On Common Core, we cry uncle

Chester J. Finland, Jr. and Michael E. Petrelsinki

When it comes to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Fordham has long worn its heart on its sleeve: we were among the first to call for a multi-state push for higher standards and for more rigorous (and comparable) assessments. Our enthusiasm for this particular set of standards stems from our finding, dating back to 2010, that the Common Core standards are significantly stronger than what was on the books in three-quarters of the states and on par with the rest.

Still, we at Fordham pride ourselves on our open minds and willingness to change course when new evidence presents itself. So with a touch of sadness, but also courage in our convictions, we hereby renounce and repudiate our support for the Common Core.

What persuaded us? Was it the constant criticisms from our friends on the right, the name calling (ahem, “rodeo clown”?), or the questions raised about our credibility (perhaps you’ve heard about our friend Bill Gates)? Nay, as unpleasant as all of that business is, we were convinced by the plain, cold facts. They follow, in no particular order:

  1. The incredibly encouraging developments in Indiana. For years, we’ve been asking opponents and critics about their “plan B”—what happens if they actually get a state to reject the Common Core? We’ve been worried that it might lead to a dumbing down of standards, confusion in the classroom, or both. Indiana’s decision to pull the plug on the CCSS alleviated all concerns: the Hoosier State is demonstrating that life after the Common Core is sublime. Sure, the first draft of its “new” standards was worse than both the Core and what Indiana had in place before. True, teachers are totally frustrated over politicians changing course on them yet again, after they’d already been trained on the Common Core and developed new instructional materials.  And no, nobody really knows where this will end or what kind of a test Indiana will be using just twelve short months from now. But the governor has committed to adopting the best standards in the country, and that’s good enough for us.
  2. Compelling arguments about the process of setting standards. As Common Core critics have long claimed, the development of the Core was hardly a perfect process. Sure, there were committees with broad state representation. And yes, some of the nation’s wisest and most respected experts in math and English language arts played a role in their crafting. And don’t get us started on the effort to look at the “best available evidence” and the multiple rounds of drafts and comment periods. But compare this to the process that gave birth to most state standards, and it’s no contest. We’ve become convinced that we should go back to the old way—namely, shove a random assortment of teachers into a room; ask them what they think kids should maybe be expected to know; paper over any disagreement with vague, meaningless statements; throw everybody’s favorite idea into the pot (and throw out anything that upsets anybody for any reason whatsoever). Then call it a day.
  3. Legitimate worries about Common Core curricula. We’ve all seen the stories—at least, Fox News and Daily Caller fans have: the Common Core standards have spawned all manner of curricular nonsense, from fuzzy math and ideological indoctrination to racy “works of literature.” Just because most of the alleged materials were produced long before the Common Core was written doesn’t contradict the idea that Common Core is responsible. Nor does the fact that there’s no such thing as a “Common Core curriculum.” (Well, except the one these guys are peddling, but that doesn’t count.) And as for the argument that curriculum continues to be the province of local school boards, we must ask ourselves: Is that even a good thing?

So there you have it. We do apologize to our readers and supporters who have followed us over the Common Core cliff these past four years (like lemmings, let’s be real). But worry not: we’ll come up with some new reformy scheme to sell to you in the near future, just as soon as we raise a little more money for our advocacy efforts. (Did we mention that our Gates grant just ran out?)

Until then, remember: the Common Core is for commies and crooks. Case closed.

Editorial Staff

As announced last fall, Michael J. Petrilli will be succeeding Chester E. Finn, Jr. as president of the Fordham Institute come August. Here’s an update on the transition.

Big changes lie ahead for Fordham when Mike Petrilli finally gains control of the place in August. “I promised you change you can believe in,” he reminded the board, which in a close contest elected him rather than Arne Duncan to take charge once Checker (at long last) surrenders the reins that he has gripped so tightly for almost two decades. “And change is what you’ll see.”

