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Tom Loveless is an experienced education researcher who taught sixth grade in California. He has long been skeptical of top-down solutions to classroom-level problems. In this post, he explains why Common Core failed.
The theory of standards-based reform is that if everyone has the same curriculum and the same instruction, no one will fall behind. Thirty years ago, I wrongly believed that, and I supported the idea of national standards written by those in the field. But it is perfectly obvious that students in the same school with the same teachers using the same curriculum and having the same instruction do indeed have different outcomes. Having the same standards, curriculum, and instruction does not assure equal outcomes for all students. David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core, and Bill Gates, who funded the standards, did not know that.
More than a decade after the 2010 release of Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics, no convincing evidence exists that the standards had a significant, positive impact on student achievement. My forthcoming book next month—“Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding the Failure of Common Core”—explores Common Core from the initiative’s promising beginnings to its disappointing outcomes.
While the book is specifically about Common Core, the failure of that bold initiative can only be understood in the context of standards-based reform, of which Common Core is the latest and most famous example. For three decades, standards-based reform has ruled as the policy of choice for education reformers.
The theory of standards-based reform rests on the belief that ambitious standards in academic subjects should be written first, guiding the later development of other key components of education—curriculum, instruction, assessment, and accountability. By promoting a common set of outcomes, standards-based reformers argue, the fragmentation and incoherence plaguing previous reform efforts could be avoided.
The approach is inherently top-down and regulatory, with standards developed by policy elites and content experts at the top of the system. The other components, all of which are bolted to the academic standards, grow in importance downstream and are often under the control of practitioners. The book focuses on curriculum and instruction, the what and the how of learning. They are key to the production of learning in classrooms.
Despite the theory’s intuitive appeal, standards-based reform does not work very well in reality. One key reason is that coordinating key aspects of education at the top of the system hamstrings discretion at the bottom. The illusion of a coherent, well-coordinated system is gained at the expense of teachers’ flexibility in tailoring instruction to serve their students. Classrooms are teeming with variation. An assumption of Common Core advocates is that variation in learning occurs primarily because of schools and classrooms possessing disparate, and all too often, indefensibly low standards—that if schools were brought under a common regime of high expectations, children who are falling behind would catch up or never fall behind in the first place.
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