Analysis: Idaho’s Common Core debate is the nation’s Common Core debate

The hearing unfolded just as Debbie Critchfield predicted.

It’s as if Common Core supporters and opponents pile into their own cars, the State Board of Education president said Wednesday, “and we go around the track again and get back to this point.”

Wednesday’s lap around the Common Core debate — a House Education Committee hearing on English language arts standards — wasn’t just predictably polarized. Many talking points fell right in line with the national debate over the controversial standards movement.

To put the Idaho debate into broader context, I spent time earlier this week poring over three essays on Common Core, 10 years after its inception. They come from Education Next, a journal sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. If you’re a wonk about academic standards (and if you’re reading this piece, you probably are), these essays are well worth your time.

What the scores say

Let’s start with the basics: Are the Common Core standards improving student performance?

Supporters make a largely anecdotal case — saying the standards are rigorous and promote critical thinking. Boise English language arts supervisor R.T. Duke, one of a procession of educators to speak in favor of the standards, cited Idaho’s better-than-average 2017 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test often called “the nation’s report card.”

But Fred Birnbaum of the Idaho Freedom Foundation looked at the same test and decried a decade of flat NAEP scores. “It’s a problem for our state, it’s a national problem and fundamentally it’s a challenge for our future.”

The national numbers are lackluster. A 2019 study, conducted by the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction and Learning, found that college and career-readiness standards have had a flat to negative impact on NAEP scores. That study looked at all college- and career-readiness standards, not just Common Core, and a Vanderbilt University study had a “modest” positive effect, writes Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

What to make of these trends?

“It is time to accept that Common Core didn’t fulfill its promise,” writes Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor and past director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

But after a decade, and the rollout of new standards and the development of Common Core-aligned tests and curriculum, schools are poised for a breakthrough, writes Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank. Petrilli said he and his fellow Common Core backers were “naïve” to expect big improvements within a few years.

Standards vs. curriculum

Idaho’s Common Core debate isn’t just about standards — a roadmap of the skills students are supposed to master. The debate inevitably ties into curriculum — the vehicle schools choose to get there.

Wednesday’s hearing quickly and frequently shifted into discussions about curriculum. Reading from a racy passage from the novel “Dreaming In Cuban,” a recommended part of one vendor’s Common Core English curriculum, Blackfoot school trustee Sonya Harris said school boards feel pressured to purchase curriculum aligned with Common Core. Tammy Stefan, the Nampa School District’s English language arts instructional specialist, said her district has felt no pressure to do business with any particular vendor.

Curriculum decisions are made locally, but Common Core has changed the curriculum marketplace. And that’s a good thing, some national experts say.

Polikoff doesn’t expect standards alone to make much of a difference in student performance. But he sees more promise in curriculum — and an emphasis in “improving the ways curriculum materials are made, adopted and used.”

Petrilli also is encouraged. Common Core created a national marketplace for curriculum, and vendors are seeking to fill the need. “It appears that the emergence of Common Core has prompted the adoption of significantly better curricular materials.”

So, is it time for a change?

That’s the bottom-line question for the House and Senate education committees.

Educator after educator urged House Education to keep the standards intact. A change now would create upheaval — forcing schools to spend millions of dollars on training and new curricular materials to conform with a new set of standards.

The Freedom Foundation — which usually espouses fiscal conservatism and expresses a general fear of the unknown in all matters of public policy — is urging legislators to roll the dice. Lawmakers shouldn’t assume that a new set of standards could possibly perform worse than the current standards. “I don’t think that’s a very big risk,” said Birnbaum.

Petrilli’s Fordham Institute isn’t always a defender of the status quo, but in this case, he is. “Going backward will accomplish nothing. So would resigning to a futile sense that no progress is possible until we blow up our educational system, which has proven remarkably resilient for a hundred years.”

In Loveless’ view, it’s time to stop throwing good money after bad. “How many more years must pass, how much more should Americans spend, and how many more effective curricula must be pushed aside before leaders conclude that Common Core has failed?”

For Idaho legislators, that’s the debate in a nutshell.

And possibly the first big education decision for the 2020 session.

More reading: House Education holds a contentious hearing on the Common Core math standards.

A new feature: Each Thursday, Kevin Richert will offer a weekly analysis of the latest in education policy and education politics.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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