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No Love for Common Core? Why Tom Loveless Misses the Mark

February 17, 2012

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

According to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, “The Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement.” 

To prove this, he draws on research from 2009 conducted by his colleague, Russ Whitehurst. Essentially, Whitehurst found that the quality of state standards (as judged by our own Fordham analyses as well as analyses conducted by the AFT) did not correlate with state NAEP scores. More specifically, he found that “states with weak content standards score about the same on NAEP as those with strong standards.”


Hardly. What Loveless conveniently ignores is the second—and arguably more significant—element of Whitehurst’s research. In short, Whitehurst “concluded that the effects of curriculum on student achievement are larger, more certain, and less expensive than the effects of popular reforms such as common standards…” (Emphasis added.)

His point is that setting standards alone does very little, but that a thoughtfully and faithfully implemented rigorous curricula can move the achievement needle, sometimes dramatically.

While one could chose to pit those two policy advancements against it each other (standards versus curriculum), a much more logically way to view it is that while strong standards provide a solid foundation, you still need to build the schoolhouse. For education reformers trying to drive the needle on student achievement, the process should start by setting clear and rigorous standards, but it certainly can’t end there.

That’s the Fordham view. As we have long acknowledged, standards alone will do little but adorn classroom bookshelves if not aligned to summative, interim, and formative assessments in terms of both content and rigor, and if not tied to meaningful district-, school-, and classroom-level accountability.

This is a point that Whitehurst himself acknowledges. In 2009, he argued that “high quality common standards” can affect student achievement, but only

“in a system in which there are also aligned assessments, and aligned curriculum, and accountability for educators, and accountability for students, and aligned professional development, and managerial autonomy for school leaders, and teachers who drawn from the best and brightest, and so on.”

That’s hardly the damning critique of common standards that Loveless portrays.

What’s more, contrary to the picture Loveless paints, there is some evidence that the right combination of clear and rigorous standards, thoughtful implementation, and accountability can drive achievement. In Massachusetts—a state that has had among the nation’s most rigorous standards in place for more than a decade and that has aligned its entire education system around implementation of those standards—great standards seem to jump started large gains in achievement for all students.

But, even more interesting than the fact that Massachusetts leads the nation in terms of overall student achievement is the fact that the lowest performing students from the Bay State outperform their peers around the nation. As do the highest performing students. As I wrote in March of 2010:

“…students scoring in Massachusetts's bottom 25% [on the 2009 Reading NAEP] score higher than students in the bottom 25% of any other state in the nation. And students scoring in the top 25% perform better than students in the top 25% of any other state.In other words, thanks in large part to adopting rigorous standards and to using these standards to drive curriculum and instruction across the state, Massachusetts has lifted all of its students."

That said, Loveless is certainly right that standards—no matter how clear or how rigorous—are not a panacea that will transform our education system. But, setting clear and rigorous standards, as many states did by adopting the Common Core, is a critical first step towards driving achievement. Now it’s up to the states to commit themselves to properly implementing them.

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