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Should California Embrace Common Core? My Response to Bill Honig

January 7, 2014

On January 7, 2014, California Instructional Quality Chair Bill Honig published a letter on Diane Ravitch’s blog in which he carefully details his reasons for supporting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in California. (Copy of letter )

In his letter, Honig encourages California districts wary of CCSS to reconsider their positions. He notes, “In California, there is widespread, deep, and enthusiastic support for the common core standards among teachers, administrators, educational and teacher organizations, advocacy groups, and political leaders.”

When I read Honig’s letter, I wondered how it could be true that CCSS would be so well received in California. I have recently blogged about CCSS unrest in California; namely, that the California Republican Party formally drafted an anti-CCSS resolution and that California Governor Jerry Brown is opposed to “government controlled standards and testing.” Brown has been consistent on his criticism of standardized testing.

I would like to address the context in which Honig’s appeal rests. It is a context unique to California. I also offer some cautions in “embracing” the politically-loaded CCSS.

California: It’s the District That Matters

First, let us consider the context of Honig’s letter:

The letter is an appeal to California districts regarding CCSS. California is a local control state. As such, California school districts may reject CCSS. It is not a state-level decision, as is the case in other states.

In California, the district is the entity that decides whether or not to adopt the CCSS endorsed by the state. This means that districts have the right to opt out of CCSS.

A second point: Even though California’s State Board of Education (CSBE) formally adopted CCSS in August 2010, California as a state did not contract with USDOE for Race to the Top (RTTT) funding.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apparently does not care for California’s local control. In 2011, seven California districts banded together to apply for RTTT funding. The California application was the only one rejected:

In another cockfight between California and Washington over education, the U.S. Department of Education has rejected California’s application – and only California’s application – in the third round of Race to the Top. The denial exasperated the seven California school districts that led the state’s effort and were counting on $49 million earmarked for California as critical to do the work they had committed to do.

In a statement Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst each criticized the federal government’s inflexibility in not accepting what they described as California’s “innovative” approach of giving control of the reforms to local school districts. Seven unified districts, including Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach, formed a coalition known as CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, to compete for round three and work together on the reform.

Apparently Duncan prefers to draw entire states into his RTTT reformer web. However, in 2012, USDOE began a RTTT funding competition for districts. Three California districts won money. All three agreed to evaluate teachers using student test scores.

The freedom afforded California districts by the state must really irritate Duncan, who desires to nationalize his slate of reforms without calling his effort a federal push.

Moreover, those federal-but-don’t-call them-that reforms are meant to be inflexible. As such, the CCSS Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) requires states to not remove any CCSS content. In her discussion of CCSS “flexibility” with North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest in December 2013, North Carolina School Superintendent June Atkinson responded, “If any state wants to change those standards, that’s just fine. It’s just that you do not say that you are implementing the Common Core….” 19:15 -19:24, 12-17-13, ).

In contrast, in his letter, Honig discusses implementing the Common Core, yet he also refers to Brown “readopting [the standards] with some changes, in 2012.” Further in the letter, Honig notes,

This is not to say that the standards are perfect or that they shouldn’t be continually reviewed and modified as the schools across the country implement them. Our math framework committee has already suggested several changes which were adopted by our state board. [Emphasis added.]

Logically, the right to opt out of CCSS brings with it the freedom to modify (i.e., if a district is not pleased with CCSS, it holds the trump card to dropping CCSS entirely). The ability to modify CCSS is evident in Honig’s discussion of the CCSS California consortium and “much of the policy making” being “devolved to local districts”:

…Key educational leaders and organizations in the state have banded together to implement common core in an informal network, the Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CICCSS). They did so, not because of heavy state or federal mandates, since, as discussed below, much of the policy making has been recently devolved to local districts. [Emphasis added.]

California districts have power. That is why some of them are able to directly deal with Duncan, who apparently decided it a better strategy to contract with “some” of California rather than “none” of California regarding California’s request for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers. In August 2013, Duncan issued such waivers to eight California districts provided they would agree to evaluate their teachers using student test scores, among other conditions:

In addition to using test scores to evaluate teachers, the eight California districts pledged to use other measures to determine school performance, including student growth, graduation rates, absenteeism, school culture and student surveys.

