Testimony to the Michigan House Education Subcommittee on Common Core Standards

Prepared for Delivery on August 28, 2013

Chairman Kelly, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, DC that also does on the ground work in your neighboring state of Ohio. (No football comments, please!)  At Fordham, we promote high-priority education reforms with a particular focus on standards-based reforms and school choice. I’ve worked in this field myself for many years, including more than a few fruitful go-rounds with you, Mr. Chairman, when you served on Governor John Engler’s staff back in the nineties.

I am glad that you have been holding these hearings and seriously considering whether Michigan should stick with the Common Core academic standards. I know you’ve heard from some folks who hope that you won’t. I hope that you will. Before getting into my eight top reasons, let me lay a few facts on the table regarding the Common Core:

These standards are clear, rigorous, and nationally and internationally benchmarked. They emphasize reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses. They also emphasize the fundamentals of mathematics. Properly taught and successfully learned, they will indeed produce high-school graduates who are ready for college-level courses and modern jobs.

The Common Core effort is and has always been a state-led effort to improve the quality and rigor of K–12 academic standards, an effort in which Michigan leaders have participated. And by adopting and implementing the Common Core, states benefit from strong standards while retaining full control over curriculum, instruction, and pedagogy where it belongs—at the local level.

Now, let me offer you eight reasons why I believe Michigan would be well advised to stick with its initial decision to replace its previous English and math standards with the Common Core.

First, these standards are solid, content-rich, rigorous, better than what the great majority of states came up with on their own. At Fordham, we’ve been evaluating K-12 academic standards for fifteen years. According to our expert reviewers, the Common Core standards for English and math are superior, on their substantive merits, to those of about three quarters of the states. In the case of Michigan, our last review of your standards found much to like in math, where your standards earned an A- from our reviewers, the same as Common Core math. In English/language arts, on the other hand, your standards were rated a D versus B+ for the Common Core. There’s plenty of detail on our website about what the reviewers found lacking in Michigan’s standards and what they praise in the Common Core.

Second, these standards were developed by the states, although here I surely understand the source of concern among critics. Because it’s a fact that President Obama deployed federal Race to the Top dollars to induce states to adopt them. In retrospect, that was a bad idea, and it got worse when the president took credit for the common standards every time he had a chance on the campaign trail, and did it again in this year’s State of the Union address.

Still and all, the standards themselves were and remain a state effort, housed at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It was the governors and state superintendents who voluntarily came together to draft higher common standards, because they acknowledged that their own standards were set too low, were too discrepant across state lines, and also made it impossible to compare student achievement and school performance beyond one’s own state. Hence there was already plenty of momentum behind the standards when the Obama Administration intervened. I understand why some critics want you to believe that these standards are a federal government intrusion, but the truth is they are not.

Third, the Common Core standards offer not just comparability across state lines but also economies of scale that in the long run will enable states to save money on instructional materials, assessments, teacher preparation and more, as well as the costs of remediation by universities and employers. They protect scarce taxpayer dollars by setting world-class academic standards for student achievement — and taxpayers and families deserve real results for their money.

Fourth, the Common Standards are compatible with serious results-based accountability up and down the system, from individual students to educators to schools to districts. These standards are pegged at a high level, which will bring a healthy dose of reality to the education-reform conversation. The truth may be painful but, in the long run, it will serve your children, your educators, and your state economy far better. I have to note that the definition of “proficiency” that Michigan has been using on its own state tests is considerably easier than in many other states. Using the National Assessment scale to compare states, in 8th grade reading Michigan has placed the proficient bar at 236, while top-achieving Massachusetts put it at 249—and even Mississippi put it at 254. In 8th grade math, Michigan has been using 253 while Massachusetts is at 300 and Mississippi at 264. In brief, you’ve set the bar mighty low for your students and schools.

Fifth, the Common Core standards are good for school choice, which I strongly favor and which Michigan has done quite a solid job of, particularly in the charter sphere. We at Fordham are often asked how to reconcile our enthusiasm for the Common Core with our support for school choice. Doesn’t the Common Core tend to force a “one-size-fits-all” approach onto schools? The short answer is no. Standards describe what students are expected to know and be able to do at various points on the K-12 continuum. Written correctly, they do not dictate any particular curriculum or pedagogy. Plus, the information that comes from standards-based testing gives parents a common yardstick by which to judge schools and make informed choices among them.

Sixth, competitiveness. While the U.S. dithers, other countries are eating our lunch. If we don’t want to cede the 21st century to our economic and political rivals — China especially — we need to ensure that many more young Americans emerge from high school truly ready for college and careers that enable them to compete in the global marketplace. This is why business groups support the standards — because they will help ensure that students are ready to succeed on the job. And without rubbing in something that you already know, Michigan is one of the states—along with many others in the Midwest, including my own native Ohio—that needs to boost its own economic competitiveness in the years ahead.

Seventh, innovation and curricular enhancements. Common Core standards are encouraging a huge amount of investment from philanthropic groups and private firms to produce Common Core–aligned textbooks, e-books, professional development, online learning, and more. Online and blended learning, especially, will open up a world of new opportunities for students and families to seek a high-quality, individualized education at relatively low cost. Common academic standards and assessments, and the efficiencies of scale and comparability that come with them, will accelerate the R & D process and foster further innovation in our stodgy K-12 enterprise. There are also some benefits from “commonness” itself that should be noted. Teachers in Common Core schools will have access to a far greater number of curricular and instructional resources—many of them free—than teachers in non–Common Core schools. Indeed, because publishers, both large and small, have access to a larger market for Common Core–aligned materials, the possibly of innovation is far greater. Whereas Michigan educators in the past were subject to the whims of a smaller number of textbook creators who were able to define quality and control the market, in the Common Core era, their monopoly has been challenged. And the result is teacher access to a far greater number of resources that can meet the needs of a more diverse set of learners. In addition, Michigan has the opportunity to collaborate with other states on assessments and professional development in a way not possible for states that have not adopted the Common Core.