In a sharp shift away from Fordham’s tattered old agenda of standards and choice, Petrilli has indicated that the Institute’s top research priorities will be the many benefits of class-size reduction, open classrooms, and Waldorf-style handicrafts, particularly in relation to boosting children’s inner peace.

The organization’s symbol will shift from a “gadfly” to a seventeen-year-locust, in recognition of how long the place slumbered during Finn’s tenure. Research reports will be tweeted 140 characters at a time. And op-eds will be replaced with frequent dance videos (stay tuned for our “Pathways Out of Poverty: Bootstrap Beats”!).

Furthermore, expect Fordham’s age-old obsession with frostbitten Ohio to be revisited, with Petrilli instead shifting his focus to Hawaii and the close connection between surfing and academic achievement. In fact, the new president had nearly solidified plans to move the Fordham offices to the Aloha State until Finn decided that Hawaii would be a nice place from which to work as president emeritus—after which the plans were promptly scrapped.

New funders are expected to include the Bolshoi Ballet, George Soros, GreenPeace, CrowdCube, and the Barbers and Beauticians’ Association.

As for the Fordham board itself, Petrilli isn’t tipping his hand but close observers of the organization understand that he’s been having quiet conversations with Anthony Cody, Randi Weingarten, and Bernie Sanders about replacing several stick-in-the-muds on the board, as well as pleading with Diane Ravitch to rejoin the organization that would be hers today if Finn hadn’t wrested control from her not so many years back.

Stay informed about Fordham’s transition by following @TheNewFordham or signing up for regular email updates here.

Michael Strawman

After Mayor Bill de Blasio made good on his threat to deny public-school space to Gotham’s charters, Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools will set up shop in the one place in New York where Moskowitz doesn’t need the mayor’s approval: she’s moving back in with her mom. And this fall, the Success Basement Academy will open for grades K–3.

The new charter will feature innovative instructional models. Students will rotate between the musty couch, unused elliptical, and ’98 iMac to get a balance of traditional lectures, gym, and technology. Ms. Moskowitz’s mother will provide a free lunch of PB&J (crusts off, please!) and Vitamin D supplements. She says her daughter will always be welcome, but she’s not going to “let Eva have the run of the place.” She went on to stress that this arrangement “is just until Eva gets back on her feet.” Hearing this, Eva rolled her eyes and said, “Jeez, Mom, I get it!”

Parents are already hailing the Moskowitz move as the next era of education choice: a mix of charter schooling and homeschooling. Says one excited parent, “Success Basement Academy strikes the perfect balance between homey comfort and high standards.” Charter authorizers are fielding dozens of applications for schools in living rooms, attics, and guest rooms at parents’ homes throughout New York.

Landlord-in-chief de Blasio expressed concern that Success Basement was getting a free ride at Ms. Moskowitz’s home. That basement space, he claimed earlier today, could be given to public-school students, who deserve the same opportunities and support as charter students. To which Mom Moskowitz replied, “Mr. Mayor, use your own damn basement.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Rezzi Dent, “New York City split over split-levels,” The Angry Park Slope Parent, April 1, 2014.

The Education Gladfly

United Opt Out is backtracking this week from its campaign to opt teenagers out of driving tests after a spate of car accidents nationwide. While the news was lauded by transportation secretary Anthony Foxx, the insurance industry, and the American Automobile Association, Diane Ravitch was unrepentant. “This is yet more proof that Pearson and its cronies in the corporate ‘deformer’ movement are running, and ruining, our schools,” she blogged. To which a spokesperson from Pearson replied, “Huh?


Facing accusations that its revamp of the SAT amounts to a “dumbing down” of the test, the College Board announced Monday that it has reversed its decision to make the essay voluntary. All students will henceforth be required to select from one of the following three prompts:

  1. “When David Coleman said that ‘Tom, who knows me well, knows how pathetic the beginnings of the Common Core standards movement were. Think of a napkin,’ was he employing sarcasm, irony, or metaphor? Defend your choice.”
  2. “When David Coleman claimed that ‘adults are different and they hate it when you tell them so,’ was he making an evidence-based statement? Draw on the fields of psychology, philosophy, and physiology.”
  3. “Regarding David Coleman’s assertion that ‘it is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood’: is this evidence of hard-nosed realism or a morally corrupt, neo-capitalist system?”

