Moving backwards

Common Core jeopardizes ed reform

I AGREE WITH Commissioner Chester that some around K-12 education are enthusiastic about Common Core. Washington, DC-based trade groups like the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governor’s Association, Achieve, Inc., as well as federal and state administrators, tend to be big fans of Common Core.

But it is worth remembering that noted education historian Diane Ravitch’s lament that the history of American education policy is an infinite loop of intellectual faddism that distracts from the important work in our classrooms. Common Core and the entire soft-skills agenda are just the latest fad.

Prior to the commissioner’s arrival in 2008, Bay State SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years. That was due to the faithful and creative implementation of the Commonwealth’s landmark 1993 education reform act. Read Mitchell Chester’s Argument. In 2005, Massachusetts students became the first ever to score best in the nation in all four categories on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth and eighth grade reading and math assessments. Since then, we have continued to earn top honors each time the tests have been administered.

The results of the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study showed that, while American students as a whole lag behind their international peers, Massachusetts students had become competitive with top-performing nations such as Singapore, Korea, and Japan. In 8th grade science, Bay State students tied for number one in the world.

Since his arrival, the commissioner has led the systematic dismantling of key policy foundations of Massachusetts’s reform. He called for the Commonwealth to embrace so-called 21st century skills, which elevate softer skills like global awareness, media literacy, and cross-cultural flexibility to equal footing with academic content. The commissioner lessened the focus on academics by refusing to implement an MCAS graduation requirement for US history, a subject that statutorily must be tested in the same way English, math, and science are.

Chester’s strenuous advocacy of Common Core is just the latest policy choice that moves the Commonwealth in a direction at odds with the intent of the state’s 1993 education reform law. Former Senate President Tom Birmingham, one of the law’s primary authors, noted that the soft-skills agenda “may threaten to dismantle the structure of our success and drive us back towards vague expectations and fuzzy standards.” Today, Massachusetts is no longer one of the fastest-improving states on the NAEP, and the last administration of that assessment shows the Bay State barely clinging to its status as national leader.

One would hope the Bay State’s unique public education success would insulate us from the commissioner’s enthusiasms. Alas. The top three reasons why Common Core is bad for Massachusetts are its dubious legality, high costs, and the fact that it’s an academic step-down for Massachusetts students.

Commissioner Chester conveniently ignores the three federal laws that explicitly prohibit the US Department of Education from directing, supervising, or controlling any nationalized standards, testing, or curriculum. These laws raise serious questions about the legal basis for a number of the Department of Education’s actions, such as favoring Race to the Top grant applications from states that promised to adopt Common Core, awarding $362 million to two national consortia developing national assessments, and making adoption of Common Core one of the criteria for granting waivers from the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.

One of the national assessment consortia’s funding applications clearly states that it will use federal funds to develop curriculum materials, a “model curriculum,” and instructional materials “aligned with” Common Core. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself has acknowledged the same. It is a serious matter when state officials fail to obey federal laws.

The cost of implementing Common Core in Massachusetts may be lower than in some poorly performing states. Since the new national standards are less rigorous than their predecessors, professional development costs will likely be less than in other states. And the Commonwealth’s extensive technology infrastructure may also result in lower relative costs.

That said, cost remains a significant issue—and one the state education department has ignored. Remarkably, as of late last year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had not conducted a cost analysis for Common Core implementation. Pioneer Institute commissioned the first independent, comprehensive cost study, which showed that transitioning to the new standards will collectively cost states $16 billion, more than triple the amount doled out in federal Race to the Top inducements. We project that implementing Common Core in Massachusetts will cost approximately $355 million, far more than the $250 million we got from Race to the Top.

The central concern for Massachusetts, however, is the negative impact Common Core will have on what happens in our classrooms and the quality of our academic offerings. The commissioner rightly states that our children need to be ready for a competitive world. By the mid-2000s, Massachusetts had already outpaced other states and achieved the goal of international competitiveness. Common Core, which is only slightly more rigorous than the mean for existing state standards, is a step down for the Bay State.

Contrary to Commissioner Chester’s claim, the national standards were not internationally benchmarked. That is, in essence, why Stanford University emeritus professor of mathematics R. James Milgram—the only academic mathematician on Common Core’s validation committee— refused to sign off on the final draft. Milgram has noted that Common Core’s math standards have “extremely serious failings,” reflect “very low expectations,” and, by the seventh grade, leave American students two years behind their international peers.

Common Core does not prepare students for Algebra I in eighth grade, which is critical to college readiness in mathematics. Bennington College physics professor Jason Zimba, lead writer of Common Core’s math standards, admitted as much during a Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, noting that passing a Common Core-aligned test in math would ensure only that Massachusetts students would be qualified to enroll in a non-selective community or state college.

