As a Relinquisher, I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.
So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of federal- or state-initiated regulatory overhaul that we’ve seen in decades?
Admittedly, it took me a while to sort through my competing impulses. But here’s the path I followed:
Skepticism: The research on standards
1. There’s very little evidence that higher standards lead to higher achievement. As Tom Loveless notes, states with better standards do not show more growth on NAEP.
2. There’s also a financial, political, and labor-opportunity cost to working on standards over other things more directly related to Relinquishment (charter expansion, human-capital pipelines, etc).
Pragmatic hope: The research, logic of assessments
1. All states have standards, and experts seem to agree that the Common Core standards are better than most existing state standards—so if we’re going to have standards, we might as well make them higher quality.
2. Why? Because I think this standards shift will include something that has not consistently happened under the NCLB standards shift: assessments will become more rigorous.
3. Great standards can sit on shelves. Great assessments must be dealt with—and there is some evidence that increasing rigor of assessments in fourth-grade math and reading (by raising cut scores) is correlated to achievement gains. While causation is difficult to prove, this finding matches my experiences in working with schools. Effective educators know that assessment items define rigor, and they backward-map their lessons from these items.
4. Time will tell if states stick to the more rigorous assessments—this will remain a political enterprise—but my bet is that the percentage of states with rigorous assessments will increase due to the Common Core.
Question: What about the market?
1. Part of me remains interested in (a) getting rid of government standards and assessments, (b) giving everyone vouchers, and (c) letting the market work. The left can escape from the clutches of testing. The right can escape from the clutches of government intrusion. And the libertarians can escape from the clutches of government monopolies. A move towards common standards is not a step toward this vision.
2. But if the above is tried, it will be tried at the state level. Most likely, it will be a red state that first adopts this model—and this state will likely have opted out of Common Core long before this experiment is underway. So I doubt Common Core is going to be the policy that prevents this experiment from occurring.
3. Lastly, proponents of this vision need to be a little more humble; to my knowledge, a system like this has never delivered both performance and equity. While I’m not saying that it couldn’t, there is a lot of distance between here and there.
Another question: What about individualized learning?
1. There’s a tension between individualized learning and annual Common Core assessments. If we really believe that students learn at different paces, should we be testing all children annually on the same material?
2. I’m very open to moving toward a system that tests students every two to three years rather than annually. This can still provide for school-level accountability and would allow students more space for individualized learning paces between assessment cycles.
3. I view Common Core as a slight but real hit against this model—as the new assessments may work to solidify a culture of annual testing.
More pragmatism: Lessons from New Orleans
1. Conservatives who are against the Common Core would be wise to take note that the urban system (New Orleans) that most resembles a free-market system only exists because of accountability and standards.
2. The New Orleans system came to being because Louisiana, sequentially, implemented a statewide accountability system, created a state-takeover mechanism to act on schools that fared poorly on this system, and utilized charter schools to replace these failing schools.
3. In most other states, vouchers have followed the same path: Only students in failing schools are eligible for vouchers.
4. In short, the legal, political, and moral justification for moving toward Relinquishment is a direct result of standards and accountability.
5. This is worth remembering. For many (reasonable) people, the legitimacy of choice options such as charters and vouchers comes from the performance of these options on standardized tests—and not due to any philosophical views the role of government.
To sum up
Common Core is complicated. And it has some real downsides, such as the tension with individualized learning.
But, in the end, I support it for two reasons: (1) There is some evidence (and logic) that increasing the rigor of assessments will lead to increases in student achievement and (2) rigorous standards and accountability systems have been the bedrock of effective charter sectors.
Is Relinquishment compatible with broad government mandates? In this case, I think so.
Neerav Kingsland is CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.