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The federalizing of public education is failing all of America’s children, but perhaps black children in particular.
Far from achieving its goal of leveling the playing field for the nation’s K-12 students and making them “college and career-ready,” Common Core, five years after its adoption, has put children of color in the state of Kentucky (and likely in many other states as well) even further behind.
“Common Core is the most poorly conceptualized education reform in modern history,” said one education expert.
“In 2010 we adopted Common Core sight unseen, in a rush to get those federal dollars dangled in front of us,” said Rich Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions. “We [the Bluegrass Institute] have been warning for months — since way back in February — about achievement gaps in Jefferson County between black kids and white kids.”
Kentucky was the first state in the nation to adopt Common Core, and it was followed by 47 other states and Washington, D.C., in taking up the one-size-fits-all educational model.
While Kentucky’s test scores initially dropped after adopting the tougher new Core curriculum, the Kentucky Department of Education reported that by last spring, test scores had risen to 54 percent of elementary school students being proficient in English/Language Arts (that was up from 48 percent after initial 2010 Common Core adoption) and 49 percent proficiency in Math (up from 40 percent after adoption.)
But a deeper examination of those numbers reveals a cause for worry for Kentucky’s black schoolchildren. A recent analysis of the schools in Jefferson County, Kentucky — which includes Louisville, a city that buses in 70,000 of 100,000 school kids to equalize racial representations in county schools — shows that in the first year after the adoption of Common Core, 25 percent of black third-graders were proficient or better in reading, compared to 54 percent of their white classmates. That analysis was done by The Hechinger Report and The Courier-Journal.
Into sixth grade, white students have increased their proficiency by 4 points, while black students have inched up only 2.
So five years in, why hasn’t Common Core closed the racial divide as promised?
The dynamics within lower socioeconomic families and communities cannot be addressed by progressive education, for starters. And the hastily-adopted Common Core standards have leveled the playing field — as promised — by bringing brighter students down as well.
“Some states were required to lower their standards, and some states were required to raise their standards,” Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said. “In California and Massachusetts, the original standards were considerably higher pre-Common Core. To get the federal money, they had to lower their standards.”
Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Education, as well as a national standards expert in English/Language Arts, told LifeZette bluntly, “Common Core is the most poorly conceptualized education reform in modern history.”
How did American schools get in this public education boondoggle? By racing for their share of the 4.35 billion federal dollars that were offered after the economy plummeted in 2008. Common Core was adopted by many states without even a blueprint of what it would contain, or how it would be administered.
“For 25 years there was a bipartisan movement in the U.S. to reform the nation’s schools,” Wood said. “This effort was blocked, essentially, because the Constitution leaves education up to individual states to formulate. That didn’t mean the federal government has no role, but it is strictly limited.”
In 2007, David Coleman, founder of the Grow Network and a co-founder of the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners, which assembled educators and researchers to design evidence-based strategies to improve student outcomes, took up educational reform. (Student Achievement Partners played a leading role in developing the Common Core standards in math and literacy, according to The College Board.) Coleman figured that while schools couldn’t officially be uniformly changed on the national level — perhaps all 50 states could be convinced to reform education simultaneously.
“It was an end-run around the Constitution, and a cute idea,” said Wood. “Coleman went to the National Governors Association — a private association of governors, former governors, and staffers — with his idea, and that association carried a lot of credibility.”
Backed by tech mogul and billionaire Bill Gates, Coleman — not an educator, but a businessman — convinced the association it would be a hero if it reformed education in the U.S., according to Wood.
A year later, the U.S. economy tanked. In January 2009, Obama gave a major policy speech about a stimulus package, and Congress passed a stimulus bill freeing billions of dollars for shovel-ready projects to fix the country’s infrastructure — bridges, railways, etc. The plan was to create jobs around those projects. The problem? There weren’t any significant shovel-ready projects to be found.
“Arne Duncan, the secretary of Education, then raised his hand,” said Wood. “He said, ‘I know where we can spend the money’ – and Race to the Top, a big piñata stuffed with federal money, was born. Individual states hit at that piñata with their sticks, hoping to get their share.”
Said Innes about Kentucky at the time, “Our state was at a disadvantage, because we didn’t have charter schools, and you got points in the Race to the Top for charter schools. In an attempt to overcome that self-imposed handicap, Kentucky said, ‘Let’s make it look like we are the common standards state. Let’s be the first.’ We were going to be all over this progressive reform, and we basically adopted, very recklessly, something that was an idea — it didn’t even formally exist.”
Wood echoed this. “Critics started coming out pretty quickly, calling this ObamaCore. Odd things were happening — states were incentivized financially to act very quickly to adopt Common Core. It was truly a spectacle of states agreeing to massive reform to get this education money when it was really only an idea — there was no program. It was impossible to make a rational judgment on whether it was good or bad for the state, or somewhere in between.”
Of Kentucky’s fast adoption process, Innes said, “There was a public comment period in 2010, but the adoption was a mostly secret process. To this day we don’t know if public comments received any attention, because the work groups tasked with assessing Common Core met in secret.”
“It was truly a spectacle of states agreeing to massive reform to get this education money when it was really only an idea — there was no program,” said Wood.
States fell to Common Core, lured by much-needed federal dollars. And the educational standards changed dramatically in the U.S. Far from creating a generation that will be “college and career-ready,” teaching to the Core turned into a hazy mix of half-formed ideas and a new credo of process over fact.
“Math and English are both troubled now, and they’re troubled in different ways,” said Wood. “Math is a very new math — the very early grades remove the usual components, and make math a lot more complicated. There is more emphasis on process — how you get to the answer — than the answer itself. It looks to instill deep mathematical concepts in young learners rather than learning the practical tasks of basic arithmetic.”
English is dismal in its own way, said Wood. The focus is now on the written word as a purveyor of information — and students are being trained to almost exclusively extract information from their texts.
“Common Core is hostile to creative literature and creative writing,” said Wood. “It is focused on a utilitarian ‘get the message across’ type of analysis.”
It’s highly troubling that by the time students today reach their senior year of high school, no more than 20 percent of their reading assignments are literature. In 10th grade, literature that is read is presented in the form of extracts.
“You can see [Bill] Gates’ footprint on Common Core,” Wood said. “Its emphasis is on information, and context equals white privilege — there may be kids in class who haven’t had the chance to learn about the Civil War, so you take that component out when learning about the Gettysburg Address.”
Kentucky, Common Core’s first adopter, remains troubled — even for white students. Only two states, Alabama and West Virginia, have 2015 scores lower than Kentucky’s eighth grade NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) math scores. This is why Kentucky and many other states are now critical of what was once a progressive cabal’s educational dream.
“The most succinct thing I can probably say about Common Core is that it’s dying,” said Wood. “We’re going to start to see a painful process of states who bought into it trying to find the exit.”
This article has been updated.