The political controversy swirling around the Common Core curriculum of educational standards shows no sign of abating.
Explore the Common Core curriculum for your educational research paper. (Credit: councilforeconed.org)
While looking into the need and impetus for educational standards makes an excellent idea for a term paper, other research paper topics around the Common Core, from its focus on improving critical thinking skills to whether it has been effective thus far, would also be interesting to explore in more depth.
What are educational standards?
Many may think that educational standards such as the Common Core are new. However, one interesting area to explore for research paper topics is the history of such standards. Some trace efforts to create an across-the-board educational method to “Biblical accounts of the Gilead guards, China’s civil service examinations of 200 B.C., even Chinese military selection dating to 2000 B.C.” according to Setting Performance Standards: Concepts, Methods, and Perspectives by Gregory J. Cizek, published in 2001 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
So for centuries educators have sought to standardization their methods of teaching. When did the political controversy arise? Cizek feels this happened in the 1970s when mandatory testing of standards was first implemented.
What is the Common Core?
Today in the world of educational standards, the political controversy is firmly focused on the Common Core. Many parents, and even some teachers, have not fully embraced the purpose and goal of the curriculum. “The Common Core FAQ” from NPR’s nprEd blog on May 27, 2014, addressed the basic questions, from what the Common Core is, to where the educational standards came from.
The blog explains that the Common Core is the “largest-ever attempt in the United States to set unified expectations for what students in kindergarten through 12th grade should know and be able to do in each grade in preparation for college and the workforce. In short, the standards are meant to get every student in America on the same page.”
It also explains that one of the main components of the new educational standards is helping kids understand better basic concepts such as addition and multiplication by breaking numbers into components and using visualization. This is the area many parents cite as confusing, because the new methods deviate from how they were taught.
Teacher response to the Common Core
If parents are struggling with the Common Core, what about the teachers? “Teachers grade Common Core: C+ and room for improvement” by Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, October 3, 2014, for The Christian Science Monitor reported on how educators are adapting to the change in educational standards. She shares the results of a survey, conducted by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which asked more than 1,600 teachers in 43 states about the new standards. The questions the survey addressed offer another area rich with research paper topics.
In schools where implementation of Common Core standards is complete or nearly complete, a majority of teachers agreed “somewhat” that it was going well. But the enthusiasm for the Common Core has dipped from previous surveys, from 73 percent to 68 percent. And perhaps adding fuel to the political controversy fire, when asked if the educational standards were good for students, 35 percent didn’t feel that the new standards would make much difference to how those students learned.
Khadaroo concluded with a quote from Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education, who believes that what the survey tells us about the Common Core is, “the more you do it, the more you love it.”
Want to learn more about current issues in education? Check out Questia—particularly the section on educational standards.
Is there a better way to set educational standards for students? Or is the Common Core working? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Five years into the Common Core “experiment,” what do we know about the implementation and effects of the standards? Answering this question was the primary goal of this special topic. The answer, it turns out, is not as satisfying as we might like. In this article, I review both the articles that were published under the topic and my broader sense of where the literature is and where it needs to go. This introduction is organized under these two key questions. However, I start with the impact question because I think it is of more interest to policy makers.
What Is the Effect of Common Core Standards on Student Outcomes?
The million-dollar question for the Common Core Standards (CCS) in the public eye is probably whether or to what extent it is “working” to make students more college and career ready. This is a very hard question to answer, which is perhaps why none of the papers in this special topic address it. Descriptively, many jumped on the rare 2013–2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) declines to imply or argue that the standards were not working (e.g., Burris, 2015). However, these crude analyses (if they can be called that) did not even attempt to control for key design issues that might affect the validity of the conclusion that Common Core was not “working.”
Loveless (2014, 2016) has investigated this question using state NAEP. His work starts to address some of the design issues that affect the crude mean score change analyses mentioned above. In the 2014 analysis, he examined the NAEP gains for states with standards most and least similar to the CCS between 2009 and 2013, finding essentially no differences in gains. Here, he was testing the argument put forth by Schmidt and Houang (2012) that the states with standards that were more “Common Core–like” saw greater NAEP gains prior to the adoption of the standards. He also analyzed the NAEP gains for states based on an index of state implementation of the CCS, finding slightly larger gains in higher implementation states (though these differences were not statistically significant). Here, he was testing the idea that states that were implementing the standards more fully might see greater gains. In the 2016 analysis, he updated the work using 2015 NAEP results. Focusing on the implementation index, he again found no evidence that high implementers were seeing greater achievement gains post-CCS.
Loveless’s analyses are the only of which I am aware that really attempt to get closer to an estimate of the Common Core’s impact on learning; however, the Institute of Education Sciences’ Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL; on which I am a co–principal investigator) is addressing this question to some extent in its longitudinal impact study, the preliminary results of which should be available soon. The problems with Loveless’s analyses illustrate the general problems with this kind of work and perhaps suggest why few have attempted it.
First, of course, there are all manner of research design issues. Common Core was not randomly assigned to states, so the best that we can do is a quasi-experimental analysis. Within-state analyses are certainly out of the question because Common Core was either implemented or not in each state; thus, you should not put stock in analyses suggesting that within-state gains in test scores are indicative that the standards are working (see Nix, 2016). Loveless’s investigations are a sort of informal difference-in-differences analysis, where the pre- and post-NAEP changes are compared for CCS and non-CCS states. Of course, this could have been formalized with a regression model, which would have improved it somewhat. It would have been somewhat more sophisticated to add multiple pre- and post-CCS time points, in which case Loveless might have had something like a comparative interrupted time series (CITS) analysis. Recent research suggests that CITS analyses can identify causal impacts when well designed and implemented (St. Clair, Hallberg, & Cook, 2016).
Even if he had used multiple time points, however, there are other challenges with a CITS design in this case. For instance, when did “treatment” begin in the case of Common Core? Most states adopted the standards in 2010 in response to Race to the Top (LaVenia, Cohen-Vogel, & Lang, 2015), but does adoption by a state legislature really mean that the standards are being implemented? What if, as is the case in California, a CCS-aligned assessment was not implemented until 2013–2014 and English language arts textbooks were not adopted by the state until 2014–2015? For our C-SAIL project, we asked states for their timelines for standards implementation, and 41 states replied that their college- and career-readiness standards were not fully implemented until either 2013–2014 or 2014–2015 (C-SAIL, 2016). If this is true, it may not make sense that the implementation date in Loveless’s analysis was 2010. Also, what about the comparison states? All 50 states have content standards, and non-CCS states each have state-specific standards. Furthermore, some non-CCS states claim that they had adopted college- and career-readiness standards prior to CCS adoption; for instance, on our C-SAIL map, the earliest adopter of college- and career-readiness standards is Texas, in 2009–2010. At a minimum, the interpretation of any of these potential quasi-experimental analyses would therefore be “compared to the standards adopted in other states.”