U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits New Dorp High School in Staten Island, NY on Friday, June 5, 2015.
Photo by Andy Kropa for the U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits New Dorp High School in Staten Island, NY on Friday, June 5, 2015.Photo by Andy Kropa for the U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits New Dorp High School in Staten Island, NY on Friday, June 5, 2015.
Photo by Andy Kropa for the U.S. Department of Education

In the wake of the U.S. House and Senate’s passage of bills that would reauthorize the federal No Child Left Behind law, a new Pioneer Institute research paper finds that national English and mathematics standards, known as Common Core, violate three federal laws that prohibit the federal government from exercising any direction, supervision or control over curricula or the program of instruction in the states.

Dr. Williamson M. Evers, author of “Federal Overreach and Common Core,” proposes a better approach.

“Competitive federalism, under which states learn from and seek to improve on each others’ standards and tests, is both legal and would produce better results than monolithic national standards and tests,” says Dr. Evers. “Monopolies are hardly the best way to produce either academic quality or value for taxpayers.”

Prohibitions on federal control over curriculum and instruction can be found in the Education and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the General Education Provisions Act of 1970, and the 1979 Department of Education Organization Act, which established the U.S. Department of Education. But the Obama administration has, nonetheless, pursued a national policy on curriculum standards and directly funded two national testing consortia.

Common Core was developed by a group of Washington, D.C. education trade organizations and pushed out to the states by the federal government through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RttT) initiative, which gave out more than $4 billion in federal grants.

Adherence to Common Core was one of the criteria on which state funding applications were judged. Massachusetts’ application for the first round of RttT grants was ranked 13th out of 16 states. In the second round, the commonwealth made clear it would adhere to Common Core in an otherwise largely identical application and finished first.

The federal government is forbidden by federal law from favoring a particular set of curriculum-content standards over others.

RttT also drove the schedule for state adherence to Common Core. Applicants for the first round of grants had to agree to adhere to the standards before they were even published. During the second round, states had just two months to review the standards. States generally take about two years to develop and adopt academic standards. RttT was the way in which nearly every state adhered to Common Core.

The federal government has also spent more than $360 million to fund two consortia that have developed national Common Core-based assessments.

In addition to tying it to RttT grants, the U.S. Department of Education made adherence to Common Core a condition for states seeking waivers from the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, even though the secretary of education has no statutory authority to place conditions on such waivers. Secretary Duncan’s additional NCLB waiver conditions were never authorized by Congress.

Dr. Evers also describes the unusual way in which a majority of states adhered to Common Core. It was in almost every case adhered to via processes that bypassed state legislatures and other elected bodies. There were no bills, hearings or public debates in Congress relating to the U.S. Department of Education directing, incentivizing or funding the adoption of national standards or tests.

Federal law requires that state standards and testing be aligned. Dr. Evers argues, by controlling nationalized curriculum-content standards and assessments, the federal government gains de facto control over public school curricula.

Dr. Evers points out that Common Core dictates what is taught, when it will be taught, and how. For example, it prescribes that Algebra I should be taught in ninth and tenth grades, what technique should be used to teach geometry, and the split between fiction and informational texts (non-fiction) in English.

“Bill Evers’ scholarship is impressive in its scope and detail,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute. “He provides a history of the federal government’s attempts first to establish and then to deepen a directive role in K-12 public education. Along the way he underscores the pedigree of Common Core and the national testing consortia – and why they are poorly conceived education policy.”

The exhaustively researched, 60-page study includes a sweeping history of the federal role in K-12 public education.

For example, President Carter’s secretary of health, education and welfare, Joseph Califano, said “the pressures of local politics, close to the parents of the children in school, are far preferable to those of national politics.” Califano thought a national K-12 test would encourage “rigid uniformity” and that whoever had control of what went into the national test would unavoidably have too much power. Ultimately, Califano thought that “national control of curriculum” is “a form of national control of ideas.”

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001 under President George W. Bush, required students to be tested in English and math every year from grade three through eight, but left it to states to develop curriculum-content standards and tests.

Williamson M. Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he specializes in research on K-12 education policy especially as it pertains to curriculum, teaching, testing, accountability, school finance, and the history of African-American education. Evers was the U.S. assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development from 2007 to 2009. He was a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings during 2007. From July to December 2003, Evers served in Iraq as a senior adviser for education to Administrator L. Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Federal Overreach and Common Core” is the latest installment in Pioneer Institute’s ongoing review of the academic quality, legality and cost of Common Core. Pioneer is the national leader in independent research on the topic.

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