If there is a prime example of how one state mismanaged the implementation of the Common Core standards, triggering massive opposition, and how another did it deliberately, with a relatively smooth implementation and considerable public support, look no further than New York and California.
Unlike heavily Republican states where much of the opposition to the Common Core has emerged, New York and California have much in common. They both have large and diverse school populations (2.7 million students in New York, and 6.2 million in California). They are both heavily Democratic states. They both have progressive governors, with fathers who were iconic governors before them. Both have large and powerful teacher’s unions.
But their experience with the Common Core standards — and how Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Jerry Brown approached them — could not be more different, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the fate of one of the most significant education reforms affecting actual classroom instruction in the nation’s history.
Two weeks before Christmas, a blue ribbon task force appointed by Cuomo and headed by former AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons issued a harshly critical report, charging that “numerous mistakes were made” in New York’s implementation of the Common Core. It recommended a “comprehensive review” of the more than 1,500 Common Core standards in English and math. Following the review, it called for “a modification, elimination, or creation of standards” in order to come up with “rigorous New York-specific standards.”
No such soul-searching is happening in California.
It now appears that New York moved too quickly to implement the Common Core. Cuomo went head to head against New York’s teachers unions, insisting on linking the scores of students on Common Core-aligned tests to teacher evaluations. New York was only the second state to do so. However, students took the tests before most teachers had a chance to fully implement the standards or had materials to support instruction, which they say contributed to lower test scores.
By contrast, Brown expressed deep skepticism about using standardized tests for accountability purposes. An ally of teachers unions on many but not all issues, he resisted pressures from the Obama administration to link test scores to teacher evaluations. That was a condition for applying for federal funds from the Race to the Top program, and for a waiver from some of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.
Today, the teachers unions in New York are implacably opposed to the Common Core standards — while the leadership of the California Teachers Association, representing most of the state’s teachers, are fully supportive. (An EdSource/CTA poll of California teachers found that only 12 percent opposed the standards, while an Education Next poll found 50 percent of teachers nationally opposed them.)
It is easy now to forget that as both states began implementing the Common Core, New York received high praise in some quarters for moving more aggressively.
Here’s one example from a 2012 report by the Oakland-based Education Trust-West, which noted that California didn’t begin implementing the standards until the 2012-13 academic year, while New York began during the 2011-12 academic year.
“Rather than build upon its history of leadership, California has lagged behind other states, leaving hundreds of districts and thousands of schools without meaningful support,” the report said. It charged that “California’s failure to provide low-income, Latino, African-American and English learner students access to high-quality, standards-based instruction will leave them even more unprepared for college and the workplace.”
In contrast to California, the Ed Trust-West report said, “other states more quickly aligned myriad policies related to the standards, created coherent systems of professional development, and initiated collaborations with other states to benefit from economies of scale. For example, the New York State Education Department made curriculum units, modules, and other educator resources available in the summer of 2012.”
It is impossible to know what the long-term impact of California’s implementation schedule will be. But what is clear is that the Common Core is firmly in place in California, enjoying the support of its teachers unions and the Legislature, with little opposition from parents.
Despite Gov. Brown’s critiques of excessive use of tests, only 1 percent of students opted out of the Smarter Balanced tests, according to the California Department of Education. Meanwhile, even as Gov. Cuomo insisted on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable, opposition to Common Core-aligned tests soared in New York, where an estimated 20 percent opted out.
Where there is opposition in California, it seems to be largely concentrated in high-income high schools like Palos Verdes High — in a community with a median household income of $167,000 — where more than half of the 460 high school juniors opted out of the tests. The opt-out rates at those schools is based not so much on opposition to the Common Core standards per se, but on academic priorities. Taking the Smarter Balanced tests can cut into time students want to spend preparing for Advancement Placement and college entrance exams like the SATs, which have far more impact on their futures.
In an interview with EdSource last year, then-CTA president Dean Vogel said that California’s go-slow approach made sense in order to get teachers on board. In some other states, he said, “teachers are being handed curriculum that they’ve never seen before, that they’ve had no hand in putting together. .. And they’re saying, ‘Well, the Common Core is no different than all the nonsense that I’ve had shoved down my throat.’”
The difference in California?
“The governor and the governor’s staff, the State Board of Education, the state superintendent of public instruction, the legislative leadership, the teachers unions… all of these different groups are pretty much all on the same page, that we’ve got to go slowly,” Vogel said.
One sign of teacher embrace of the Common Core was the creation of the CTA-backed Instructional Leadership Corps consisting of 160 carefully selected lead teachers who help train other teachers in implementation of the new standards.
In New York, on the other hand, things have steadily unravelled.
Nearly two years ago, New York State United Teachers called for a moratorium on using Common Core-aligned tests to evaluate teachers, and demanded the removal of then-State Education Commissioner John King Jr. — who just succeeded Arne Duncan as acting U.S. secretary of education.
Legislative leaders also called for a moratorium on using the tests for teacher evaluation purposes or for promoting students to the next grade.
Last month’s report by the task force headed by Parsons essentially affirmed their criticisms, and raised serious doubts about the Common Core’s future in the state. Cuomo had earlier called for the panel to make recommendations for a “total reboot” of the standards.
The task force concluded that “the implementation of the Common Core standards and the rollout of the associated curricula and tests in New York were rushed and improperly implemented. The result has been disruption and unneeded anxiety in our schools and for students, parents and educators.”
In California, the state continues to move forward with Common Core implementation.
In his 2016-17 budget published last week, Gov. Brown proposed giving school districts an additional $1.2 billion in discretionary funds they could spend on the Common Core — on top of $2.4 billion in discretionary dollars awarded over the past two years for Common Core-related activities.
Not that Common Core implementation in California has been without challenges, and many remain.
Despite California’s relatively slow pace, the state began testing students on the Common Core before many districts had a chance to fully implement the standards, and before appropriate curriculum materials were available. But unlike in New York, test scores won’t be used to assess how schools in California are doing at least for another year. After that, students’ scores will only be one of several elements that will be used to judge school performance.
Other challenges include providing enough professional development to teachers so they can implement the standards effectively, using the results of the Smarter Balanced tests to inform classroom instruction as promised, and to ensure that the new standards actually translate into improved academic performance.
There has also been criticism that billions of discretionary state dollars will be spent with no assurance that any of the money will actually support implementation of the standards and without any way to track how it was spent.
For now, California can focus its energies and resources on trying to make sure the Common Core standards deliver on their promises, rather than trying to defend them against attacks from unhappy parents, teachers and lawmakers. That is New York’s burden.