Coleman himself had no public comments about the return to mandatory essays, but was said to be smirking even more than usual.


It was only a matter of time: say hello to the Common Encore. Managers of hundreds of U.S. musicians concluded that it’s unfair and confusing for audiences (as well as the artists) when orchestras, bands, chamber groups, guitar players and singers choose different encores at their concerts. So after two years of intensive behind-the-scenes work, the Council of Chief State Symphonic Officers released its plan for a Common Encore. The Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute immediately denounced the standardized encore, declaring that the Boston Symphony Orchestra should stick to its own time-honored repertoire, and the Cato Institute took this opportunity to (again) propose abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Alyssa Shrank

Cutting class to smoke behind the bleachers. Playing Call of Duty until 3:00AM and sleeping through U.S. History class. Snapchatting selfies during study hall. They did all that, and more—and they had the time of their lives.

In her new book, The Dumbest Kids in the World, author Mananda Pipley follows three exchange students from high-achieving nations across the globe who spent a year in the United States: Wei, from Shanghai, spent nine months in Tallahassee; Singaporean Remy found herself in Abilene, Texas; and Canadian Jake walked across the unsecured northern border to Bemidji, Minnesota.

All three were thrilled that, in America, high school is “not at all” about academics. “At first I was a little worried that my math class covered topics I learned in sixth grade,” Remy explained, waiting next to the locker of a boy she had a crush on after lunch one day. “But then I went to my first football game, and I realized that high school is not about your future—it is about experiences now. And what other people think of you. And Pizza Fridays. High school is definitely about Pizza Fridays.”

Jake, on a gap year before starting university, said it was “aboot time” that he got a break. “I worked hard in high school,” he said, roll of toilet paper in hand, during one particularly “quintessentially cultural” night. “I needed a rest from responsibilities and expectations. And it’s America. Even if I got arrested, it’s not like it counts, eh?”

Wei, a middling student in China, was thrilled to find himself at the top of the class at his new school, despite developing a minor addiction to online gaming. His academic prowess also earned him friends—and quite a bit of money, as he opened a tutoring business and used his basic knowledge of statistics to regularly clean up at an illicit lunchtime poker ring

Education analysts, for their part, seemed unsurprised by the students’ findings. “At least they didn’t follow a Finnish student,” said one sullen think-tank president. “My God, I’m so sick of the Finns.”

SOURCE: Mananda Pipley, The Dumbest Kids in the World (Absaraka, North Dakota: Seems Legit Publishing, April 2014).

Aaron Chamberlain

When it comes to education, the wheels on the bus gotta go round and round. Vanderbilt analysts have found that students whose school bus had a driver performed significantly higher on standardized tests than children whose bus lacked anyone at the wheel. Using a “gold-standard” randomized-control trial, the study estimates that the magnitude of the “bus-driver effect” is up to nine additional months of learning per year. Researchers looked at 1,000 elementary-school students in Ohio who were slated to attend public schools just beyond walking distance from their homes; half were assigned to a bus driver and half were not. At the end of the school year, the analysts found that students with a bus driver outperformed their peers on the Iowa Test of Way-Too Basic Skills by about 0.8 standard deviation.They also found that those with a bus driver had vastly higher attendance rates, higher levels of “engagement” in their education, and a stronger opinion about that weird smell in the cafeteria. When the researchers conducted home visits to the families of children without a bus driver, they discovered that those kids spent their days playing Flappy Bird, Facebooking, and “being bored.” The analysts conclude that bus drivers generate a substantial amount of educational “value add.” The study’s lead researcher remarked, “Increasing pupil access to effective bus drivers—actually, any bus drivers—holds promise as a mechanism for boosting student achievement.” There is little doubt: getting there is half the battle.

