Study: Since Common Core Student Achievement Has Declined and School Choice Harmed

While U.S. academic performance has declined since the broad implementation of Common Core, school choice programs are increasingly hamstrung by regulations that require private schools to adopt a single curriculum standards-based test as a condition for receiving public money, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

“When states mandate a particular curriculum standards-based test, private schools are essentially required to adopt the curriculum content and pedagogy on which the test is based if they want to increase the probability that that their students are successful,” said Theodor Rebarber, Chief Executive Officer of AccountabilityWorks, an education nonprofit, and co-author of “Common Core, School Choice and Rethinking Standards-Based Reform.”

Nearly two thirds of U.S. tuition grant (“voucher”) programs require schools to administer a single curriculum-based test, typically a Common Core-aligned test, in order to receive public money. Tax credits are less susceptible to government mandates than voucher programs are.  

Under tax credit programs, parents paying tuition or others that donate money receive a tax credit. The authors find that in 95 percent of cases, these programs are not subject to curriculum-based testing mandates.

Common Core is the logical endpoint of nearly three decades of Congressionally-mandated centralization through ‘standards-based reform’ that has moved key curriculum content, sequencing and pedagogical decisions away from local school systems and educators to the state and national levels. Instead of the promised accountability for results or informed school choice, the outcome at the local level has been a culture of compliance (“alignment”) that has intruded into the core function of curriculum and teaching. 

“With its near-monopoly status distorting the textbook and other instructional materials markets,” said Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, who co-authored the study with Rebarber, “Common Core blunts the innovation, dynamism and competition that is the heart of the school choice movement.”

The authors find that after several decades of only incremental test score improvements, which started prior to federal requirements for curriculum centralization, since Common Core was implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C., student results are showing the first significant declines in achievement, especially for students who were already behind.

Fourth- and eighth-grade math scores were down overall on the 2015 and 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The declines among lower-performing students (bottom quartile) were even steeper. Fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores were flat, with declines among lower-performing students. At the same time, the U.S. is no closer to the internationally competitive performance in math and science observed in top-tier developed nations.

Instead of accelerating the curriculum to more advanced topics and following the practices of leading international competitors, Common Core’s politically-driven process resulted in the adoption of the mediocre curriculum sequences used in a number of mid-performing states and promoted progressive instructional dogmas shared by its developers. 

The authors do not recommend the adoption of a different set of national curriculum standards; rather they propose reducing federal mandates and permitting broader state experimentation.

At the state level, the authors identify two possible avenues for reform of public schools. The first is for states to emulate the pre-Common Core Massachusetts model, under which the state engaged a team of visionary curriculum standards drafters to develop clear and ambitious academic goals approximating the highest quality public and private schools. The reality, however, is that most states have not been successful in implementing this model and even Massachusetts in recent years has moved away from this approach in favor of the flawed Common Core.

“The second possibility is to re-conceptualize standards-based reform and accountability,” says co-author Rebarber. “We must shift standards-based reforms away from government central planners in order to disrupt the status quo and leverage innovative, ambitious curricula.”

Instead of the current federal mandate requiring that each state adopt a single, homogeneous set of curricular standards and test-driven instruction, states could be permitted to allow local districts, vocational-technical, and charter public schools to use the curriculum that best fits their needs and select from a variety of state-vetted assessments the ones that most closely align to the local curriculum.

Rebarber explains that “it would mean the end of the current misguided model of the national or state testing tail wagging the local curriculum dog, which parents oppose. The result would be a surge in investment at the national and local levels in far more diverse curricular and pedagogical models that do not conform to politically-established, lowest common denominator government curriculum standards.”

To empower states interested in such reforms, when the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act is next reauthorized, scheduled to occur in two years, the authors recommend that Congress eliminate the mandate that every state impose a single statewide set of curriculum standards and allow states to experiment with diverse approaches to accountability.

In a foreword to the study, University of Arkansas Distinguished Professor of Education Policy Patrick J. Wolf likens Common Core to “scientific management,” which is defined by standardization and command and control, and school choice to “liberation management,” which is marked by decentralization, choice and competition.  

“Diversity has long been a hallmark of these United States, especially in the area of education,” Professor Wolf writes.  “At its essence, this fine report gives us good reasons, at least in K-12 education, to favor more pluribus and less unum.”

Read the report below:

About the Authors

Neal McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He is the author of the book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education and is co-editor of Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas.

Theodor Rebarber has worked on education reform and policy for three decades in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. He currently leads nonprofit AccountabilityWorks, which conducts education policy research and offers online testing services.

Patrick J. Wolf is Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. He has led or assisted with most of the key evaluations of private school voucher programs over the past 15 years, including recent studies of programs in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Louisiana.                     

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.  

Heritage Report: Common Core and the Centralization of American Education

The Heritage Foundation released a new report this month entitled Common Core and the Centralization of American Education. It is co-written by several well known names in the fight to oppose Common Core:

  • Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow for Education in Domestic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.
  • Neal McCluskey is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.
  • Theodor Rebarber is CEO and founder of AccountabilityWorks.
  • Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor to National Review Online.
  • William A. Estrada is director of federal relations at the Home School Legal Defense Association.
  • Williamson M. Evers is a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.

Lindsey Burke who was the editor of the paper wrote in the introduction:

Stop a federal bureaucrat, a school teacher, and a parent on the street and you will likely hear three different observations about what education can, and should, do. The federal bureaucrat may respond in terms of what education should accomplish for the nation; the teacher might filter her response through the lens of her classroom; and the parent, naturally, will think in aspirational terms of what she hopes education can do for her child.

Considering these differing perspectives on the purpose of education provides insight into why opposition to Common Core has been strongest among parents and why national organizations and governors—responding to federal incentives to stick with the national standards and tests—have been slower to reverse course or even reconsider. National standards may provide useful information to state and federal policymakers, but they have driven curriculum and pedagogy in a direction that dissatisfies parents.

Read the paper here or below:

The “Enemy’s” Response to Fordham’s Wishful Cost Projections

0717_tuition_392x392Edweek reported today on the conflicting studies completed aimed at determining how  much the Common Core State Standards will cost.  The Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project in their report last February estimated a $16 Billion price tag.  The Fordham Institute, a pro-common core think tank, estimates up to $8.3 Billion could be spent in their report which was just released.

Edweek quoted Chester Finn, Jr., Fordham’s president who said, ““Enemies and critics of the common core want you to believe the worst: that besides being hard, it will be very pricey and likely ineffective. But this report says otherwise. Implementation can be modestly priced and likely more effective if states are astute enough to (a) implement differently, (b) deploy resources that they’re already spending, and (c) take advantage of this rare opportunity to revamp their education delivery systems, too.”

One “enemy” responded to this  the author of the Pioneer/APP study, Theodor Rebarber, said that Fordham underestimated the price tag on implementation by excluding the costs of computers, servers, and other technological infrastructure needed to complete the assessment.

Edweek writes:

He also faulted the Fordham study for being “a hope-based approach” to various ways states might save money, while the Pioneer study was a national extrapolation of “a handful” of actual cost estimates that states had done for themselves.

“Our basic approach was to look at evidence,” Mr. Rebarber said. “We think that’s the right way to do a conservative, prudent cost analysis. Theirs is more of an attempt to imagine ways to do things less expensively without any guarantee they will actually be able to pull it off.”

Rebarber encourages states to do their own studies.  Fordham encourages states to partner together in order to collaborate (who ends up being in charge?) on things like curriculum and professional development tools.