expensive.

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