Romney’s right to oppose Common Core (even if wrong on facts)

Doug Lasken

Doug Lasken

Many education activists were high-fiving in September when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finally attacked President Obama’s signature education initiative, the Common Core State Standards. It was a long time coming, though it hasn’t quite come yet.

The Common Core standards are national academic standards that will replace the often shoddy and substandard standards (if that’s not an oxymoron) of the 45 states and District of Columbia that have approved adoption. As someone who consulted for the Fordham and Pioneer Institutes on assessing the states’ English Language Arts standards in the run-up to Common Core, I can attest that many states have abominable ELA standards in which, often, a functionally illiterate student can be certified proficient in reading. Ironically, one of the causes of such shoddy state standards is the federal government’s last major attempt at reform, the Bush-era No Child Left Behind initiative, which enacted harsh penalties for states whose students do not test proficient in reading and math. The bar was set impossibly high, culminating in the Lake Wobegon-esque requirement that all children test proficient in reading and math by 2014. It should be no surprise that many states reacted to this unrealistic demand by degrading their standards to the point that the definition of “proficiency” would be low enough to escape the Department of Education’s ideological fervor.

So what’s wrong with high standards? Nothing, of course, but the federal government’s ability to implement such a vast, one-size-fits-all program is questionable. For instance, in California we already have world-class, rigorous standards, developed by us a decade ago without federal pressure. We spent about $2 billion writing and implementing those standards, so the question naturally arises why we should spend hundreds of millions more replacing them. The California Department of Education’s cost-benefit analysis (page 8) of the statewide cost of Common Core implementation estimates $600 million for new textbooks, new standards for English learners, and training of teachers and principals. This does not include the cost of writing and implementing a replacement for the state standardized test, the CST, which will cost further hundreds of millions. EdSource estimated two years ago that Common Core could cost as much as $1.6 billion to implement in California.

Whatever the cost, there will be no matching federal funds to offset the cost. The state will pay all of it. One might well ask why Gov. Jerry Brown accepts this unfunded mandate and unnecessary expense at the same time that he asks us to vote for Proposition 30 to increase our taxes in support of the state’s insolvent schools.

Beyond California’s situation, there are a host of concerns with Common Core that have been expressed over the last two years by large numbers of right-of-center Republicans, a constituency that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a centrist by nature, hopes to retain. These range from Constitutional questions about the federal government managing local education, to fears of a federal (or, per some circles, a global) attempt to control the social views of children. It was only a matter of time before Romney’s number crunchers noticed the votes to be mined, many in swing states, by going after Common Core.

Strangely, however, Romney and his consultants got the facts wrong, as one gathered from the title of the Education Week article that detailed Romney’s September statements in opposition to Common Core: “Romney, No (to) Federal Support for Common Core.” What federal support? The total amount of money designated to states that adopt Common Core is $360 million, and that is reserved for designing assessments, not Common Core implementation. The estimated cost of nationwide adoption and implementation, per the Pioneer Institute, is $10 billion, considered by many a low-ball estimate. The states are to pay the whole tab! But Romney, quoted by Ed Week, says, “I don’t happen to believe that every time there’s an initiative that comes along, the federal government should finance it.” Really? Then he should be happy with Common Core.

Romney continues: “It’s one thing to put it out as a model and let people adopt it as they will, but to financially reward states based upon accepting the federal government’s idea of a curriculum, I think, is a mistake.”

The misconception continued in the Oct. 15 debate between Obama education adviser Jon Schnur and Romney advisor Phil Handy, when Handy, as quoted in EdSource, again complained that the federal government is financially rewarding states for adopting the standards.

Thus Romney and his consultants have inadvertently agreed with Obama policy, which clearly adheres to the principal that the states should not be financially rewarded for adopting the national standards.

One might argue that Romney’s consultants have earned their keep just by putting him on record against Common Core, but they are throwing away the votes of people who are hearing about Common Core for the first time, which is puzzling. Average voters are not going to feel like mastering the constitutional issues, or ponder hypothetical scenarios of federal control of children’s minds. I long ago had to forgo all hope that politicians would express my own problem with Common Core: Standards should not be a priority when schools are going bankrupt.

