ESSA poses another challenge to Common Core

New law strips away rewards and sanctions used to encourage states to adopt Common Core
By: | March 18, 2016

The push to establish national academic benchmarks may have been dealt yet another blow by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Nearly two dozen states began revising the Common Core after the new law reaffirmed their authority to create their own standards.

As of this writing, three states had reversed their adoption of the Common Core: Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Four states—Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia—never adopted the standards. And one state—Minnesota—adopted only the English language arts standards.

“Standards-based reform is in a state of flux right now” says Andy Porter, director of the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning, a federally-funded organization that studies the impact that state standards have on learning.

ESSA stripped away No Child Left Behind waivers and other rewards and sanctions that the U.S. Department of Education used to encourage many states to adopt Common Core. “Each state now has a lot more freedom and flexibility to go their own route” Porter says. “There is certainly a movement away from the commitment to common standards across states.”

Support wanes, but results positive

The general public’s support for the Common Core fell from 65 percent in 2013 to 49 percent in 2015, according to a poll on school reform in the January issue of Education Next.

And it’s not just the name “Common Core.” Public support for “shared standards” dropped from 68 percent in 2014 to 54 percent in 2015. Teacher support for the standards also slid, from 76 percent in 2013 to 40 percent in 2015.

Despite the backlash, the past two years have seen the largest jump in the quality of state standards since they were established as part of the federal accountability program, according to a recent Education Next report.

Researchers rated the rigor of state standards based on the difference in fourth- and eighth-graders’ math and reading scores on state and NAEP exams. By this scale, 36 states increased the rigor of their standards since 2013, while five made them less rigorous. Seven states left their standards unchanged.

“It is interesting that these standards have shot upward at a time when public opinion and teacher opinion has been moving in the opposite direction” says Paul E. Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and lead author of the report and poll.

“The name Common Core has been demonized” Peterson adds, “but even the idea of having national standards, which used to have widespread support, has lost ground.”

Administrator advice

It may be difficult for administrators to navigate standards that are repeatedly revised by their states, says Andy Porter of the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction and Learning.

To effectively redesign instruction, teachers need high-quality, standards-aligned material, such as textbooks, online resources and worksheets. Some states, including New York, have built online databases of these materials that educators can access for free.

Teachers also need professional development to keep instruction current.

“Be clear about what you want students to master and teachers to teach” Porter says. “Having a clear goal and pursuing it with vigor is in the best interest of students.”