The news is no better in English language arts. Massachusetts’s success was based on a relentless focus on academics, specifically on classic literature, fiction, poetry, and drama, thanks largely to the handiwork of 1993 reform law co-author Tom Birmingham and former state education official Sandra Stotsky. In contrast, Common Core emphasizes experiential, skills-based learning and “informational texts.” Its anti-intellectual bent includes much more emphasis on nonfiction and analyzing texts shorn of historical context and background knowledge.

Despite the commissioner’s protests to the contrary, Massachusetts students’ exposure to literature will indeed be reduced by more than half. He can claim to augment Common Core with Massachusetts-specific “suggested author lists,” but adopting Common Core comes with the limitation that states add no more than 15 percent of state-specific content. National assessments will cover the Common Core’s “national” content, not state augmentations, so Chester’s author suggestions will receive scant attention in the classroom. Goodbye Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Will Common Core work? The Core itself has never been field tested. However, some of its features, such as a focus on workforce development and non-academic skills, have been implemented. The results were dismal.

West Virginia’s enthusiastic embrace of 21st century skills has led to troubling impacts on poor students. The Mountain State is the only state that saw its NAEP reading and math scores for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch fall between 2003 and 2009.

And consider Commissioner Chester’s own history in Connecticut. Back in 1998, when Chester served as chief of the state’s Bureau of Curriculum and Instructional Programs, Connecticut had higher reading scores than Massachusetts. Just as the Bay State was adopting clearly articulated academic goals, Connecticut opted for a “hands-on,” skills-based approach. By 2005, Massachusetts’s NAEP scores had jumped dramatically; in contrast, Connecticut was one of seven states that experienced outsized drops in reading scores.

Former Massachusetts Governor William Weld agrees with Birmingham, his fellow education reform co-author, calling our move to national standards “a retrograde step.” Even edupundit Michael Petrilli, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, otherwise a cheerleader for Common Core, recently called Massachusetts’s decision to drop its standards “unfortunate.” Thomas Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, told The Boston Globe, “Our standards in Massachusetts are clearly higher than what the federal government is proposing.” And Ravitch, while in Boston, noted that the Massachusetts reforms and the MCAS “involve writing…thoughtful literature, and a thoughtful selection of questions.”

Commissioner Chester skirts the dubious legality of imposing national standards and fails to tell us what it will cost to implement them. Moreover, he wants us to believe lower goals for our students will prepare them better than the more rigorous standards we have had in place. As a Rhodes Scholar from Chelsea who knows a thing or two about academic excellence, equity, and international competitiveness, Tom Birmingham is worthy of far greater trust on this topic. He described Massachusetts’s adoption of Common Core as “a high-risk move that offers very little reward.”

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute.


Despite Stergios’s assertion to the contrary, the evidence doesn’t support the notion that the sky is falling. He hasn’t done his homework or is intentionally misleading people.

Stergios’s claim that students will have less exposure to literature belies the fact that districts have always included informational and literary texts in the curriculum—because our prior curriculum frameworks as well as MCAS have promoted informational passages, as do NAEP and international tests like PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS.

While Stergios casts aspersions on our latest nation-leading NAEP results, he overlooks the 2011 TIMSS on which Massachusetts eighth graders placed among the world leaders in mathematics and science achievement; scored double-digits gains since 2007; and achieved the strongest mathematics gains and second-strongest science gains worldwide when compared to 1999.

Despite our accomplishments, employers report that too many of our high school graduates are unprepared for the literacy and mathematics expectations of the workplace, while 40 percent of graduates who enter the state’s public higher education system are placed in remedial courses. In the past five years, Massachusetts has accelerated its reform efforts. Incorporating the Common Core is part of a comprehensive strategy—one that includes improved teaching and learning, accelerated turnaround of our lowest performing schools, and more strategic leverage of technology—to ensure that all students are ready for the world they will encounter after high school.


The commissioner has lost sight of the purpose of education reform in Massachusetts. The architects of our landmark reform were not content with preventing the sky from falling. They reached for the stars, believing that Massachusetts kids could be the best educated in the world. Given our demographics and educational patrimony, we should aim for nothing less.

Meet the Author

Jim Stergios

Executive Director, Pioneer Institute
The commissioner cites one data point to support his position: fast improvement among eighth graders on TIMSS. While valid, two observations are worth making. The TIMSS eighth-grade data point is based on a limited sample of students. Further, it stands as a lonely flag in a landscape littered with stagnant NAEP and MCAS scores across all grades. The consistent flat-lining of early grade scores is particularly concerning. Second, the improvement on TIMSS occurred while the previous Massachusetts state standards were in place. So again I ask: How will less rigorous national standards raise our kids’ level of academic achievement?

As for raising the specter that I am misleading people, the commissioner should tread lightly. A Superior Court judge has suggested that Chester lied under oath, finding in a decision about the tainted approval of a Gloucester charter school “a strong factual showing that the Commissioner, despite his affidavit to the contrary, did not perform his own evaluation of the…application but, to the contrary, ignored the state regulations and caved into political pressure…”