Terry McLaughlin: The report card is out on Common Core | TheUnion.com

Terry McLaughlin: The report card is out on Common Core

Well, the verdict is finally in: The failure of Common Core curriculum can now be decisively documented.

After decades of slow and steady improvement, reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have seen historic declines in the six years since most states implemented national Common Core English and math curriculum standards, according to a study released in April by Theodor Rebarber of Boston’s Pioneer Institute.

What’s even worse is that the declines are most acute for the bottom half of the student population. The main objective of Common Core, we were told, was to strengthen the performance of low-achieving students relative to those at the top. While the scores for students at the 90th percentile have mostly continued their pre-Common Core trend of gradual improvement, the farther behind students were when Common Core was implemented, the more substantial the declines they have suffered. The data shows that Common Core has actually hurt the students it was most intended to help.

Between 2003 and 2013, fourth and eighth grade reading scores were increasing nationally at an average of about half of a point each year. Since 2013, fourth-grade reading scores have been declining at a rate of less than half of a point each year, while eighth-grade scores have dropped by nearly a full point per year.

Contrast this with the 1990s, when Massachusetts adopted high-quality standards with an emphasis on classic literature and academic content. Their students rose from being mid-range performers on national tests to consistently ranking at or near the top. In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state ever to finish first in every category measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and they swept every NAEP category again in 2007 and 2009. Since implementing the Common Core curriculum in 2010, Massachusetts has shown the most dramatic rate of decline.

The high-quality standards that Massachusetts swapped out for Common Core were proving to be an effective way to reduce the achievement gap between students. Under those standards, African American and Hispanic student scores actually rose more quickly than those of white students, and performance gaps previously keyed to both race and income were narrowed. Massachusetts’ previous standards were designed to raise everyone up, and the result was greater equity overall.

With Common Core, David Coleman, the lead designer and now head of the College Board, set standards to raise the performance of the students who struggled most just enough to eliminate the starkest differences between the most high-achieving students and those in the middle. The result has been that both standards and performance have declined, and instead of reducing the achievement gap, Common Core has only aggravated the problem.

The Gates Foundation has focused on implementing Common Core since 2009, spending more than $400 million and influencing $4 trillion in U.S. taxpayer funds toward this goal. In 2017 Bill Gates came close to admitting failure on the project, saying in an interview, “If there is one thing I have learned, it is that no matter how enthusiastic we might be about one approach or another, the decision to go from pilot to wide-scale usage is ultimately … something that has to be decided by you and others in the field.” That is probably as close to an admission of failure we will ever hear out of Bill Gates, as the Common Core program had no pilot before being released on the nation. There was not even a draft available to the public before the states were hooked into contracts and pledges to implement the program.

Rebarber’s study concludes that Common Core is a product of the misguided biases of the education establishment that developed it. “Several of us … have been pointing out, ever since it was introduced, the deeply flawed educational assumptions that permeate the Common Core and the many ways in which it is at odds with curriculum standards in top-achieving countries.”

“Nearly a decade after states adopted Common Core, the empirical evidence makes it clear that these national standards have yielded underwhelming results for students,” said Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios. “The proponents of this expensive, legally questionable policy initiative have much to answer for.”

But instead, it now it looks like the Gates Foundation is going to get another bite at the apple. Over the next five years, the Gates Foundation plans to spend $1.7 billion on myriad smaller initiatives. “We anticipate that about 60% of this will eventually support the development of new curricula,” Gates says.

This curricula, however, will be explicitly tied to Common Core and to the Next Generation Science Standards, which many academic reviewers have rated to be of even lower quality. We cannot buy back the years of quality education lost for our K-12 students due to the implementation of Common Core. Perhaps “It’s time for federal law to change to allow states as well as local school districts to try a broader range of approaches to reform,” stated Rebarber.

“With a more bottom-up approach, more school systems will have the opportunity to choose curricula consistent with our international competitors and many decades of research on effective classroom teaching.”

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.

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