Therefore, for better or worse, California districts have power that school districts in other states do not have. For example, my school district in Louisiana, St. Tammany Parish, formally drafted an anti-CCSS resolution in October 2013. In it, the district reaffirms that it did not agree with the state’s decision to adopt CCSS in the first place and that St. Tammany considered its standards rigorous.

Even though my district formally resolved to reject CCSS, we are still tied to CCSS since in Louisiana it is the state, not the district, that has the power to commit to CCSS via RTTT.

California: Pushing Against Arne

I previously noted that Californiahas accepted no state-level RTTT money.  This poses another advantage that California has over other most other states. The states that did accept state-level RTTT money are tied to the federal government’s will regarding the spectrum of reforms promoted by RTTT– including CCSS, its assessments, and the tying of testing results to teacher employment. California’s Governor Brown would not agree to evaluate teachers using student test scores. Thus, California was not eligible for either RTTT funds or NCLB waivers.

California is also unique from many states facing CCSS in that neither governor, nor state superintendent, nor school board president, is a die-hard privatizer. As Honig notes:

Our State Board of Education president, the governor and the state superintendent have repeatedly refused to knuckle under to Arne Duncan’s demands that the state institute teacher evaluations based in large part on test scores.

After considering what I have detailed above– that California districts have control over accepting or rejecting CCSS, and that the governor, state superintendent, and school board president all refuse to grade teachers using test scores (and thereby evidence a healthy distance from the federally-controlled puppeting Duncan so desperately desires of all states)– I understand how it is possible for California teachers to positively receive CCSS.

Indeed, there is still one more important–perhaps the most important– component to CCSS popularity in California: Dislike of the California state standards.

California: Dissatisfaction with Former Standards

According to Honig, California teachers view their previous standards as deficient. As Honig notes regarding California’s math standards:

The standards (CCSS)… shift from the current mile-wide and inch deep approach…. All in all, the standards envision a much more active and engaging classroom….

And California’s English Language Arts (ELA) standards:

Similarly, in English Language Arts the standards also encourage a much more active and engaging classroom….

Here’s an issue to reconcile: According to Honig’s letter, CCSS is a great improvement over California’s standards. However, in its oft-cited 2010 review of all state standards and CCSS, the CCSS-pushing Fordham Institute gave California’s standards higher grades than it gave CCSS– A’s for both ELA and math– as compared to the Fordham CCSS grades of B-plus for ELA and A-minus for math.

This is Fordham’s 2010 overview of California’s ELA standards from its 2010 report:

California’s well-sequenced and thorough ELA standards explicitly address all of the essential content that students must master in a rigorous, college-prep K-12 curriculum. With very few exceptions, the standards are clear and concise and exhibit an appropriate level of rigor at each grade. Minor flaws are noted below, but overall, these standards are exceptionally strong.

And here is Fordham’s overview of California’s math standards:

California’s standards could well serve as a model for internationally competitive national standards. They are explicit, clear, and cover the essential topics for rigorous mathematics instruction. The introduction for the standards is notable for providing excellent and clear guidance on mathematics education. The introduction states simply, “An important theme stressed throughout this framework is the need for a balance in emphasis on the computational and procedural skills, conceptual understanding, and problem solving. This balance is defined by the standards and is illustrated by problems that focus on these components individually and in combination. All three components are essential.”  California has provided a set of standards that achieves these goals admirably.

Amazing that Fordham refers to the same standards that Honig believes require replacing.

Whereas Fordham’s review is (bafflingly) considered expert information on the issue of state standards evaluationthe real, front-line “experts” are teachers– those who must convert the standards into a meaningful learning experience for their students.

Fordham forms its opinions from the tower of its own high opinion of itself, not from the classroom.

This begs the question: What does the High and Lifted Up Fordham consider to be “ideal” in a set of standards?

It seems that Fordham places its highest value on standards that are “mile wide, inch deep”– a phrase that former California middle school teacher Anthony Cody has used recently in an email exchange to describe his experience with California’s standards.

Cody’s sentiment is echoed in an October 2013 Los Angeles Daily News article:

The Common Core has also attracted fans because it’s viewed by teachers as “more realistic and smarter” than California’s 1997 standards, which are often criticized as a mile long and an inch thick, says Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association.

