Financial Woes Plague Common-Core Rollout
After 45 states adopt educational standards, many have second thoughts
Nov. 2, 2015 8:30 p.m. ET
EDMOND, Okla.—Educators in this Oklahoma City suburb jumped into action when state leaders in 2010 adopted the Common Core academic standards that were sweeping states across the country.
The Edmond school district has a big military population that moves frequently, so officials liked the idea of using the same standards as other states. They also saw Oklahoma’s old standards as inferior. They spent about $500,000 preparing teachers and students, collaborating with educators in other states and buying materials and computers for a new Common Core test, finishing a year in advance.
Then state politicians backtracked, for reasons both financial and political. They dropped plans to give the new test, and during an election campaign in which the standards were hotly debated, they repealed Common Core. Edmond employees came in at the end of the summer last year to rewrite their curriculum again.
“The cost for me in time and training was phenomenally huge,” says Tara Fair, Edmond’s associate superintendent. “That’s one of the things that made me really sick when we went back to the old standards.”
Five years into the biggest transformation of U.S. public education in recent history, Common Core is far from common. Though 45 states initially adopted the shared academic standards in English and math, seven have since repealed or amended them. Among the remaining 38, big disparities remain in what and how students are taught, the materials and technology they use, the preparation of teachers and the tests they are given. A dozen more states are considering revising or abandoning Common Core.
One reason is that Common Core became a hypercharged political issue, with grass-roots movements pressing elected leaders to back off. Some conservatives saw the shared standards as a federal intrusion into state matters, in part because the Obama administration provided grant funding. Some liberals and conservatives decried what they saw as excessive testing and convoluted teaching materials. The standards are a hot topic in the Republican presidential race. Last month, Barack Obama recommended limiting the amount of class time students spend on testing, saying excessive testing “takes the joy out of teaching and learning.”
But politics isn’t the only reason for the turmoil. Many school districts discovered they didn’t have enough money to do all they needed to do. Some also found that meeting deadlines to implement the standards was nearly impossible.
The total cost of implementing Common Core is difficult to determine because the country’s education spending is fragmented among thousands of districts. The Wall Street Journal looked at spending by states and large school districts and found that more than $7 billion had been spent or committed in connection with the new standards. To come up with that number, the Journal examined contracts, email and other data provided under public-records requests by nearly 70 state education departments and school districts.
The analysis didn’t account for what would have been spent anyway—even without Common Core—on testing, instructional materials, technology and training. Education officials say, however, that the new standards required more training and teaching materials than they would otherwise have needed, and that Common Core prompted them to speed up computer purchases and network upgrades.
Much more money would be needed to implement Common Core consistently. Some teachers haven’t been trained, and some schools lack resources to buy materials. Some states haven’t met the goal of offering the test to all students online instead of on paper with No. 2 pencils.
Academic standards are statements of what students are expected to know and do at specific grade levels. In the past, those standards differed from state to state. Students in one state, for example, might have been expected to memorize and identify an algebraic formula, and in another to use algebra to solve a real-world problem.
Common Core advocates hoped to make standards uniform—and to raise them across the board. Their goals were to afford students a comparable education no matter where they were, to cultivate critical thinking rather than memorization, to better prepare students for college and careers, and to enable educators to use uniform year-end tests to compare achievement. They wanted to give the tests on computers to allow more complex questions and to better analyze results.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which signed on to the effort in 2008, so believed in the cause that it has spent $263 million on advocacy, research, testing and implementing the standards, foundation records show. Vicki Phillips, a Gates education director, says its Common Core-related funding of new curriculum tools developed by teachers has led to student gains in places such as Kentucky.
But after a burst of momentum and a significant investment of money and time, the movement for commonality is in disarray.
Some states, including South Carolina, Indiana and Florida, have either amended or replaced Common Core standards. Others, including Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana,New Jersey and North Carolina, are in the process of changing or reviewing them. A total of 21 states have withdrawn from two groups formed to develop common tests, making it difficult to compare results.
The issue has become so politicized that some backers have stopped using the name.
“Common Core is a phrase that—we don’t use it anymore,” says John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan who leads the Business Roundtable, an association of corporate chief executives that believes the changes will make U.S. students more competitive globally. Mr. Engler says they now refer to them just as “higher standards.”
Some advocates say that, despite the troubles, the effort will make a difference.
“It certainly won’t have been pretty, or kind of even in its implementation,” says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an association of urban districts. “But I think that this decade will ultimately result in higher expectations and academic standards that are better than what they were before.”
For some urban districts struggling to pay for basic educational needs, preparing for the standards has been challenging.
