Mike Petrilli's testimony on Indiana and the Common Core

After the ouster of Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett (who, subsequently, was snapped up by Florida), Indiana’s Republicans have pushed a bill withdraw the state from the Common Core standards.

Today, Indiana’s Senate Education Committee heard arguments on whether to keep, eliminate, or change the state’s commitment to the Common Core. Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham’s executive vice president, testified at the hearing to urge Indiana’s lawmakers to “stay the course” with the common standards.

 

Testimony to the Education and Career Development Committee of the Indiana State Senate

Michael J. Petrilli

Chairman Kruse, Ranking Member Rogers, members of the committee: It’s an honor to be with you today. I mean that sincerely. No state in the country has accomplished more on the education reform front than Indiana has over the past two years. On issue after issue—from school vouchers, to teacher evaluations, to collective bargaining reform, to school finance reform—Indiana is leading the way. As you may know, in 2011 my think tank named Indiana the “Education Reform Idol” for its accomplishments. You won in a landslide. You should be very proud of what this legislative body has gotten done.

My name is Mike Petrilli; I’m the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education policy think tank in Washington, DC that also does on the ground work in the great state of Ohio. We promote education reforms of all stripes, with a particular focus on school choice and standards-based reform. I was honored to serve in the George W. Bush Administration; my boss, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration. And we are both affiliated with the Hoover Institution in California—as was one of your earlier panelists.

I suspect that not all of my friends agree with me, but I am glad that you are holding this hearing and debating the issue of whether Indiana should stick with the Common Core. These standards were developed by the states, and to be successful, they need to be owned by the states. Our educators are all too familiar with the “flavor of the month”—reforms that come and go. They are wondering if they should wait this one out too. By having this open debate on the Common Core you can settle the issue once and for all, and either change course or move full speed ahead.

I am here today to urge you to stay the course with the Common Core. But I must admit: It’s not an easy decision that you face.

Most states don’t face any sort of conundrum. The standards they had in place before the Common Core were simply awful: Disconnected, discombobulated pabulum of feel-good sentiments, half-baked ideas, ed school jargon, and politically correct nonsense.

But not Indiana. As some of my friends on the earlier panel mentioned, we at Fordham have been examining state standards for fifteen years, and we found Indiana’s to be some of the very best. We also found the Common Core standards to be very good, but Indiana’s standards were great.

So it’s not crazy to consider going back to the standards you had in 2010 and before. Still, that’s not what I recommend, for three reasons:

1. First, you have already invested time and money into implementing the new standards. They have momentum. Calling for a do-over would waste the millions of man hours already invested—and potentially cost the state of Indiana more money than proceeding with the Common Core.
2. Second, it’s not clear that returning to your old standards would put Indiana on a path toward higher student achievement. For while you had some of the best standards in the country for over a decade, you also had one of the worst student achievement records on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Indiana was a classic case of good standards not actually having an impact in the classroom. You need a different way forward.
3. Third, if you decide to opt out of the Common Core, you will be opting Indiana’s teachers and students out of an opportunity to participate in the incredible wave of innovation that these standards are unleashing. It’s as if the whole world is moving to smart phones and tablets while you’re sticking with a rotary.

Let me say more about each point. First, though, let me acknowledge that Common Core critics raise at least one legitimate concern. They are right that President Obama politicized the standards by using federal Race to the Top dollars to coerce their adoption by the states. It doesn’t help that the president took credit for the common standards every time he had a chance on the campaign trail. These standards started out as state standards, and they need to remain state standards. Washington needs to butt out.

Maintain the Momentum

As I’m sure you’ll hear several times this afternoon, Indiana educators are already hard at work implementing the standards: Engaging in professional development, developing new curricular resources, vetting textbooks, and so forth. Changing horses in the middle the race would be incredibly disruptive.

It might also be very expensive. You’ve heard from Ted Rebarber about his cost estimate of Common Core implementation. We at Fordham commissioned a similar cost estimate, and it reached many of the same conclusions. Implementation will not be free, particular if it is to be meaningful. But it need not break the bank either. And because you’ve already been moving toward the Common Core, many of the hard costs have already been sunk.

In our study, we looked at three cost levels for implementation:

Business as Usual. This “traditional” approach to implementation means buying hard-copy textbooks, administering paper student assessments annually, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.

Bare Bones. This is the lowest-cost alternative, employing open-source materials, annual computer-administered assessments, and online professional development via webinars and modules.

Balanced Implementation. This is a mix of approaches, some of which may be more effective than others while also reducing costs. It uses a blend of instructional materials (e.g., teacher self-published texts and/or district-produced materials), both interim and summative assessments, and a hybrid system of professional development (e.g., train-the-trainers).

As expected, cost projections vary widely, depending on the approach chosen. We estimate that for Indiana, Business as Usual costs roughly $290 million, Bare Bones roughly $70 million, and Balanced Implementation roughly $120 million.

But note that Indiana is already spending significant sums every year on instructional materials, assessment, and professional development. Can much of that be repurposed as you move to the Common Core? We think so.

We estimate that Indiana already spends about $94 million annually on these activities. So if you subtract that amount from our estimates for Common Core implementation, you get much more modest estimates of the true additional costs of the Common Core. For Business as Usual (the most expensive approach) it’s about $200 million, for Balanced Implementation it’s $29 million, and for Bare Bones you could actually save $23 million by moving to the Common Core.

Spur Student Achievement

A second reason to stay the course with the Common Core—perhaps the most important reason—is to raise student achievement. I can’t guarantee that—it depends on aggressive implementation at the local level. But I can tell you that what you were doing before Common Core (and your raft of recent reforms) wasn’t working.

According to an analysis by Eric Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann and Paul Peterson, Indiana was toward the back of the pack when it came to test score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, math, and science from the early 1990s until today.

Graph: State test score gains vary dramatically

While Indiana had fine standards on the books, the assessments it has used to track student and school performance against those standards aren’t great and the scores needed to pass those tests have been set low. One consequence: Indiana has been living under the illusion that things were going better than they really have been.

Moving to the Common Core gives you the opportunity to combine strong standards with much higher expectations for passing state tests. This pressure—the kind that we’ve seen in states like Massachusetts that have made big gains on the NAEP—can go a long way.

Join the Online Revolution

Finally, staying the course with the Common Core gives you the opportunity to take advantage of the huge amount of investment that other states, private foundations, and private companies are putting into Common Core-aligned textbooks, e-books, professional development, online learning, and on and on. As Tom Vander Ark, a onetime Common Core skeptic, argued recently, the standards have unleashed “an avalanche of innovation.” Simply put, online learning is coming; it’s going to open up a world of choices for students and families; and it’s going to be aligned to the Common Core, not to separate state standards. Do you want Indiana’s students and educators to be a part of that, or not?

***

As with all public policy decisions, there are trade-offs and risks associated with adoption of the Common Core. To be sure, you had excellent standards in place before the Common Core came along. And by all means, the federal government has been heavy handed with this reform, and deserves to be chastened. But don’t let your frustration with President Obama lead you to lash out at the kids of Indiana. All things considered, the Common Core is the smartest path forward. That should be the only consideration. Thank you.

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