(Jan-Erik Finnberg, Flickr)

Ever since the release of A Nation at Risk, in 1983, the government report issued by Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, which warned of the threat posed by the declining academic performance of American students, the United States has been in a period of perpetual education “reform.” Education policy has been characterized by a series of sweeping initiatives that politicians claim will transform our schools and propel our children from mediocrity to the top of the heap in academic performance.


The new Common Core academic standards adopted by forty-five states and Washington, DC, are just the latest version of “silver bullet” reforms promoted as cure-alls for what ails American education. According to its advocates, the Common Core will dramatically lift standards and boost the academic performance of students. Education Secretary Arne Duncan touts the new standards as a “game-changer,” and others, like New York State Education Commissioner John King and David Coleman, president of the College Board, who played a leading role in drafting the new standards, use terms like “internationally benchmarked,” “robust” and “evidence-based” to extol the benefits of the new policy.

In a paper recently published by the Economic Policy Institute, Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein demonstrate that concerns about our sagging international competitiveness have been greatly exaggerated. American students have actually done fairly well on recent exams. Nonetheless, the authors point out, concentrated poverty and disparities in income and quality of life are dragging down average student performance. The Common Core does not address these problems. And despite a national commission report calling for greater attention to equity in education, the Obama administration has done relatively little to address these issues.

Further doubts about the benefits of the Common Core have been fueled by the way New York decided to implement them. Rather than take the time to prepare teachers and students with a new curriculum, the state decided to assess students first. As expected, the proportion of students rated “proficient” plummeted; the decline was greatest in urban and high poverty areas.

Poor implementation has in turn generated fierce critics and growing opposition to the new standards. Though generally a supporter, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has recently called for a moratorium on using results from the new assessments to make “high stakes” judgments about teachers. In Port Jefferson Station, on Long Island, superintendent Joseph Rella went so far as to lead a protest with parents and teachers over the way the new Common Core assessments were implemented. Rella called out State Education Commissioner John King for embracing an approach to implementing the new assessments that has left teachers and administrators in the position of “passengers on a plane being built in midair.” Rella asserted, “Any test designed to have 70 percent of the children taking it fail is abusive.” He added, “Today, we are canceling our flight reservations.”

Opposition to the Common Core is also growing among conservatives, who cite it as yet another example of federal intrusion into state governance over education. Several states that approved the Common Core in order to receive federal Race to the Top funding are holding off on implementation as public pressure and legislative opposition grow.

Defenders of the Common Core, like the editorial board of The New York Times, assert that despite the initial pain and discomfort, over time it will lead to dramatically higher levels of student performance. Like phonics, small schools, charter schools and No Child Left Behind (the mother of all silver-bullet reforms), the Common Core has been promoted as a policy that will magically transform what and how students learn—even as it fails to address the conditions under which teaching and learning occur. Canadian policy analyst Michael Fullan has argued that the United States will not make progress in improving its schools because it relies on what he calls the “wrong drivers”—“using test results and teacher appraisals to reward or punish teachers and schools,” and “promoting individual versus group solutions”—instead of focusing on developing the capacity of schools and educators to meet the educational and social needs of students and improving the culture of underperforming schools.

Such an approach has worked in Ontario, where a significant number of schools serving disadvantaged children have markedly improved. It has also worked in working-class cities like Brockton, Massachusetts, and Union City, New Jersey. Despite these models, policy-makers continue to be drawn to supposed panaceas like the Common Core. It may be that a left-right coalition will force the government to adopt a different approach. But even if that happens, it is still not clear that would-be reformers, so enamored of their silver bullets, will recognize that they will reach their abstract performance goals only if we change how things are done in our schools.

David L. Kirp looked at “The Rebellion Against High-Stakes Testing” in the May 27 issue of The Nation.