A cure for the Common Core

Published 10:42 pm Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Perhaps the most controversial education policy of the past five years has been the Common Core, adopted to date by 43 states. The debate has led to hyperbole and name-calling. Yet well-intentioned reformers can have a principled disagreement over whether the Common Core will actually improve schools, as Michael Petrilli and Neal McCluskey illustrated in a recent Washington Times op-ed.

The Common Core sets national standards for math and English to assure that high school graduates will be college or career ready. The common standards are intended to raise up school districts across the nation to the best existing standards. The Core was created before President Obama’s election, but his administration has encouraged adoption by making $4 billion in “Race to the Top” funding available to states and developing tests tied to the standards. Many states adopting the Common Core due to the lure of the money seem to have developed buyers’ remorse.

I will let the education experts debate whether the Core and its national standards will improve education. Adoption of the Core illustrates a major weakness of our government-run education system in comparison with an education market. Dr. John Merrifield and Jesse Ortiz contrast top-down and bottom-up accountability in “Reinventing the Alabama K-12 System,” part of the Johnson Center’s Improving Lives in Alabama project. Our current system relies on school officials – from principals and school boards to state and Federal departments of education – to ensure classroom learning. By contrast, bottom-up accountability is based on consumers, or in this case, parents.

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To illustrate the difference in these types of accountability, suppose we had top-down accountability for restaurants. Everyone would be assigned to eat at a given restaurant, as with public school attendance zones. City, state and federal bureaucrats would set the menu and standards of service for each restaurant and oversee the managers. Customers unhappy with the menu or service at their assigned restaurant would have to complain to the local restaurant board, and if still unsatisfied, complain to Montgomery or Washington.

I wouldn’t expect very good restaurants under such a system. We would be failing to use the people best able to judge the quality of meals and service, the customers. In markets, customers vote with their dollars and take their business elsewhere. The potential to lose customers incentivizes restaurant owners and managers to maintain quality.

Top-down accountability contributes to several systemic problems of our government schools. Control from above bureaucratizes curriculum and teaching. Bureaucrats in Montgomery or Washington can only affect teaching by requiring documentation of curriculum coverage. Micromanagement denies teachers the autonomy they deserve as trained professionals. Top-down accountability often ensures curriculum coverage through standardized tests. Standardized testing has brought numerous complaints of teaching to the test, while high stakes testing has produced teacher-assisted cheating. The potential to receive waivers of requirements to implement President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which epitomizes top-down accountability, encouraged states to sign on to the Common Core.

Parental involvement increases student engagement and learning. Yet a system allowing teachers and principals little control over the classroom will almost assuredly alienate parents. By contrast, parents drive bottom-up accountability and would have affordable options to remove their children if unsatisfied with instruction at their local public school. I think consumers’ power to take our business elsewhere provides people with significant emotional satisfaction as well as contributing to the “market power” which disciplines businesses.

Access of parents to good data on school performance strengthens bottom-up accountability. Alabama needs improvement on this score. A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Alabama an F on Data Quality, meeting only 2 of 10 tracked actions, the worst of any state.

The overwhelming majority of our public school teachers are deeply committed to educating children. A market for education would unleash bottom-up accountability. Regardless of its ultimate merits, the Common Core is yet another form of top-down accountability and diminishes parental control over education.


Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. Read more about Improving Lives in Alabama at http://business.troy.edu/JohnsonCenter/improving-lives-in-alabama.aspx.


About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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