“It was impossible for teachers to cover everything,” he says, adding that teachers view the new national standards as “a breath of fresh air” because they require much less regimentation than the earlier standards. Districts have more freedom, this time around, to choose their own curriculum, instructional materials and teacher training programs. [Emphasis added.]

To at least some California teachers, CCSS looks like freedom. For California’s sake, I am sorry that CCSS is inescapably politically infused.

District Danger of Test Worship

In his letter, Honig acknowledges that districts determined to use student test scores in keeping with the privatization agenda will still do so and that such a practice ought not be attributed to CCSS adoption:

If a district is hell-bent to use test scores to evaluate teachers for personnel decisions based on flawed assessment assumptions or narrow the curriculum and instruction to look good on tests, the presence or absence of Common Core Standards and their associated tests will not change that district’s direction. 

I agree with Honig’s determination. Nevertheless, CCSS and its tests are promoted as part of a package of Duncan-promoted reforms. I cannot emphasize this enough. CCSS is not neutral. It is not “just” a set of standards. Duncan is pushing CCSS precisely because it is part of a determined reform package.

As for the issue of districts being “hellbent” upon using scores, the “hell bending” precedes the testing. Here is an excerpt of the CCSS-test-anticipated goings-on in one California district (unnamed) (full comment can be seen here):

In my high school district, the preparation for the upcoming tests in California are having a devastating impact on both the more challenged incoming 9th graders and the higher achieving math students. The Superintendent and the Principals of the 8 high schools have decided, against the wishes of almost ALL district math teachers, to narrow the curriculum to fit both the high school standards and the NEW Smarter Balanced Assessment. Thereby, they have eliminated ALL math course offerings below Algebra 1 and therein, forcing ALL students to enroll in an Algebra 1 class even though they may have fallen two or more years behind in their math levels according to where the CCSS would expect them to be when entering high school.

This pressure to conform to CCSS and its attendant outcome (in this case, the Smarter Balanced assessment [SB]), is a national pressure brought on by a federally promoted portfolio of reform.

CCSS cannot be divorced from such federally-promoted pressure. It’s too late for that.

Advice to Honig and All of California: Watch Out for Arne

If required to choose between Fordham’s assessment of California’s standards and Honig’s report of California assessment of California’s standards, I would defer to Honig– since his career has been tied to California education for decades– which means he is certainly closer to the reality of public education in California.

And even though both Fordham and Honig appear to be on the same side of the issue– with both promoting CCSS– Fordham’s motives are suspect for its having taken millions from Gates– even for operating expenses– and Gates– a very rich man who is purchasing his view of education for an entire nation–really wants CCSS.

However, I disagree with Honig’s urging California districts to dismiss concerns about the role of CCSS in advancing a spectrum of reforms:

I know some of you believe that the Common Core Standards are a stalking horse for the detrimental policy measures which have been connected to them and, consequently are so tainted that they can’t be separated. I would plead with you to revisit that question. 

California has delayed CCSS testing via the Smarter Balanced consortium (SBAC)— but the tests will come. And even though Brown is fighting Duncan on the (mis)uses of standardized testing, do not underestimate Duncan in pushing the set of reforms for which he has been fighting since 2009.

Those SBAC test scores will be his leverage.

He will insert himself into district affairs. He has done so recently regarding new New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s choice of schools chancellor.

Duncan has repeatedly inserted himself in state and local elections since his appointment as US secretary of education in 2009.

Don’t think he will stop now.

In the case of California, where the power over education policy is at the district level, Duncan will insert himself there.  He wants California to be subject to the entire privatizing spectrum of reforms. His foot is already in the door in several California districts.

In Closing

I applaud Honig for his interest in California education and for his detailed accounting of his reasons for promoting CCSS.  Whereas one might try to extend Honig’s appeal beyond California’s borders, doing so does not work. As far as other states are concerned that have accepted RTTT funding, the flexibility to alter CCSS to suit a state’s own determined needs in the name of local control is nonexistent.

As to the process of comparing state standards to CCSS and making informed judgments based upon such comparison: This should have been an opportunity provided to all states absent any pre-completion, federal financial bait. The premature federal CCSS lure bespeaks an intent to ensnare– and ensnare it has.