What do voters care about? We can look to the campaign for the answer: Money, jobs, the recession. Well then, Common Core is tailor-made for an economic argument. Why is President Obama coercing the states into coughing up billions they don’t have for standards they either don’t need or don’t need right this second? Just to make publishers and test writing companies rich?

Seems like a solid campaign line, doesn’t it? But you take the wind out of its sails when you get the facts wrong and insist on the right of states not to receive any funds for Common Core. That right has already been granted. Gov. Romney should take a closer look at this issue. It’s a guaranteed vote getter if he gets the details right.

Doug Lasken taught 25 years for Los Angeles Unified, 15 years as an elementary teacher and 10  as a high school English teacher before retiring in 2009. After retirement he taught English for the UCLA Writing Project at Handong University in South Korea. Doug currently works part-time as debate coach at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California. He served four years on the Content Review Panel for the California Star Test, and has consulted for WestEd and the Pioneer and Fordham Institutes. He and his wife have three children, all graduates of Los Angeles Unified. 

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26 Responses to “Romney’s right to oppose Common Core (even if wrong on facts)”

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  1. Marcus H.L on Oct 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm10/29/2012 12:08 pm

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    I have not come to any final conclusions on the subjects covered. However, the clarity of Mr.Lasken’s thinking, and the thoughtful responses this inspires, is helping me to think about ‘facts’, and not get caught up in ideological opposites or the impassioned mindless manipulations of the right, left, or centrifuge!
    Thank you Mr.Lasken: you inspire dialogue with facts rather than emotions based mindless rhetoric. We need more discussions of this quality.
    I will follow your site daily, Marcus

  2. Doug Lasken on Oct 26, 2012 at 9:03 am10/26/2012 9:03 am

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    It sure would. It took me a while to gather you’re correcting my spelling. Do I spy a fellow English teacher?

  3. Patricia Morris on Oct 25, 2012 at 7:22 pm10/25/2012 7:22 pm

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    A policy can adhere to a principle, not to a principal as your article states. Well, perhaps the Obama policy could adhere to a principal, but that would be a sticky situation, wouldn’t it?

  4. Doug Lasken on Oct 25, 2012 at 11:16 am10/25/2012 11:16 am

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    Graft can be politically inspiring too.

  5. Suzanne on Oct 25, 2012 at 10:24 am10/25/2012 10:24 am

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    Doug’s opinion is just that – a politically inspired opinion. The facts do not support his straw man.

  6. Doug Lasken on Oct 25, 2012 at 9:21 am10/25/2012 9:21 am

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    Ha ha!

  7. Doug Lasken on Oct 25, 2012 at 7:13 am10/25/2012 7:13 am

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    Enhancing students’ close reading of text is difficult when the state’s money goes to publishers rather than salaries of teachers, school nurses and librarians. The new standards will not address those aspects of school culture, the aspects presently in most dire need, and will in fact not address much pedagogy either. Here’s a quiz: One of the following is from the current CA 11th-12th grade ELA standards, the other from CCS. Can you guess which is which?

    A. “Analyze the way in which clarity of meaning is affected by the patterns of organization, hierarchical structures, repetition of the main ideas, syntax, and word choice in the text.”

    B. “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text,
    including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific
    word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or
    language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.”

    Answer: What’s the difference? It’s window dressing. In addition to planned obsolescence, a principal at play here is the Hawthorne Effect, named for a study that showed increased worker productivity whenever management payed attention to workers, regardless of the nature of management actions, which were random and meaningless in the study. There will be a quick thrill for CCS, a short honeymoon until the lack of fundamental change in American test scores becomes apparent, and then we will go on to the next shiny new set of standards featuring, perhaps, “really super-close reading of text.”


    • el on Oct 25, 2012 at 8:58 am10/25/2012 8:58 am

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      I googled to find the answer.

