Common Core Standards Still Relatively Unknown

A new poll from Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup today finds that an alarming number of parents with kids in public school have never heard of the new Common Core standards that are changing student testing throughout the country. This is a big deal. The standards have been implemented by 45 states plus the District of Columbia, though a growing political backlash could reduce that number in the near future. And yet, less than half of parents know about it:

Almost two of three Americans have never heard of the Common Core State Standards, arguably one of the most important education initiatives in decades, and most of those who say they know about the Common Core neither understand it nor embrace it.

That’s not good. A majority of parents believe that the Common Core Standards will make the U.S. less globally competitive. But it’s tough to evaluate those beliefs when “many said — erroneously — that the standards are based on a blending of state standards, that the federal government is insisting that all states adopt the standards, and that there is a plan to create standards in all academic areas.” This is a revolutionary change in American school testing and just about no one knows about it.

And it’s not like these standards were just passed yesterday. The proposal was agreed upon by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in June 2009. Four years later, parents are still unaware of it, even though new testing has been implemented. New York’s sharp drop in test scores this years was a result of them. As I noted at the time, Mayor Bloomberg should be praised for accepting the standards while knowing that he would take blame for the reduced scores. As this poll proves, parents are going to see those scores and blame the Mayor, not realizing that they are the result of a tougher, better test.

But Bloomberg is a special case. He’s no longer up for reelection and isn’t seeking higher office so the political consequences of accepting the blame is limited. Other mayors will find themselves in different situations. They will see steeper political consequences and may react by blaming the test or worse, pulling out of it. The best way to combat this is to educate the public about Common Core. At the very least, parents need to be aware of the new standards. If not, mayors are going to feel increased political pressure to withdraw from the program so that test scores rise back to their previous levels with the easier tests. That may be good politics, but it’s not good policy. Ultimately, students pay the price.

Accepting Political Heat

New York switched to the Common Core standards last year and that means tests scores for New York City are about to come in well below previous levels. With just a few months left as Mayor, Michael Bloomberg is being criticized on all sides for the low scores:

In New York City, the proportion of students deemed proficient in math and reading could decrease by as many as 30 percentage points, city officials said, threatening to hand Mr. Bloomberg a public relations problem five months before he is set to leave office.

Already, many of Mr. Bloomberg’s rivals — the teachers’ union, parent groups, and several of the Democratic candidates vying to succeed him — have begun to use the prospect of a steep drop in scores to call into question the mayor’s record on education

This just illustrates the trouble with our political system. Adopting the Common Core standards was a big decision for many states and whether you are a fan of them or not, they should not be judged based on previous test scores. That was a different test after all. But that’s how Bloomberg is going to be graded. In his final year in office, he’s going to be responsible for a mega drop in scores. That’s not a good legacy to leave. But Bloomberg accepted this risk when he bought into the new standards. He put himself out there politically to implement what he deemed to be a better test.

Undoubtedly, a tougher test would lead to lower scores – especially initially as students and teachers adapt to it. In the years that come, scores will likely rise a bit – at the very least thanks to increased familiarity with the type of questions on the exam. Whoever becomes the next Mayor can take credit for those score rises, even though they are a natural result of greater experience with the test and nothing to do with specific policies.

This reminded me a bit of Governor Romney’s claims in the campaign last year that Massachusetts was ranked No. 1 in the country in education. Politifact rated this “mostly true,” because it was basically true. But Massachusetts also claimed the nation’s top spot in education before Romney took office. So, did Romney actually lead Massachusetts as the top state in education? Or did he just take credit for previous policies that had already made Massachusetts No. 1? How much credit does Romney deserve? These are very tough questions to answer and I don’t think anyone came up with a good response to them during the campaign.

This shows how difficult evaluating different policies is. Mayor Bloomberg is going to take a lot of heat for the test score drop, even though it’s a result of a new, tougher test, not necessarily less educated or less prepared teachers. Governor Romney earned significant praise for his education record as Governor, even though Massachusetts’s terrific education record preceded his time in office. How much do we blame Mayor Bloomberg and give credit to Governor Romney? That’s a tough question to answer. At the very least, remember to give Bloomberg credit for risking his reputation and legacy. It’s not something that every Mayor is willing to do.