We Now Have a Smart Exit Strategy from Common Core

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on


Rick Hess and Mike McShane back in the spring wrote in the National Review Online that

At the end of March, Indiana became the first state to repeal the Common Core standards. The aftermath has not been pretty.

And they were right.  Hess and McShane noted that

Critics have raised valid concerns but failed to put forward a notion of what happens next. This is a problem. Common Core adoption meant that Indiana schools set in place not only new reading and math standards but also new tests, curricula, instructional materials, and teaching strategies. And the abrupt shift could be a train wreck for students and educators.

Already back in 2011, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and a few others had tried to map out a strategy for states to exit Common Core.
For some states it has proven difficult to figure out.  Back in 2011 Burke laid out some sensible markers:

  • Determine how the decision was made to cede the state’s standard-setting authority and use that discovery process to determine the best way to reverse course.
  • Prohibit new spending for standards implementation.

But by the time the wave of “repeal and replace” legislation began with Indiana, much more granular “exit strategies” were possible.  As Dr. Sandra Stotsky noted in a Breitbart blog, she had made available for free alternate, high-quality ELA standards and also advised state officials on the kind of robust public process that would more likely lead to world-class standards in Indiana.  For political reasons that only Governor Pence might be able to explain, the state chose a rushed, Common Core-lite strategy.  Stotsky provided more detail on the utter failure to develop higher quality state standards in pieces here, here, and elsewhere.

So what’s a state to do?  Well, a lot has changed since Burke and others began thinking through how to repeal and replace the Core.  Here are some facts:

  • At this point, most states have already spent the dollars they received through Race to the Top (RttT) for Common Core implementation.  In most cases the RttT funding for Common Core implementation (mainly for such things as professional development) was only a third to a fourth of the total RttT grant.  In Massachusetts case, we received $250 million from the feds, but a lot of it went to districts with little definition, some went for implementation of federally influenced teacher evaluations, and some went for Common Core.  Assuming between $75 million and $100 million went to Common Core in the Bay State, that only constituted a small fraction of the total cost to get to the place where the standards and tests can even be administered.   A 2011 Pioneer study, which focused on the cost of textbooks, technology, assessments and professional development pegged the cost to the country at $16 billion and to Massachusetts alone at $355 million.
  • Many states, including Florida, California and it seems Massachusetts, just to provide a few examples, have run up against technology costs that far exceed what state education officials implied or explicitly disclosed in the past.  In Florida, two years ago when Tony Bennett was Commissioner of Education, there was much debate because of discussion of the need for an additional $400 million for technology alone.  In Massachusetts, we are seeing overrides at the local level to pay for technology, and there have been quiet discussion about the possibility of using the state’s School Building Authority funding (which is for, ahem, buildings) to fund technology, which is an expense that can be capitalized.  That conversation with the SBA has led nowhere to date. Thankfully.
  • The Common Core-aligned “consortia” tests, PARCC and SBAC, have lost market share – and how!  PARCC has gone from 25 participating states to 13 nominal states participating.  I say nominal because Louisiana and other states that are chafing to get out of PARCC are included in PARCC’s list of 13 friendly states.  With the loss of market share – fewer students participating – the cost of the test must necessarily go up on a per student basis.  Maybe Pearson, PARCC’s preferred (and in some states no-bid) contractor, will be able to hold the line on the pricing in the short term, but that will be a loss leader for them, and the long-term pricing is anything but known.

What those facts tell me are the following three things:

  1. The feds can no longer hold out the possibility of punishing states that received RttT funding for the Core.  The states long ago spent the stimulus money.
  2. Second, the states have been saddled with a significant unfunded mandate.  States and localities fund 90% of educational services, so if there are costs that go beyond the original sum received through the RttT for Common Core, then states and localities will be on the hook for them.
  3. The future costs of staying with Common Core are unpredictable – and therefore at this point it is more prudent from a budgetary perspective to transition from the Core and the Core-aligned tests.

There are further considerations and experiences that finally allow states to trace out a clear path out from the Core.

Indiana’s repeal and replace bill showed how not to extricate a state from the Core.  Governor Pence demonstrated little interest in policy or in educational quality; nor did he evince a clear vision of truly public process.  The truncated effort to develop new “Indiana” standards led to an inside job led by proponents of the Core, it started with the Core as a foundational document, and it ended up with a product even worse than the Core, as Stotsky among others clearly demonstrated.

