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Paul Thomas: The Problem Isn't Just Common Core, but the Entire Reform Agenda

Guest post by Paul Thomas.

Before the Common Core debate reached the fevered public debates of the past year, I took a stand against standards-based reform represented by Common Core, Why Common Standards Won't Work:

A call for national standards ensures that we continue doing what is most wrong with our bureaucratic schools (establish-prescribe-measure) and that we persist in looking away from the largest cause of low student achievement: childhood poverty.

A call for national standards is a political veneer, a tragic waste of time and energy that would be better spent addressing real needs in the lives of children--safe homes, adequate and plentiful food, essential health care, and neighborhood schools that are not reflections of the neighborhoods where children live through no choice of their own.

Education is in no way short of a knowledge base. And even if it were, tinkering (yet again) at a standard core of knowledge while ignoring the dehumanizing practices in our schools, and the oppressive impact of poverty on the lives of children, is simply more fiddling while the futures of our children smolder over our shoulders and we look the other way.

Recently, Oklahoma and my home state of South Carolina have rejected Common Core, as The Washington Post and Education Week have reported. And while I would like to celebrate, I have been quick to note that these mostly partisan decisions at the state level are, in fact, not the sorts of changes in policy we need.

Instead of celebrating, we must recognize that South Carolina, specifically but as a typical example, is directly rejecting Common Core as a federal and thus flawed set of standards while continuing to develop and implement policy to design (yet again) new SC standards, new SC high-stakes testing, and new SC accountability--all of which are the essential structures that are ineffective.

The problem for education reform, then, is not specifically Common Core, but that the evidence base shows standards-based reform has not and will not address issues of achievement or equity.

So when I read Anthony Cody's Can California Offer a New Model for Accountability? Or Are We Still Chasing Test Scores?, I recognized that we are in danger of being derailed in our calls for alternatives to accountability-based reform by changes that are actually not changes at all.

Cody notes that, for example, Tom Loveless has acknowledged that standards-based reform has failed. This is a key point since William Mathis (NEPC, 2012) has compiled the significant body of evidence reflecting three decades of standards-based accountability and reached two key conclusions:

  • As Loveless notes, Mathis stresses: "There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced tests core advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the 'dumbing down' and narrowing of the curriculum."
  • And, "As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself."

Common Core, then, is simply a part of the larger reform agenda, and while I do contend that supporting Common Core is supporting the entire reform machine, I want to caution that defeating Common Core specifically is simply not enough, especially when we continue pursuing new standards, new high-stakes tests, and new accountability policies.

As one parallel but powerful example, let's consider that New Orleans has now replaced their public schools with charter schools (see Sam Chaltain).

Lyndsey Layton, however, reports on the consequences of that transformation:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city's best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don't participate in OneApp, the city's centralized school enrollment lottery.

The charter school movement, built on a flawed belief that "charterness" is the key to reform, shares with Common Core implementation not only being ineffective but also harmful as reform policies.

The partisan political backlash against Common Core, then, is not reason to celebrate because the essential political commitments to misguided education reform policy (such as accountability built on standards and testing, charter schools, Teach For America, and value-added methods of teacher evaluation) remain robust below the partisan posturing against Common Core as a uniquely flawed set of standards.

 Adopting and implementing any new standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability policies, however, are tremendous wastes of time and money that we cannot afford. But resisting big picture policy will not achieve our goals of universal public education either, as Cody rightly points out, if our classroom practices remain test- and grade-based.

Calls for de-testing and de-grading the classroom must join our push to end accountability based on standards and high-stakes tests because labeling, ranking, and punishing are harmful and counter-educational at the policy and classroom levels.

Yes, let's stop Common Core, not as an ends of resistance but as a key step to stopping the entire flawed education reform movement as well as an opportunity to change classroom practices in the pursuit of equity and opportunity for all children.

What do you think? Should we resist Common Core as a part of a larger resistance to corporate education reform?

Paul Thomas is an Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas  taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. His blog is here.

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