They are the long sought cure for all that ails public education in Idaho. Or they are a dangerous and deceptive federal interference with local control of education. It depends on who you ask.

What are they? They're the Common Core State Standards.

In reality, they're simply the latest effort to lurch back up the descending escalator that we know as public education. They are the most recent iteration of a decades-long cycle of hand-wringing disappointment, leading to a hopeful course correction, followed by even more anguished disappointment and hand-wringing. Rinse and repeat.

A Nation at Risk:

In many ways, this cycle goes back at least to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report issued by Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education. Confirming our suspicion that American public schools were failing, the report documented the fact that our students were stumbling academically. They were failing to keep up when compared either to prior generations in this country or to present-day students in other countries.

The initial reaction to the highlighting of this truth was a demand for "accountability." No longer would schools and teachers be presumed to be effective in their efforts. Instead, metrics were instituted to insure accountability.

Students would be regularly tested to document their academic progress. Or the lack thereof. And teachers would be evaluated - then rewarded or penalized -- based upon the progress of their students.

Outcome Based Education:

This initiative led to the Outcome Based Education movement which began in the 1990's. Each state made a list of what students were expected to know in each subject at each grade level. These were the original "state standards."

Next, assessment tests were developed and administered to see whether students were measuring up to those standards. Each state chose or created its own test. Idaho chose the Iowa Tests. By selecting these nationally-normed tests, the academic progress of Idaho's students could be compared with that of students from across the nation.

Unfortunately, Outcome Based Education had little to offer in terms of recourse against educators or schools whose students were struggling.

No Child Left Behind:

By the turn of the century, it became evident that Outcome Based Education was not making a significant difference in the success of our students. Instead, it was simply measuring and reporting on the academic failure of our students. As a result, a new and improved solution was demanded.

Enter President Bush and the U.S. Department of Education. They pressed for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which Congress dutifully passed and the President signed in 2002. And great rejoicing swept across the fruited plain. Finally, students and teachers would be held genuinely accountable.

Under that Act, not only were states required to set standards and administer tests to determine students' progress, but certain benchmarks were required to be met by each school as a whole.

Individual students' scores in each subject were divided into four groups -- Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic. Students who scored in the Advanced and Proficient ranges were deemed to have made "Adequate Yearly Progress." Those scoring in the Basic and Below Basic categories were not.

The NCLB Act required schools and districts to produce more and more students making Adequate Yearly Progress over time. In keeping with the name of the Act, by 2014, it was expected that every student in America would be making Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading. Not a single student would be left behind!

Any failure to reach the mandated percentages of students making Adequate Yearly Progress would be met with strict consequences. The schools and districts that were failing would effectively be put on probation. If the failures continued, they would eventually be taken over by the state, though it was never really spelled out what the state would be to magically turn the ship around.

For several years, the system seemed to make progress. Student scores in Idaho initially improved. But that was in significant part because educators quickly learned what would be on Idaho's assessment test. That allowed teachers to drill the materials that would be tested more fully while giving short shrift to the materials that were not on the test.

But then the scores plateaued. Yet the "progress" mandated by NCLB continued its relentless escalation.

When the number of Idaho students making Adequate Yearly Progress began to lag behind the Act's requirements, Idaho's Department of Education responded by redefining "Adequate Yearly Progress" to lower the bar. Not only would those students scoring in the Advanced and Proficient ranges be deemed to have made Adequate Yearly Progress, but half of the students in the Basic range would arbitrarily be treated as though they had made such progress, as well.

So, again, the number of students making the required progress nudged up. But again the progress plateaued. And, again, the hand-wringing commenced.

Common Core State Standards:

Just when it looked like all was lost, the Common Core State Standards movement came to the rescue.

Continuing the basic approach of Outcome Based Education, the movement sought to redefine the "standards" and "assessment tests" required in each state. The retooled standards and tests were roughed out about five years ago by a private non-profit organization known as Achieve, Inc.

Once that early work was accomplished, Achieve enrolled the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers to support these new efforts. Both of these groups are essentially national trade associations based in Washington D.C.

Across the nation, as state governors and education superintendents grappled with the looming disaster of large-scale failure under the NCLB requirements, they were quick to seriously consider the life-preserver offered by Achieve. By embracing the new Common Core State Standards, they could hope to be given a do-over Mulligan for the failures mounting under the NCLB.

Then the U.S. Department of Education stepped up with its own bait-and-switch scheme in order to entice large scale adoption of these "state" standards.

The Baited Hook

At the time it did so, the nation was struggling in the midst of the Great Recession in 2009. As part of the several stimulus programs that were enacted to rekindle the economy, the U.S. Department of Education set aside $4.35 billion under its new Race to the Top Program ostensibly to reward educational innovation with federal tax funds.

States were allowed to compete for a share of those funds. In that competition, states would be given bonus points for adopting the Common Core State Standards. Idaho, along with almost every other state in the country, quickly adopted those standards in an effort to land the federal dollars. But, alas, Idaho was not one of the "winning" states that received any of those funds. Despite our eager embrace of the standards, we were rewarded with none of the much needed financial assistance.

But as a consolation prize, states that adopted these new standards were allowed to apply for a waiver of the NCLB progress requirements. Idaho did so and, in October of 2012, we were officially released from the requirement of meeting (or even testing for) the Adequate Yearly Progress of our students.

Never mind that the new Common Core standards that Idaho has now adopted are entirely untested. Even now, not a single state has implemented and tested them to see whether or not the academic achievement of students taught to these new standards really improves.

We and the rest of the country simply took the monetary bait offered by the U.S. Department of Education. When that proved illusory, we settled for a consolation prize in the form of a waiver of the NCLB requirements. By doing so, we were saved from the embarrassment of having to acknowledge that many of the students in our public school were, indeed, being left far behind.

Barry Peters is an attorney in private practice with offices in Eagle, Idaho, and is one of the legal advisors for both ICHE and CHOIS. His law practice focuses on the areas of wills, trusts, probate, and real estate contracts.

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