Did Common Core work?

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum does such a wonderful job reporting on edu research. Here he is, taking on a fascinating study that attempted to understand what effect the US’s Common Core standards had. Surprising results!:

How do you a study a policy as far-reaching as the Common Core, particularly one that was introduced alongside a host of other school reforms?

It’s not easy, but Song and her colleagues reasoned that some states were more affected by the switch to “college and career ready standards,” which meant Common Core in almost all cases. So they categorized states by the “rigor” of their previous standards and how similar those standards were to the Common Core.

They divided states into those more affected by the switch (because their prior standards were deemed less rigorous or less similar to the Common Core) and those less affected. Then they compared how each group’s scores changed on fourth and eighth grade NAEP tests between 2010 and 2017.

Common Core didn’t seem to help students’ scores, and over time the standards may have had an increasingly negative effect, according to the study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed.

Other researchers consulted by Chalkbeat, including Laura Hamilton of the RAND Corporation, say the study’s approach is a credible one.

“I’m not ready to conclude that the adoption of rigorous content standards is bad for student learning,” said Hamilton. “But I don’t look at this and think this looks totally wrong. It definitely looks plausible.”

Still, the approach has limitations. Most important is that the study is comparing two groups of states that adopted the standards — so if Common Core universally helped or hurt the states that adopted it, this study would miss that effect.

More, on an unpublished report:

Joshua Bleiberg, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, is also studying the impact of Common Core on NAEP scores. His study starts examining student scores when new standards hit classrooms, not when states decided to formally adopt the Common Core. He also excluded states that ultimately dropped the standards.

That all seems to lead to different results. In preliminary findings shared with Chalkbeat, Bleiberg finds that the Common Core had small positive effects on NAEP scores through 2013. His study has not been released publicly, so it can’t be fully examined.

“This is not going to be the type of thing that is going to turn around the whole ship really quickly,” Bleiberg said of the standards. “I would think about [the effects] as quite small.”

I don’t know what to make of all of this. I’m very worried that my internal compass has recently been getting out of whack, that I’m getting too pessimistic about any possible major change. At the same time I’m increasingly happy to talk about fundamental issues with the way things are done. (For example, that math is frequently not serving kids particularly well in high school.) But — back to the pessimism — there isn’t much to do about.

I guess I try to keep both of those ideas in mind at once, and to work in the tension between them.

Addendum: Though! Check out another piece of Matt Barnum reporting, about how reducing pollution increased test scores.

The situation seems to be that ed reform is less effective than you think it’ll be, but that improvements to quality of life tend to have more educational implications than you’d think. (The main driver of US educational improvements? GDP.)

My ed reform platform: capital improvements to schools, air conditioning in every school, better food for kids, cut pollution.