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Yes, Secretary DeVos, There is a Common Core

USC Professor and FutureEd senior fellow Morgan Polikoff has been studying education standards since graduate school and supports the voluntary national standards known as the Common Core. So we wondered how he would respond to U.S Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s recent comments about the current status of the Common Core.

DeVos said in a recent interview: “There really isn’t any Common Core anymore.” Is that true?

As a matter of politics, I think this comment makes sense. Secretary DeVos was originally a supporter of Common Core, and at this point my guess is that her opposition to the standards is more political than it is substantive. Saying something like this allows her to basically neuter the standards issue. This is useful for her for a couple reasons. First, she realistically can’t do that much about the standards—ESSA makes clear that the feds can’t tell states what standards to adopt. Second, she is clearly much more interested in other policies (notably, school choice) than she is in Common Core, so she probably just doesn’t want to talk about the standards much anymore.

As for the substance of the comment, I don’t think it’s particularly correct, but there is a kernel of truth to it. Certainly Common Core or a close variant still represents the official standards of record in 40-something states, so in that sense there still is a Common Core. But the testing consortia have largely disintegrated (especially PARCC), and states’ standards will drift away from Common Core over time as they are revised. So, yes, there is a Common Core. But it’s not as “common” as it once was.

You support having nationwide standards. Why?

The most obvious reason is that it's hard to justify why the curriculum is any different if you're in Kansas City, Kansas, versus Kansas City, Missouri, right? Math is math. So just from that standpoint, it's hard to see why there should be different standards. But we also know that kids are increasingly mobile. Or at least the perception is that children are mobile, that we're an increasingly national economy and even a global economy, and so having, for instance, one state that has a set of standards that is much lower than another state, that doesn't prepare students for success in college, doesn't really make sense.

But given the politics of the past few years, can a national set of standards work?

There is no question that standards can be implemented, that standards can change instruction. What is challenging about implementing standards in the United States is our governance structures. We've got 13,300school districts. We've got about 100,000 schools. We have a very decentralized textbook market. We don't have the same kind of curricular control that they have in most other countries. Virtually every other country has national standards, but in most other countries they also have national curriculum materials. Here we have neither.

I think there's never going to be perfect implementation, but it is certainly possible to see better alignment of instruction with standards.

What has been the experience so far in the states?

Some states move much faster in the Common Core transition than others. New York is an example of a state that rolled out new Common Core assessments earlier and created the Engage New York curriculum and widely disseminated that. So my strong sense is that in New York implementation is farther along than it is in California, my own state, where they rolled out the Common Core assessments very late. There, as yet, has been no accountability associated with the Common Core assessments in California. The state didn't adopt a list of new Common Core-aligned textbooks until 2014.

[Read More: In Defense of the Common Core and Its Tests]

I'm part of this IES-funded Center on College- and Career-Ready Standards, and we are looking across all the states at their fourth and eighth grade standards. I had my students pull the texts of all the fourth and eighth grade math standards in all those states. And, interestingly, in some of the states that call themselves Common Core states, their standards actually aren't very Common Core-ish, meaning that they've made quite meaningful changes or very large additions. And in some states that aren't Common Core states, where they've either said they've removed themselves or they were never in them at all, the standards are actually very Common Core-ish, meaning that they use almost exactly the same wording for many standards.

So, actually, the label, is a state a Common Core state or not, is really not very helpful. What you need is to actually look at the standards.

Are the textbooks keeping up with the new standards?

We compared pre-Common Core to post-Common Core textbooks in the context of fourth grade mathematics, basically investigating an anecdote that we heard repeatedly (which, by the way, we still hear when we talk to district leaders), that what textbook companies did was take the old book and slap a sticker on the cover and call it Common-Core aligned. And we did find that textbook companies made some changes but, in general, the Common Core textbooks were much more aligned to the old textbooks. So it looked like the anecdote had some truth to it.

Publishers claimed that our research looked at what they call “bridge materials” (materials to bridge the gap between old standards and new ones) and that they subsequently put on newer materials that are aligned with the new standards, and we haven't evaluated those yet. That may be true, but it’s also true that these so-called “bridge materials” were being marketed as “Common Core-aligned.” In any case, there are now organizations that do these alignment investigations of all the major book series,and they have found certain new curriculum materials do a much better job of embodying the Common Core standards than others.

What do you find when you talk to teachers about the Common Core?

Right now I'm talking with teachers about middle school mathematics. We're trying to understand how they use curriculum materials, how they see their instruction changing under Common Core, how they use assessments.

I expected most of them to talk about specific content shifts like this topic was formerly a ninth grade topic, and now it's an eighth grade topic, because that's what I think of when I think of the standards. But the Common Core also has this thing called the "standards for math practice," and teachers overwhelmingly focus on that. They talk about, "I'm doing more group work. I'm having students explain their understanding. They're doing more writing."

Most surveys of educators find that they are broadly supportive of the Common Core standards.

What do you see as the future for the Common Core?

I think we will see states continuing to revise these standards. Most states have a cycle set up to revise every seven to 10 years. I'm skeptical that we'll see huge changes, in part because, most teachers like them. I think most content experts think that they're pretty good. And there is just a lot of inertia. It's just hard when you've got this set of standards in front of you to write something totally new.

[Read More: What's Next for the Common Core and Its Assessments?]