      Although I think both are meant to mean the same thing, I find the first to be gibberish and the second to be, well, more engaging and beautiful. :-)

  8. Bill Honig on Oct 25, 2012 at 4:34 am10/25/2012 4:34 am

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    Two comments: Firstly, while it is true that the national Common Core ELA Standards are based in good part on the previously adopted California standards, there are some major improvements–more attention to close reading of text, making arguments from text, building on the importance of core knowledge in history, science, and the liberal arts, and in California the adoption of more sophisticated methods for supporting English language learners through the new ELD standards being adopted by the State Board. These will be highly valuable. In math the changes are more profound–less topics and more in depth treatment. Especially at middle grades, the focus on and more instructional attention to the sophisticated use of fractions, decimals, ratio, proportion, percentage and a good slug of Algebra in the 8th grade for all students is crucial for later success in higher math and life. Teachers in California who have been given the chance to review these standards in organized groups have reacted positively to them and almost unanimously recognized that teaching these topics in depth will require a major pedagogical shift to bring out instructional practices in line with the world class high flyers.

    As to the second point, while there is some controversy over how much needs to be invested for optimum implementation, the idea that if we didn’t adopt new standards we could save substantial funds misses the mark. Professional development for teachers should be ongoing, no matter what standards are in place. In addition, the state never really did invest in implementing the previous reading standards and adoptions either in training or funding materials and most of our existing math materials are out of sync with international standards of excellence.

    The key to success in improving instruction is building teams at school sites centered around how to continually improve instruction based on these new standards, and the provision of first-class materials, useful feeback information, and supportive leadership to assist that effort. These strategies were used by just about every country or jurisdiction who are now international or national super-stars and who have substantially improved student performance over the past decade.

    Thus,the major point: these implementation efforts should be made regardless of the adoption of new standards, but the adoption of these much improved standards and being part of a national and state effort to translate them into effective instruction provides a powerful catalyst and a substantial boost to instuctional improvement. If adequately supported, these new standards and building the capacity to implement them promises to have a major impact on student learning and teacher performance.


    • el on Oct 25, 2012 at 8:54 am10/25/2012 8:54 am

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      Bill, that sounds great. But have you been involved in the financials at the district level lately?

      And how are schools going to give computerized assessments without computers and bandwidth?

      The philosophy sounds nice, and admittedly I am a little excited about the potential for truly good and interesting computer based assessment, IF it is used in the service of learning for the kids and the teachers. Oh so much potential there, that I fear will be wasted.

      The issue is that there are substantial practical and logistical difficulties involved in a time when staff is already carrying unsustainable loads and the future appears to bring more budget cuts rather than budget relief. There is a large backlog of significant needs in schools that have been deferred until the budget crisis is over. Adding this transition now, requiring that schools make this transition now regardless of their local priorities, is not helpful nor is it in the interest of the kids in school today.

  9. Ze'ev Wurman on Oct 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm10/24/2012 10:45 pm

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    el: You write that the “advantage only accrues to kids crossing state lines and to companies selling Common Core materials.”

    I would like point out that the upper bound on inter-state student mobility is about 1.5% and the lower one at about 0.3%. Do you really consider it wise to invest so much money if that is the reason?

    Ben Riley: Your comparison of uniform educational standards with uniform rail gauge is not cheeky — it is disingenuous. Students are not uniform widgets and states don’t have uniform cultures. If there was a single best known way to teach math to all, we would have uniform standards across the world long ago. But you are right in that the Common Core creates an opportunity to change and experiment — a very expensive one, done in haste, under external time pressures (the 2014-15 test) without funding, in time of economic recession. The wasted “stimulus” money on “shovel ready” non-existent projects is nothing compared to the waste this headless rush will cost a system that spends in excess of half a trillion dollars every year.


    • el on Oct 25, 2012 at 8:47 am10/25/2012 8:47 am

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      No Ze’ev, I don’t think it is a wise use of California money at all, and certainly not at a year when we’re getting only 60% of the promised ADA money in cash this fiscal year on top of the money they just decided never to send us.

      Materials do have to be bought eventually, and in the longer term I have no objection to a transition to Common Core on a schedule that makes sense to and is driven by California educators.

  10. Ben Riley on Oct 24, 2012 at 1:07 pm10/24/2012 1:07 pm

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    I wonder if conservatives oppose a national, one-size-fits-all commitment to the standard railway gauge, or to the standard that we drive on the right-hand side of the road.

    On a slightly less cheeky note, the author has a point that the conversion to Common Core will cost money. Instead of using that as an excuse, we should be making a commitment at all levels of government — federal, state and local — to make the necessary investment in improving our education system. At the same time, we might use this opportunity to rethink instructional delivery and other education practices that are outdated. Do we need textbooks, for example? Can we give teacher more control over their own professional development? The transition to Common Core presents an opportunity to innovate, I hope California does not shrink from the challenge.


