James Kerian: Common Core Standards Aren't Standards


The common core standards have been pitched as a response to our country’s deteriorating standing in the international education race. The idea, we are told, is to raise the bar by establishing higher standards, a higher minimum, so that in the education of our children we will not continue to fall further and further behind other nations.

North Dakota, like other states, has long had specific goals for adequate yearly progress (AYP) in the percentage of students in each school that are deemed “proficient” according to the statewide standardized tests. Since No Child Left Behind was implemented in 2002 schools seeking Title 1 funding from the federal government have been encouraged (more on that later) to increase the percentage of students that qualify as “proficient” until it reaches 100% of the student body (thus, supposedly, no child is “left behind”).

The advocates of the common core say their new assessment standards will be higher, more demanding in terms of what qualifies as “proficient” than the tests they are replacing.

Critics point out that common core uses assessment techniques that are nationally (rather than locally) created. They also insist that the tests and many of the curricula that have been created to cater to these tests are intrusive, politically charged, age-inappropriate, confusing and a detriment to education.

Supporters point out that states are still able to choose whether or not to use the common core standards for assessment and that many states (including North Dakota) have for many decades required all schools to use a standardized test selected at the state level for assessment. They also insist that individual school districts will retain the same power they have always had to select curricula and that if a school district wants to use the same curriculum it was using two or five or ten years ago rather than changing curriculum to match the new assessment standards then it is certainly free to do so.

The really interesting thing about common core, however, is what both its advocates and its critics agree on. From teachers who oppose the common core to officials at the ND Department of Public Instruction who support the common core everyone will give you the same answer if you ask what happens when the adequate yearly progress goals are not met… basically nothing.

When a school doesn’t make AYP the superintendent receives a letter stating that the school has not made AYP. If the school continues not to meet AYP it will be “identified for program improvement.” At that point if the school wants to continue to receive Title 1 federal funds they will have to inform the parents of the school’s failure and to submit a plan (that does not have to work) for meeting AYP in the future. If failure to meet the standards persists the school may have to use some of their federal funds for further training for their teachers, for after school tutoring, or for hiring an outside consultant.

Aside from these annoying federal strings attached to federal money there are absolutely no consequences for the teachers, the administrators or the school district for failure.

When lawyers fail to meet the standards of their profession they are disbarred. When doctors fail to meet the standards of their profession they lose their license to practice medicine. When educators fail to meet these “standards” the consequences can be described as a nuisance at worst, which is another way of saying that there are no standards. If there are no consequences for failing to meet them then there is no standard, there is just a wish.

It is a rather fanciful waste of time to debate whether the “standards” are too high or too low or whether they should be uniform across the country or created locally when, in fact, there are no real standards and there aren’t going to be any because no one is seriously discussing implementing any real consequences for a school district, administrators or teachers who fail to acquire adequate yearly progress.

In all fairness, such consequences probably shouldn’t be implemented. If you look at the professional standards for doctors they entirely revolve around the conduct of the doctor. No one would seriously propose revoking the medical license of a doctor because many of his patients died. It would be obvious to everyone that would simply discourage doctors from treating terminally ill patients. Similarly, no one would ever propose a standard that required a lawyer to win a certain percentage of his cases in order to stay admitted to the bar. The professional standards for the practice of law are, again, focused entirely around the conduct of the attorney not his success rate.

It’s true that in engineering there are standards of construction and if our structures started collapsing we would change the standards, but students are a lot more like patients and clients than I-beams and concrete. Doctors and lawyers are required by the standards of their profession to act ethically and in the best interests of those they serve but we don’t hold them accountable for the actions of those they serve and so we don’t attempt to impose standards on them requiring a certain success rate. It is only educators who we seem to believe we can hold accountable for the outcome of their work despite the obvious factors that are beyond their control.

Perhaps this is because our other option is to acknowledge the responsibility of the students and their parents and we don’t want that. Or perhaps it is because if we acknowledged the responsibility of parents and students we would see the need to give parents and students school choice so educators would have to compete in the same way that other professionals do and the educators might not want that.

Either way, the fact is that there are no standards because there are no consequences. It isn’t a standard if nothing happens when it isn’t met. Since there are no consequences common core cannot be a raising of standards whatever its proponents may claim or even whatever they may genuinely desire. And if the common core is not a set of standards then all it remains is an attempt to influence curriculum selection by encouraging schools to teach to the test to avoid the nuisance of being “identified for program improvement.”

It’s hard to know if common core’s proponents are motivated to influence curricula by the desire to make money selling new curricula, to promote a particular political agenda or by a genuine concern for the quality of our students curriculum. There are probably some proponents in each category. It is clear, however, that without consequences there are no standards, that the common core “standards” do not have consequences and that therefore common core, for better or worse, is nothing more than an attempt to influence curriculum.