As for the current atmosphere of CCSS unrest in at least half of the states that adopted CCSS: Any individual or group pushing for unquestioned CCSS allegiance has a hidden agenda. Honig is not pushing for unquestioning allegiance– a refreshing statement for me to write. However, his failure to view CCSS as a component of an overall design to completely privatize American public education is not wise given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I wish California my best regarding its decisions about CCSS, wherever those may lead.

Just watch out for Arne.


Addendum 01-14-14:

A useful link regarding local control states:

  1. Harlan Underhill permalink

    It still is puzzling to me that a “big government” guy, like Obama, would be pushing privatization. That inconsistencies can exist in policy decisions from the same administration is, of course, possible. Mere confusion, as we have seen so often. But that the administration wants privatization rather than control strikes me as difficult to believe, although Jeb Bush’s goals of privatizing the schools is clear. But why would Obama want privatized schools when he wants nationalized health care? It doesn’t add up, some where. I wish someone could explain it to me.

  2. Thank you for the thorough and excellent response. California may well be the best example of why we should NOT support Common Core. We are unnecessarily spending the next decade and billions of dollars in precious school funds just to downgrade to the Gates/Coleman/Duncan lower standards.

  3. Janna permalink

    Great response! I cannot believe you got all this together so quickly. I do not think you sleep. Only one minor correction:the State Superintendent of schools in NC is June Atkinson.

  4. Laura h. Chapman permalink

    The Gates-funded Fordham evaluation gives its phony seal of approval only for standards that “address ALL of the essential CONTENT that students must master in a rigorous, college-prep K-12 CURRICULUM.”
    Notice how the Gates/Fordham evaluation of standards (California and other states) fails to make a distinction between standards and curriculum content.
    Notice also that all of the hullabaloo about the CCSS–a version of the 3Rs–distracts attention from studies in the arts, the sciences, the humanities including foreign language. A systematic K-12 program of such studies is the closest thing to an international “gold standard” for pre-collegiate and collegiate education.
    An international gold standard for elite education in a trade or craft is a sustained apprenticeship–a tutorial relationship with one or more masters, preferably beginning in childhood. This kind of education is common in many parts of the world. It is can be horribly confining and also a source of
    “world class” performances and presentations.
    In any case, the current campaign to limit the education of this generation to a one-size-fits-all and minimalist “common core” is a triumph of PR, money to finance that spin, including political clout.

  5. VTibbetts permalink

    Thank you for your response to Mr. Honig’s blog on Diane’s site. I am a teacher in Ca and an outspoken anti-CC$$ activist. I am worried that with the passage of SB484, which removes the former state testing and slowly implements the new Smarter Balanced tests whereas scores will not count towards school ratings for 3 years, that teachers are relieved too much. They are relieved that the curriculum seems deeper and less wide, indicating that the standards may be more easily mastered by our students because they have more time to digest them. They are relieved that it seems like they can use their own best practices to develop their lesson plans rather than read from scripted textbooks, implying that the CC$$ may be more engaging to students. They are relieved that since the CC$$ seem fewer that they may be able to reintroduce parts of the curriculum that have been narrowed due to the NCLB constraints. Too much relief worries me because we become complacent and less likely to look deeply at the implications of these standards and how they have impacted other school districts throughout the nation. I can only hope that the New York parents, teachers, and students make enough noise that their reverberations can be felt here in California.

  6. Bill Honig permalink

    Mercedes, I appreciated your comments. We will probably continue to disagree on the merits of the standards themselves and their potential use in engendering collaborative, capacity-building efforts at schools and districts (to me the key to continual improvement of practice). I do want to clear up one point; The article I wrote was not a letter written to California school districts (almost all are already on board with the common core standards) but aimed more to the rest of the nation to explain what we are doing in the state. Your point that states which have signed up for RTTT would have a tougher time doing what we are attempting may be accurate, but still many of them could do some of what we are undertaking and, of course, their leadership could change, as just happened in NY city.

  7. Florence permalink

    Mercedes, Duncan granted the waiver to 7 districts that make up CORE (which represents more than 1 million students.) Michele McNeil reported this August 6, 2013 on the Education Week site: and

    I’d like to point out that the Sacramento City Unified School District board NEVER voted to join this group and never held any public hearings for parents and community members to discuss joining CORE or applying for a waiver. It’s Broad Superintendent (now gone) made the decision. Also, an independent panel set up by the CORE group is to monitor the districts. The public has no role.

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