The Impact of Common Core

It’s pretty much always a good idea to read Matt Di Carlo over at the Shankerblog. His posts are always thoughtful and middle-of-the-road, a refreshing antidote to usual advocacy blather. His recent post about the purpose and potential impact of the Common Core is no exception.

Here’s where I agree with Matt:

  • That standards alone are probably unlikely to have large impacts on student achievement.
  • That advocates of the standards do a disservice when they project such claims.
  • That making definitive statements about the impact of Common Core on student outcomes will be hard (and, I would say, causal research is almost certainly not worth doing at this point in the implementation process).

Here’s where I don’t agree with Matt. I don’t agree that standards are not meant to boost achievement. I believe that they most certainly are meant to boost achievement. Standards are intended to improve the likelihood that students will have access to a quality curriculum and, through that, learn more and better stuff. It’s a pretty straightforward theory of action, actually. Something like:

Standards (+ other policies) –> Improved, aligned instruction –> Student achievement

And I think we have pretty decent evidence on this theory of action. For instance, my work and the work of others makes it reasonably clear that standards can affect what and how teachers teach (albeit imperfectly). There’s a great deal of research on the very commonsense notion that what and how teachers teach affects what students learn (my study from last year notwithstanding). We don’t have studies that I’m aware of that draw the causal arrow directly from standards to achievement, but given the evidence on the indirect paths I believe this may well be due to the weaknesses of the data and designs more than the lack of an effect.

That said, I fully echo Matt’s concerns about overstating the case for quality standards, and I hope advocates take this warning to heart. What we need is not over-hyped claims and shoddy analyses designed to show positive impacts [1]. What we need at this point is thoughtful studies of implementation and cautious, tentative investigations of early effects. These are just the kind of studies that we are seeking in the “special issue” of AERA Open that I’m curating. My hope is that this issue will provide some of the first quality evidence about implementation and effects, in order to inform course corrections and begin building the evidence base about this reform.


[1] Edited to add: We also don’t need garbage studies by Common Core opponents using equally shoddy methods to conclude the standards aren’t working.

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