Common Core will hurt school choice

Editor’s note:  Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. 

Jason Bedrick

Jason Bedrick

Earlier this week, Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up for Students, argued that Common Core can help school choice. Tuthill is a champion of school choice whose organization has helped hundreds of thousands of Florida students attend their preferred schools. That’s why it is all the more disappointing to see him advocating for a policy that would undermine the very system of diverse educational options that he’s worked tirelessly to promote.

In Tuthill’s view, common standards merely “serve the same function as the operating systems in computers or smart phones” in that they provide a common platform that’s open to an “endless supply” of different applications (curricula, lesson plans, activities, etc.) that can be customized by users.

But Common Core is not just an open-platform operating system. As Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has written, standards-based accountability requires a “tripod of standards, testing, and accountability.” My colleague, Neal McCluskey, has pointed out that a system of national standards like Common Core requires a “national tripod”: “all schools must use the same standards and tests to compare how all kids are doing, and there must be uniform punishments for schools that do not do well.”

Tuthill claims there’s nothing to fear because private schools and their parents “value their autonomy. They will oppose government efforts to mandate curriculum or instructional strategies.” But the government doesn’t have to mandate a curriculum to control content. When standards are tied to tests by which a school’s performance is evaluated, schools will have little choice but to conform. The tests will de facto dictate content: what concepts are taught when and perhaps even how. As James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute has written:

The fact is that curriculum standards don’t tell teachers how to teach in the same way that a high jump bar doesn’t tell a jumper how to jump. You could theoretically jump over a high jump bar in whatever way you would like; but because of how the jump is structured there is a clear advantage to doing the old Fosbury Flop.

Rather than providing a mere operating system, it’s as though Apple told app-designers they could make any kind of app they want so long as all the apps perform the same basic function, operate at the same speed, and cost the same amount. Of course, they’re welcome to vary the color scheme.

This wouldn’t be a concern if Common Core were truly “voluntary” for private schools, as Tuthill asserts it is. If someone doesn’t like the iPhone, at least they can switch to Android, but there will be no viable alternative to Common Core. As Tuthill explains elsewhere in his post:

That our country’s two primary college entrance exams, the ACT and SAT, are aligning their assessments to Common Core is also motivating private schools and their parents to embrace these standards. Private school parents want their children to be college ready when they leave high school, and private school administrators know this. Consequently, private schools are embracing the new standards to meet parental expectations.

This is more than mere “motivating.” If the SAT and ACT are aligned to Common Core, then private schools will have little choice but to align as well. Tuthill calls this “voluntary” for private schools but the choice is between adopting Common Core or putting your school’s students at a disadvantage on these tests relative to students from other schools. Of course, lower average performance on tests like the SAT means a decreased probability of students getting into their preferred college, which will translate into fewer students attending your school.

In other words, parents and schools are not “embracing” the standards because they think they’re good, but rather because the standards are becoming the only viable path for their children to go to a good college. “If college entrance exams are Common-Core-ized,” explained Greg Forster, “it will be virtually impossible for private schools and homeschoolers to maintain any kind of alternative to the One Best Way.” That wouldn’t be a problem if there were a One Best Way in education, but there isn’t.

Tuthill also argues that Common Core will make it easier for students to switch schools. “Knowing that many schools are using the same operating system (i.e., the same standards) can help reassure parents that their children are able to receive a seamless, high quality education from diverse providers.”

What Tuthill calls “diverse providers” will merely be different schools claiming to offer a better quality version of almost the exact same product. Switching schools may become easier, but that is a very high price to pay at the expense of true diversity of options. As Professor Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas has explained:

Common Core is inducing reformers to ignore and even denigrate choice-based reforms because they have to deny one of the central arguments for choice — that there is a legitimate diversity of views on how and what our children should be taught that choice can help address.  If Common Core folks have any support left for choice it is to allow parents to choose the school that can best implement the centrally determined education content.  You can choose which McDonalds franchise you frequent so that they can compete to make the best Big Mac for you, but you are out of luck if you prefer pizza.

Rather than complement school choice, Common Core undermines it. To address the diverse needs of diverse children, we should be supporting an education system that provides a truly diverse array of options and entrusting parents to decide which option best meets the individual needs of their children. In exerting tremendous pressure on private schools to conform, Common Core would reduce the number and diversity of those options. Private schools and school choice advocates should consider very carefully where Common Core is taking us. There is still time to resist.

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11 Responses to Common Core will hurt school choice

  1. Duncan Frissell July 26, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    “That our country’s two primary college entrance exams, the ACT and SAT, are aligning their assessments to Common Core is also motivating private schools and their parents to embrace these standards.”

