Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech to the Society of News Editors that Education Week called "The strongest defense yet of Common Core Standards."
In it, he said that the Common Core – educational standards that are being adopted by most states – "has become a rallying cry for fringe groups," that opposition has been "misguided" and "misinformed" and that legislation in state houses across the country aimed at stopping the standards is "based on false information."
While it is true that some criticism of the Common Core has been over the top, it is also true that the Common Core does not have to be a malign conspiracy to be problematic.
Even if you believe that the standards are a "boon" for schools, as the Washington Post's and USA Today's editorial boards do, it is important to recognize that the Common Core's ultimate success will hinge on its implementation. As such, several issues loom large.
1. Anything can be called "Common Core aligned"
In order for students to be able to master the standards, teachers are going to need instructional materials – textbooks and supplementary resources like handouts and worksheets aligned to the standards. A simple Amazon search for "Common Core" yields over 32,000 results, the lion's share of which are guides or instructional materials for teachers labeled as "aligned to the Common Core." As it turns out, pretty much anyone can slap a "Common Core Aligned" sticker onto a textbook.
This presents two problems. First, if everything is "Common Core Aligned," nothing is Common Core aligned, and the effort to unify instruction will be diluted to meaninglessness. Second, if and when Common Core-aligned tests show poor performance, we will not be able to parse whether that reflects a lack of learning or if students were simply taught the wrong material.
2. Politics can derail the standards
Implementing the Common Core is not free. Those who wish to prevent implementation simply have to block new spending for the materials and assessments aligned to the standards. While anti-Common Core factions have failed in amending state code to prevent the Common Core from being used as standards for instruction, legislators in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Indiana have been able to block or at least delay its funding. If there's no funding, there's no implementation.
If implementation is paused, what happens? Teachers are left in the lurch, not knowing what to teach, states are unsure about the waivers they received to No Child Left Behind's requirements and a year or two of children's education is lost while leaders develop a Plan B.
3. The Department of Education might not be able to resist itself
The standards began as a voluntary, state-led effort, but the federal government has crept more and more into their promotion and management. While arguing that the federal government has been "appropriate" in its relationship to the Common Core, Duncan admitted that the federal government created an incentive for states to adopt the standards. Both the Democratic National Committee and President Obama made the Common Core an issue in the 2012 election, focusing fears that the Department of Education was staging a federal takeover of education.
The story is not new. The Federal government, from FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps to President Obama's health care reform, has a history of identifying promising state-led projects and enveloping them in federal bureaucracy. The Common Core could simply be next. While the Department of Education cannot "mandate" a curriculum, the line between its "incentives" and its "mandates" can get quite blurry.
4. Schools of education might not be ready to prepare teachers, and professional development's record is spotty at best
Work to prepare new teachers to teach the standards will fall almost entirely on the more than 1,400 teacher preparation programs housed in universities across the country. Given the National Council on Teacher Quality's scathing indictment of these institutions as "an industry of mediocrity," there is reason to doubt they are up to the task.
The 3.2 million teachers currently working in schools will rely on the bane of many a teacher's existence – professional development. Unfortunately, as the Institute for Education Science's review of the research on professional development found, "few rigorous studies address the effect of professional development on student achievement." For an intervention upon which we are going to rely so heavily (and spend so much on), we have precious little evidence that it will actually help.
5. It's not clear who is in charge
The standards were developed by two organizations, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and they, along with a group of affiliated non-profits and foundations, worked to get the standards adopted. None of the organizations has any teeth to ensure that states live up to their commitments. If states lower their cut scores for students on the aligned assessments, who will hold them to account? Ceding state power to an organization that could would be the very thing local control advocates fear. Failing to have a body that can hold states accountable could allow the same "50 states, 50 standards" problem that the Common Core was created to solve.
Implementation is not fun to talk about, but the Common Core standards will undergird everything in the education system. Even if they are educationally sound, not implementing them with care could do more harm to children's education than good.
Michael McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.