    • el on Oct 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm10/24/2012 1:27 pm

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      As you state, the Common Core transition costs money, and there’s no real advantage for a state like California to transition quickly versus slowly, either for the state or for our students. The advantage only accrues to kids crossing state lines and to companies selling Common Core materials.

      I don’t object to a transition to Common Core, but I do think it should be locally managed, and not based on a timeline from someone in an office 3,000 miles away. I also think if you gave me say $XXX (where X is large) in money to spend in the next year for the next best thing the students in our district needs, I’d spend it upgrading the electrical system so that we can install air conditioning and all the computers that the new computer-based assessments are going to require. Another school might want to add, say, internet bandwidth sufficient for a classroom or more of kids to be online at once.

      I’d also elect to stagger the adoption of common core one subject at a time so that issues with the kids transitioning from one curriculum to the other can be worked out (the kids always suffer at least temporarily from a curriculum transition; I don’t know why this isn’t obvious to everyone) and so that teachers can get the professional development they need with a minimum disruption to their other duties.

      • Doug Lasken on Oct 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm10/24/2012 2:44 pm

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        El makes some good points, particularly on the difficulties that students and teachers face with any sort of fundamental change. We already went through an extremely intense and expensive transition with CA’s current standards. Since those standards are excellent, why buy new ones, especially at a time when we are asked to vote to increase our taxes with Prop. 30 to save our schools?

        • el on Oct 25, 2012 at 8:42 am10/25/2012 8:42 am

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          I don’t think we’ve even had a single generation of kids get through with the current set of standards, have we?

          The standards all have their assumptions about what is taught in 5th grade, 6th grade, etc. When the new standard comes along and stuff that used to be taught in 5th is now taught in 6th and stuff that used to be taught in 6th is now in 5th and the style of response is different, all the kids (even the proficient ones) need substantial ‘remedial’ work to get on grade level with the new materials. If we’re doing that, we should be doing it in a time when we’re adding professional development days and classroom time. Imagine trying to stuff it into a 160 day school year…

    • Doug Lasken on Oct 24, 2012 at 2:37 pm10/24/2012 2:37 pm

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      My point is not that the CCS are bad standards, but that they are not an important priority when our schools are facing insolvency. The “commitment at all levels of government” which the author refers to does not exist. What exists is $10 billion in pork for publishers. The Common Core standards will hang on the wall while new teachers, school nurses and librarians are laid off.

  11. Sandra Ceja on Oct 24, 2012 at 11:54 am10/24/2012 11:54 am

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    I have not met an educator in California that does not see that the Common Core State Standards are a significant improvement to our prior state standards for both language arts and mathematics. Preparing our students for college and career success cannot be underfunded or ignored.


    • Doug Lasken on Oct 24, 2012 at 2:30 pm10/24/2012 2:30 pm

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      It seems you are claiming to have met every educator in California, but you have not met me, and I consider the Common Core Standards and the current CA standards six of one, half a dozen of the other. I taught with the current standards and know they are highly rigorous. The vogue is to trash them, but that is a mantra generated from publishers, who routinely trash whatever standards came before so they can make the big sale every ten years. One might add that the Fordham Institute, which supports CCS, found CA’s standards to be world class and gave them its highest rating. The publishing and testing industries are following Detroit with its “planned obsolescence” of car models. CCS is not better; it’s just slightly different. It’s also pork.

      and I compared them when I consulted for Fordham, and it’s a wash (Fordham itself, which supports CCS, gave CA’s current standards its highest rating.

  12. Gavin Payne on Oct 24, 2012 at 10:50 am10/24/2012 10:50 am

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    Talk about getting the facts wrong. The Common Core State Standards are not a Presidential, nor a federal, initiative. They were developed by state governors and chief state school officers, then adopted pursuant to applicable state rules in 45+ states. With regard to candidate Romney, in other venues he has publicly supported states’ rights to develop their own standards.
    What the author gets right is that the standards are highly aspirational goals for our young people. States are now embarked on the hard work of implementing them with fidelity.