    I certainly oppose CC (not to mention government schools) but do we know this statement to be true?

    Current SAT tests are not conformed to a Classical Curriculum, but I don’t think Classical students have trouble with the SAT. If you can read, write, and compute, can’t you test? What secret sauce will be in the new SATs that prevent well-educated students from doing well?

    • K. Light July 27, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

      The “Architect” of the Common Core State Standards in now the president of the College Board.

      College Board Names David Coleman New President
      Architect Of Common Core State Standards To Lead Nonprofit Education Organization
      http://press.collegeboard.org/releases/2012/college-board-names-david-coleman-new-president

    • Jorge Rodriguez July 30, 2013 at 10:36 am #

      The problem with education, I think, is the massive influx of students that while qualified to test, are subjected to the “Lowering The Standards Syndrome”. TLTSS is just another tool for the Liberal Agenda. My great, great, grandfather came to the U.S. at a very early age, in the late 1800′s. Back then you had to register to do anything and everything. Back then, it is said that the FIRST requirement of any child to go to school in the U.S., was to speak ENGLISH, those not fluent in English were sent to a learn ‘English School’ or go back home.
      That is what we need today… It seems that the Russians, Italians, Chinese, Koreans and every nationality is good with this… except some segments of the Latino populous. All the models have failed and we have LATINOS requiring Bilingual Assistance all the way from K through 12. That’s a waste of money that our government can do without. I understand 1st and 2nd grade, but through High School?, give me a break! Another problem to the solution is the politicians that are only there to climb the ladder to success on the backs of CITIZENS tax payers. They do this by looking the other way or sweeping it under the rug. They benefit by having those extra millions of individuals votes.
      My suggestion to a slow but accurate and money saving program that will test the abilities of every student in the reading writing and comprehension of the ENGLISH language. Once this is accessed, the student will be enrolled in a school prepared to teach those students at a level they can understand. Also ensuring that the student is here legally. Children of illegal individuals will NOT qualify for any of this program. So, in closing, I think this can benefit our economy, our education system and some what will curve the influx of illegal immigration into the United States of America. Thank You for your time and for the opportunity to share my comments.

    • Gz7 August 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

      After reading this article one would think that the federal government has authority regarding education. How far we have veered off the path of liberty!

  2. Kate Pitrone July 29, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    I have looked at the Common Core standards and they are truly basic, as in no challenge. I am writing that as a former homeschooling mother whose six kids did very well on the national standardized tests taken in the previous three decades, without knowing or caring what was on those tests. Seriously, mostly ninetieth percentile scores, though with some challenges in the spelling area for my dyslexic kids or the math computation area for those “dys” in that way. The tests were really so easy, save the badly written or downright wrong questions, but life is full of impossible things, as I would say to my kids. Educational basics are basic because they are what any teacher would cover anyway.

    Please, I keep trying to understand why this is a big deal. The Common Core standards are higher than those for NCLB, which has been a disaster for education. CC is not ideal, but is improvement and in public education we have seen so little of that.

    • MPDaddy November 17, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

      Setting aside the details of the specific Common Core standards (which I don’t yet fully understand), my concern is that Washington D.C. thinks it has the expertise to micromanage my child’s education. The attitude seems to be that the State knows best, in all things at all times.

      On the other hand, I understand that some sort of standard needs to be required if school districts want federal funding, and that perhaps these schools should not allow themselves to be so dependent on that money. On the other hand (yes, I have a lot of hands, thanks to a lifetime of consuming GMOs), the fact that a standard must exist does not mean the standard must rise to the level of micromanagement. And it’s hard to turn down federal funding when the federal tax rate is so high that raising taxes locally is impractical. On the other hand (yes, this is hand number 4), a case can be made that many of these schools are mismanaging their money and don’t really need the extra funding.

  3. Leana December 3, 2013 at 12:18 am #

    I am a college student and I’m taking a Math For Educators class as I wish to become a teacher. I’m being taught the common core standards, the teaching methods and the logistics that I’m to teach to future children. It’s gotten to the point where I have trouble understanding it sometimes. I’m all for education and functioning at higher levels but they’re telling me I have to teach a first grader pre-algebra? and a 4th grade division with fractions? no thank you. i didn’t learn fractions in equations until 6th or 7th grade. this is insane and i feel awful for the students who struggle but i’m sticking with this because, dammit, i’m gonna help them in any way that I can and I have to be on the inside to do that.

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