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Could the Common Core Be Bad for Schooling?

This might seem like a pointless question. Obviously, committed Common Core skeptics fear that the enterprise will be bad on any number of counts. But let's set those concerns aside for a moment. Let's instead ask, assuming one accepts the pro-Common Core case: Might the whole thing still be bad for students and schools? The obvious answer from Common Core enthusiasts is "no." I've had this same conversation perhaps a half-dozen times in recent weeks. While some Common Core champions acknowledge that the whole thing might come apart, they're puzzled by the suggestion that the effort could do any harm.

For starters, keep in mind that standards and assessments are the plumbing that form the backbone of schools and systems. They're connected to everything, and altering them creates disruption. Here are four ways in which I think the Common Core may prove to do real harm.

One, we could wind up with states (maybe a bunch of them) where assessments aren't aligned to the nominal standards. In states that have adopted the standards but opted out of the assessment consortia, there's now pressure to have vendors hurriedly assemble new assessments. Besides the obvious fact that these will not be comparable, there's an open question about whether rushed new assessments are even going to meaningfully reflect the standards. In fact, I think it's very possible that in a few years several states will boast paper standards that no longer bear more than a passing relation to anything of import--meaning we'll have turned the clock back to pre-2001.

Two, the Race to the Top- and waiver-fueled rush to implement the Common Core by 2015 means there's a desperate scramble to roll it out precisely as states are rushing to put in place the value-added teacher evaluation systems that were also launched in response to those same programs. This means that states are changing their assessments, pioneering new systems, and ironing out kinks even as they've committed to start using these figures to evaluate educators, influence pay, and make retention decisions. What would have been a complicated rollout in any event, is now something much tougher.

Three, the Common Core has opened the door to the U.S. Department of Education influencing state decisions about standards and assessments. Especially given the commitments that states have made to win NCLB waivers, ED will now insist that those states which opt out of PARCC or SBAC show that their assessments are equally rigorous--giving the Secretary of Education a whole new way to inject himself into state decisions.

Four, the Common Core has bitterly split conservative supporters of school reform. Just two years ago, conservatives were starting to regain their footing on school reform and were looking to build on important state-level victories won by Republican governors in places like Louisiana, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Now, conservative reformers are deeply split, resigned to spending enormous time and energy in a bitter back-and-forth over the merits of the Common Core.

Obviously, the degree of one's concern depends on how much is worried by any of these. As for me, I find it increasingly possible that even a "successful" implementation of the Common Core is going to be much more of a mixed bag than its proponents ever imagined.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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