Oklahoma and South Carolina have taken a different path, and they are trying to build new state-led standards with real public processes.  Oklahoma had the benefit of state standards that were in fact of higher quality than the Core.  They are therefore going back to the drawing board and using the Oklahoma standards as a foundation stone.  South Carolina has the benefit of very strong US History standards, but do not have strong ELA and math standards to draft off of.

That’s where Ohio comes in.  Learning from Indiana’s disastrous effort and the good efforts in Oklahoma and South Carolina, Ohio’s HB597 is a huge step forward in that it not only rejects Common Core’s mediocre offerings, but it provides on an interim basis Massachusetts’ nation-leading standards as the new foundation to draft off of in developing new Ohio standards.  The Massachusetts’ standards go into place for two years as Ohio educators, businesses, scholars and parents put their heads together in a truly public process—and develop, we hope, even better standards than what Massachusetts had.

And there are several points to be made in favor of states quickly adopting the MA standards for a two-year interim period while developing their own first-rate standards.

First, two years is ample time to engage local communities and constituencies in the kind of public process that upholds the public trust and also can gain the level of teacher buy-in that will help make new standards effective guidance.  No such buy-in is possible with Common Core because of its lack of a public process.

Second, the interim adoption of the Massachusetts standards is a cost-effective exit strategy for Ohio and other states.  The fact is that Common Core requires lots of professional development, because there are pedagogical strategies embedded in the Core standards.  A couple of examples will suffice: Some of the early grad math requires multiple approaches rather than standard algorithms.  The high school geometry standards insist on the use of an experimental method that has not been used successfully in Western high schools.  Early grade ELA includes more non-fiction than teachers have used in the past; across the board, there are non-fiction offerings that fall outside the traditional teacher preparation and likely background of English teachers.

On the other hand, Massachusetts standards will require minimal professional development.  None at the high school level because the standards reflect the disciplinary background of teachers in English, mathematics, science, and history/U.S. Government.  Continuing PD will be needed in reading in K-6 because of the inadequacy of reading methods courses in many schools of education and in some professional development.  As Stotsky noted years ago, the Massachusetts standards were developed with teachers’ backgrounds in mind.  There is not the insistence on new methods and fads.  English teachers, most of whom came out of English lit majors are likely to be pretty comfortable teaching a greater amount of literature rather than jamming in lots of non-fiction extracts.  As a result, costs for professional development will be much, much lower.

Third, the organization and clarity of the Massachusetts standards not only can be implemented as interim standards very easily and without lots of professional development, but they also lend themselves to greater ease of understanding to teachers and district officials.  In short, they will serve more effectively as a framework for Ohio’s development of new, higher-quality standards.

As for the prohibition of PARCC embedded in Ohio HB597, well, that is just smart.  There is no predictability as to whether PARCC will survive and, if it does, at what price point.  The Massachusetts assessment, MCAS, is a known entity.  It’s been “tested” and proven over a decade.  And, as I noted to the Ohio Rules and Reference Committee, the fact is that PARCC is on its last legs.  Why stick with a sinking ship?  (It is useful to note that there are free test items available from 2001 to 2011 on the Massachusetts Education Department’s website.)

Finally, there is that small detail called quality.  School systems will have a head start in using first-rate standards by orienting themselves to the Massachusetts standards.
So, Ohio Representatives Matt Huffman and Andrew Thompson may not only have given Ohioans hope, they may have traced out the core elements of a positive agenda that can replace the Core.  And that’s important.  In about 25 states, it is not enough for state officials and activists to say no to Common Core.  Those states had poor quality standards before the Core and getting rid of it will not lead to higher achievement by their students.  Instead, they need to have an exit strategy that says no to the Core and yes to world-class standards.

Adoption on an interim basis of Massachusetts’ standards is a great innovation.  Importantly, Huffman and Thompson are not saying that they want to replace the Core with Massachusetts’ standards.  They are saying that the Massachusetts standards are in interim step – a great framework that Ohioans will need to make their own.  They should.  This country was built on a federalist impulse – the idea of competitive federalism.  We want states to have different standards, to test what works and what doesn’t.  States competing to be the best is a true Race to the Top.  That’s a virtuous cycle and very different from the feds’ RttT, which was more like a race to comply with federal definitions of what “innovation” means.

Time to turn the page.

Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.