Is There Evidence to Support the Common Core: My Questions to New York Education Commissioner King – Dr Yong Zhao

A number of people have asked me about my brief encounter with New York Commissioner John King at the NYSCOSS Fall Leadership Summit on September 24, 2012. Here is my recollection.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor to listen to New York Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King, Jr. at the 2012 Fall Leadership Summit New York State Council of School Superintendents(NYSCOSS) in Saratoga Springs. Addressing a standing-room only audience of NY school leaders, Dr. King covered a wide range of topics from the Common Core to APPR to data-driven instruction to vocational and technical Education to equity and equality as elements of his vision for the next five to 10 years in NY education (watch his presentation).

I was very touched by his conviction to equity. He passionately spoke of the moral responsibility our nation has for providing excellent education to all students. “All students are entitled to equal educational opportunities,” said King and we must recognize the “wisdom of investing in all young people.” Cannot agree more!

But I am skeptical of his faith in the Common Core and test-score based teacher and principal evaluation as a way to bring equal opportunities to all students and make all young people globally competitive.

He said that Common Core will:

  • Roll back curriculum narrowing
  • Make students more competitive in the 21st Century
  • Help more students succeed in AP and IB, and enter college prepared
  • Reduce need for remedial courses.
  • Close the achievement gap

He also said that the APPR (short for Annual Professional Performance Review, which mandates that “student achievement will comprise 40% of teacher and principal evaluations.”) will do the same by

  • providing good and differentiated professional development to teachers,
  • helping them grow for student outcomes,
  • making principals capable instructional leaders who can identify and promote instruction aligned with the Common Core (competent Common Core police—my interpretation), and
  • bringing a future with more college and career ready students.

I had read these claims and in many places (my 2010 article with Chris Tienken2009 article in the J. of Scholarship and Practice, and my recent blog post) pointed out that these claimed benefits are not supported by evidence while the damages (or side-effects) have been.

Educators have regularly asked me after reading or listening to my take on education reforms why our policy makers and leaders such as Commissioner King continue to pursue such polices despite the abundant evidence. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to learn about our education leaders’ thinking—The Commissioner “oversees more than 7,000 public and independent elementary and secondary schools (serving 3.1 million students), and hundreds of other educational institutions across New York State including higher education, libraries, and museums.” A powerful leadership position.

So at the end of the open-mic session following his presentation, I asked Commissioner. King two questions. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the essence is as follows (the quotes were not used at the time):

  1. Past experiences in the U.S. and evidence from other countries have shown that common standards and or curriculum do not bring equal educational opportunities nor do they lead to better education. Standards-based reform is not new in America. Over the past few decades, virtually all states have developed and implemented standards and under NCLB all states have worked on curriculum standards and used high stakes tests to ensure their implementation. But they have not resulted in significant improvement in the overall achievement of our students nor have they narrowed the achievement gap. For example, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, after studying standards efforts in the U.S., concludes that “[O]n the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the common core will have little to no effect on student achievement.”Evidence from other countries shows the same. In China, despite its decades of national curriculum, tremendous gaps exist in access and achievement. We have also heard similar claims of great outcomes before. NCLB was said to have similar effects, but a decade later, we have no evidence that it has worked. So what gives you hope that the Common Core will work this time?
  2. What evidence is there to support the idea that using student test scores or achievement outcomes to judge the work of teachers and principals while available research shows otherwise. For example, theNational Research Council found that “despite being used for several decades, test-based incentives have not consistently generated positive effects on student achievement” after examining examines evidence on incentive programs, which impose sanctions or offer rewards for students, teachers, or schools on the basis of students’ test performance.

His answer to the first question was not convincing, to say the least. He had four points (I don’t remember his fourth point. If you were at the session, please let me know if there is any misrepresentation of the Commissioner or I have missed anything.) Since there wasn’t time for further discussion at the session, I put my comments/response in parenthesis following each of his points.

  1. He knows Tom Loveless and Tom was his thesis advisor. (Not sure how this makes Common Core more effective).
  2. The study by Tom Loveless is correlational, not causal. (Not sure how this makes the conclusion of no effect go away. In my thinking, if you cannot find any correlation between two factors, you cannot claim one causes another to begin with. Even if you did find relationship, you may not be able to claim that one causes another. In this case, if Loveless had found that states with more rigorous standards have better achievement and narrower gaps than those without, one may doubt if standards caused the positive outcome. But he found no significant relationship between the two at all!).
  3. The research by Bill Schmidt gives him hope. (Not sure about this either. Bill was a close colleague when I was at Michigan State and a close friend—but this does not make my points any stronger. Anyway, as far as I know, Bill Schmidt’s research on standards and curriculum began in the 1990s with TIMSS and shows that countries with higher TIMSS math scores have curriculum with more focus, coherence, and rigor. I suspect that the Commissioner was referring to Bill’s study released in May 2012. The study found that the Common Core math standards are consistent with high achieving countries and that states with standards most like the Common Core have higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Now, this is correlational, not causal. It does not mean the standards caused the higher scores. Bill Schmidt himself “emphasized (repeatedly) that this particular finding is merely suggestive, and does not establish causation. ““I want to be very clear about this,” he told me. “This does not prove anything…”” writes Education Week reporter Eric Robelen.)

And I don’t remember him giving answers to my question about the APPR.

So I am still looking for evidence…

YONG ZHAO – Renowned Professor of Education, Author and sought after keynote speaker