SOURCE: Jeffrey M. Busser III, PhD, EdD, MD, etc., “Do School-Bus Drivers Add Value?The Journal of Common Sense Confirmed 22(1): pp. 255–98.

Not since Scammon Wattenberg’s The Real Majority has this politically incorrect slice of American demography been so closely examined: As exotic as the red-crested tree rat—though admittedly less rare—the white suburban mother is a complicated and understudied mammal. This article from the Journal of Social Education lifts that curtain and reveals many of their exotic habits, practices and preferences.  For example, these mothers regularly shop for black yoga pants at Target, underreport their wine consumption, don’t understand the rules of soccer but fervently tout the prowess of their children’s teams, believe  that Miley Cyrus should “put some clothes on, young lady,” and think they could be “besties” with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. When queried about their views on education, 72 percent strongly agree with the statement, “The school system in America is totally going down the tubes.” An overwhelming majority of that subset (94 percent), however, agree with the addendum, “Not my kid’s school, of course.” Most think the teachers their children had were “great,” though many make an exception for “that one teacher who gave my child a B–.” Of the respondents, 83 percent anticipate that their child will enroll in Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.* A full 90 percent were angered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s characterization of them as “white suburban moms”; 10 percent were offended because they believe they were Cleopatra in a past life. The study concludes with a call for “more research,” including a deeper look into the age-old question: can white suburban moms really have it all?

 * The average high-school GPA of respondents’ children was 2.9, and their average SAT score was 1100—though it was unclear whether that was on a 2400- or 1600-point scale, because really, who can keep track of that?

SOURCE: Jane Goodenough, “White Suburban Moms: An ethnography of race, place, gender, and education reform,” Journal of Navel-Gazing and Other Pasttimes 5(1): 5–14.

Dara Zazabananababylon

After waiting years for the release of the very expensive, highly advanced Elementary/Secondary Information System (ElSi) database, education researchers from across the United States and around the world who met this week at the annual American Education Research Association (AERA) conference finally got a peek. And the more than 13,000 attendees, many of them highly regarded in the field, came to a shocking conclusion: the U.S. education system has been completely stagnant for the past two years. According to these comprehensive data, gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and used extensively by researchers all over the country, the entire public-education system has not enrolled a single student since June of 2011. In the previous decade, an average of nearly 50 million children were enrolled in public school (Figure 1). In contrast, ELSi does not report that even one student enrolled in either 2011–12 or 2012–13.

AERA president Wilhelm Tigernach stood by the shocking finding. “ELSi is the foremost database available to education researchers,” he explained. “It is maintained by the Institute of Education Sciences, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. There is no reason why ELSi data would not reflect the current state of public education.” When asked whether it was possible that the data were simply not yet available for the past two school years, Tigernach responded, “A two-year delay for basic information about our school system? At a time when market-research firms know what you had for lunch yesterday? That’s preposterous.” NCES did not respond to repeated requests for comment; reportedly its fax machines are down.

SOURCE: Big Brother, “Elementary/Secondary Information System” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, April 2014).

The Education Gladfly

Saving the education system, one irrelevant question at a time.

Take this quiz to find out which ed reformer you are!

The Education Gladfly

Join us Thursday afternoon for a lecture by Friend-of-Fordham Rick Hess about the latest book in his Cage-Busting series, Cage-Busting Kindergarteners. Following the success of Cage-Busting Parents, Cage-Busting Counselors, Cage-Busting Custodians, and Cage-Busting Coaches, Cage-Busting Kindergarteners urges kids to “refuse to accept the limitations of cages of your own design,” such as dress codes (“winter is a fine time for shorts!”), recess norms (“‘everyone’s a winner,’ my a$$”) and lunchroom etiquette (“don’t let the USDA put YOU on a diet!”). A panel, to be moderated by Mike’s son Nico, will follow the lecture. Register here.