Eighth and finally, let me salute Common Core’s embrace of what I’ll call traditional education values. These standards are educationally solid. They are rigorous and, while revolutionary in some ways, they are deeply conservative in others. They expect students to know their math facts, to read the nation’s founding documents, and to evaluate evidence and come to independent judgments. In all of these ways, they are miles better than three-quarters of the state standards they will replace.

That’s all on the upside. Now let me briefly return to some widespread criticisms, including some that have been presented to this subcommittee on earlier occasions. I’ve already dealt with the understandable but erroneous allegation that the Common Core is a creation of the federal government. It isn’t. It wasn’t. And I believe most members of Congress are determined to ensure that it doesn’t head that way.

Second is the charge that the Common Core standards themselves are substantively flawed. It’s not just Fordham’s reviewers that find them superior to the standards of most states. MSU’s own Bill Schmidt, a leading expert on international mathematics performance and a previous director of the U.S. TIMSS study, has compared the Common Core to the math standards of high-performing countries. He found strong consistency. In fact, he found that no state's previous math standards were as close a match to those of high performing countries as the Common Core.

Perhaps even more critically, Schmidt’s research found that students in states with standards most similar to the Common Core performed better in math.  

How about the allegation that the Common Core English standards wrongly prioritize nonfiction over literature? This turns out to be based on a misreading—or deliberate manipulation—of a two-paragraph section in the introduction to the Common Core 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 English classrooms. Not so. In fact, the Common Core immediately clarifies that “the percentages…reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in English settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts.” Reading in social studies and science classes would count, too.

Far from pushing high-quality literature out of the English classroom, the standards devote enormous attention to demonstrating the quality, complexity, and rigor of the texts that students should be reading. Appendix A includes a list of “exemplar” texts, the vast majority of which are works written by literary giants. The small number of technical documents included in these lists is dwarfed by the volume of great authors and works of literature and literary nonfiction that the standards hold up as exemplary. That’s one reason that E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, strongly supports the Common Core.

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

The Common Core gives top billing to essential math content and core skills. In the early grades, this means arithmetic is heavily weighted, students are asked to learn their basic math facts to the point of automaticity, and they’re expected to master the standard math algorithms. This is content they need to know—cold—to be prepared for higher-level mathematics in later grades, in college and in the workplace. 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.

As for the complaint that the standards don’t require algebra in eighth grade, that will depend on state and district curriculum decisions. The fact is that the Common Core math standards for K through 7 include all of the prerequisite content that students will need to have learned to be prepared for algebra. (Whether that’s what they’ll be taught in 8th grade is up to you.) 

Finally, some critics of the Common Core have alleged that the standards open the door to invasions of privacy via data warehouses that will allow big government to snoop on our children and families or even sell sensitive data to for-profit companies.

This is not true, either. It’s true that some recent examples of Big Government and Big Data in other realms are unsettling. But these have nothing to do with the Common Core. There’s nothing, repeat, nothing about the Common Core that requires a particular data collection or an assault on privacy. Federal law prohibits creation of a federal database with students’ personally identifiable information and Uncle Sam has no access to student-level information housed in state data systems. Moreover, Michigan has already put in place solid controls on its student-level data and is fully compliant with the requirements of the FERPA law. Nothing about the Common Core changes that.

Before closing, just a brief word on assessments. I think everybody knows that standards only gain traction in the classroom and in the lives of students if a state’s accountability system is synchronized with its standards and if its assessments are aligned with those standards. Any number of assessment vendors are going around declaring that their tests are or will be aligned with the Common Core. At present, as I understand it, Michigan is planning to use the forthcoming assessments from the Smarter-Balanced consortium. I think you can be sure that these, like those of the PARCC consortium, will be carefully aligned with the Common Core. I think the jury is out on the tests being offered by other assessment vendors. Some of them may turn out to be fine, though it’s important to keep in mind that if multiple states don’t use the same tests they won’t easily be able to compare their results. States that embrace the Common Core but not the multi-state assessments may be denying themselves some of the benefits of these rigorous standards and the education gains they could produce.

Keep in mind that standards are not self-implementing. They only generate student gains if they are successfully implemented in the classroom, in the state accountability system and elsewhere. Standards are intended only to help define the desired outcomes of education so as to help ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn the content they need to succeed. But standards do not themselves produce those outcomes. Educators still drive curriculum and instruction. Principals still make critical, school-level decisions. In short, by setting standards, states can help preserve local autonomy, rather than taking it away. If better standards come along in the future, Michigan will be free to adopt these new standards, ensuring its students always benefit from the highest and most rigorous bar for achievement.

In the end, Common Core is meant to refocus lesson planning, curriculum, and instruction on the things that matter most to reading comprehension: books that are worth reading; content that is worth learning; and reading and writing that are tied directly to both. Whether the promise of the Common Core is realized depends on whether leaders and educators are able to look past the politics and make decisions that are in the best interest of the students we all hope to serve.

I wish you well with your deliberations and appreciate the invitation to talk with you today.

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