    • Doug Lasken on Oct 24, 2012 at 2:20 pm10/24/2012 2:20 pm

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      The Common Core Standards are indeed a federal initiative, not in the sense that the Dept. of Ed. can order states to adopt them, but in the sense that unless they adopt them they don’t get any RTTT funds, the same carrot and stick passive-aggressive management the feds use with Title I funding. It’s a loophole in the Constitution, which clearly relegates education to the states. Regarding Romney, I made no point about his stand on states’ rights, only on his misperception that the states get significant federal funding for CCS. They do not.

    • stlgretchen on Oct 24, 2012 at 6:08 pm10/24/2012 6:08 pm

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      The Common Core standards ARE developed by the NGA and the CCSSO. Both are private corporations. Unaccountable to taxpayers. Funded by the Federal government to develop the standards. The Feds then tell states if they want waivers from the NCLB they must adopt the CCSS.

      Cozy little government/private corporation relationship, eh? Reminiscent of Solyndra? With all due respect, they are Federally funded and states were coerced into jumping out of one Federal frying pan (NCLB) into another tainted with Federal money and mandates.

      The standards should be left up to the states. Originally, perhaps they WERE state led. However, David Coleman and company are not state leaders and these are not state initiatives. They are, at the end of the day, a move toward a national curriculum, which, is illegal. Arne Duncan insists that they won’t create a national curriculum but he also says everybody needs to be college/career ready and enter a college/training program.

      Does that remind anyone of the NCLB of 100% proficiency goal by 2014? Utopian nonsense then, utopian nonsense now. So how many more billions of dollars are we going to waste on goals/standards that won’t work?

      • Doug Lasken on Oct 25, 2012 at 9:55 am10/25/2012 9:55 am

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        Good point about NCLB- the states are being held hostage under threat of implementation of impractical and incompetently conceived provisions of one federal education fiefdom , NCLB, to support another, CCS. The terms “extortion” and “incompetence” come to mind.

      • navigio on Oct 25, 2012 at 10:22 am10/25/2012 10:22 am

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        While I agree with everything Gretchen says, I think its important to remember what the driver for federal involvement in education was. IMHO, ESEA was nothing short of a civil rights act. When states were left to manage their own education policy all that was made clear was that they were really good at discrimination. In fact, most of them are still really good at it (I remember just a couple years ago looking at the credentialed teacher rate at a bunch of LAUSD schools and being shocked by the disparities, which of course were correlated with the makeup of the student body. This is today, not 50 years ago.).
        NCLB is something else in the sense that it tries to pile the concept of ‘prove it or lose it’ accountability onto the allocation/usage of those funds. I think that law should have been seen as a harbinger to the now all too common mantra that we might as well give up on poor/minority kids because the cost of educating them is simply too high. We’ve seen it in the Williams case in CA, we’ve seen it in states starting to adjust their performance metrics to explicitly lower expectations based on race, we’ve even seen it with education secretaries who have said they dont want to see public education succeed–some implicitly, some even explicitly. While I dont agree with NCLB’s tactics, I do think the goals of ESEA should not be forgotten.
        And although I dont necessarily want to get caught up in the political discussion, I will point out that anyone who bothers to read Romney’s education ‘policy’ (there was an article here recently that discussed it) will find all the same rhetoric that surrounds NCLB, RTTT, waivers and the reform movement. He has no problem imposing blackmail on states for policy. The only difference is what policy he hopes to elicit with that blackmail. Viewed from the standpoint of states’ rights vs federal role, that makes his policy indistinguishable from NCLB, RTTT and waivers. IMHO.

        • Doug Lasken on Oct 25, 2012 at 10:32 am10/25/2012 10:32 am

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          I don’t see what the Common Core standards have to do with under-served minorities. That money is going to publishers, test writers, staff development wonks, etc.. not classroom infrastructure (teachers, etc.) where its really needed.

          • navigio on Oct 25, 2012 at 11:02 am10/25/2012 11:02 am

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            Sorry you misunderstood my comment. I was referring to the theme of the federal role in education, which underlies the article and many of the comments, and which you called ‘extortion’ and hostage holding, and what Gretchen likened to the frying pan of NCLB. That of course is relevant given that this article is about a presidential candidate’s education policy (at least as it applies to CCS). I have a lot of comments about common core itself, but I will wait a bit longer on those..

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