The Philadelphia school district unveiled a plan in 2010 to implement Common Core and won a $500,000 grant from the Gates Foundation. But a budget crisis the next year resulted in nearly 4,000 layoffs, including of some putting the plan in place.
“It was something of a perfect storm, where expectations were rising while resources were diminishing,” says Christopher Shaffer, Philadelphia’s deputy chief of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Some grant money was spent on summer training that wasn’t well attended. “The teachers were all on vacation,” says Anh Brown, then a district curriculum official.
Ms. Brown says district leaders sent the new standards to school principals without sufficient guidance. Teachers were struggling with the new standards when she arrived at the George W. Nebinger elementary school as principal and began to train them.
Since then, the district has created a teachers’ guide for integrating the standards into lesson plans. Administrators conduct weekly training sessions. But budget problems have meant little has been spent on buying new instructional materials, officials say.
Preparing teachers to implement the standards can be costly. New Mexico spent $5.2 million training about 11,600 educators—about half of the state’s total, officials say.
Some states turned to grants from the $4.3 billion federal educational-reform program called Race to the Top to help fund a move to the standards.
But now most of that money is spent, leaving school districts to shoulder the continuing costs.
Tennessee won a Race to the Top grant, in part because of its plan to use Common Core, and spent $18 million of the grant training teachers. Then, besieged by complaints from parents and other Common Core opponents, the governor and state lawmakers agreed to replace the standards with a more state-specific version in 2017.
State officials say their training wasn’t wasted on the 60,000 teachers who learned valuable methods.
An early priority of Common Core supporters was persuading states to use the same tests so student achievement could be better compared. But high costs have set back that goal as well.
Back in 2010, state officials held a conference call to discuss banding together to create exams. “Everyone had a clear desire to be able to compare student achievement results across a maximum number of states, ideally all fifty,” wrote Michael Cohen, president of education-policy group Achieve, in an email after the conversation.
That goal seemed within reach when 46 states joined two groups. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium were awarded a total of $362 million in federal funding to develop tests.
Many states quit before the tests were ready to be used last school year, with some deciding to give tests specific to their states. PARCC now has only seven states and the District of Columbia using its test, and Smarter Balanced has 15.
For some states, shared tests saved money. Others dropped out after discovering their previous tests were less expensive.
Georgia, for example, quit PARCC after learning English and math testing would run up to $35 a student, or up to $40 million a year. “That just would have been significantly higher than anything we have ever paid,” says Melissa Fincher, a deputy state superintendent.
PARCC’s costs have fallen, but Georgia pays less with another vendor—$23.1 million this year for testing in English, math, science and social studies.
South Carolina, where schools reported spending $46 million to implement Common Core, gave a test based on those standards in the spring but has since moved to new standards and a new test.
The Missouri Legislature forced the state to drop out of Smarter Balanced by cutting $4.2 million from last year’s $27 million testing budget.
For many urban and rural districts, enabling students to take the test on a computer—a goal of advocates—proved another hurdle.
Some districts needed more equipment and better Internet connections. Some big states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have given tests almost exclusively on paper because of technology shortcomings.
California has allocated $4.8 billion to local school districts that they can use for Common Core implementation, but some have asked a state commission to order more funding for giving the Smarter Balanced test.
One of those districts was the Plumas County district in the northern Sierra Nevada, where 2,000 students attend schools spread out over 80 miles and high-speed Internet service is only now making its way through the peaks and valleys.
Officials figured they needed $1.6 million to make the technology improvements needed to give the test properly. With decaying buildings and a strapped budget, the school board decided not to borrow.
This spring, students took the test on the few computers that weren’t outdated. In May, for example, 20 students at Chester Elementary School—half of one class—crowded into a makeshift computer lab strung with extension cords. A server and a stack of computers sat in the corner, with a box fan cooling them.
“We have 127 kids being tested on 20 computers,” said the principal, Sally McGowan.
In states that have reversed course on Common Core, it has been a time of upheaval.
Oklahoma spent up to $2 million preparing for the new standards, including recruiting teachers to train other teachers, says Janet Barresi, the former state education chief who also served on the executive committee of PARCC. But after state officials learned the cost of the exam, they dropped it.
“We couldn’t afford it, and we didn’t have the technology infrastructure to support it,” Ms. Barresi says.
In May of last year, Oklahoma lawmakers voted to repeal Common Core and return to the standards known as PASS. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill shortly before Ms. Barresi lost a Republican primary in which she was criticized for supporting Common Core. Joy Hofmeister, who defeated her and is now superintendent, says the PASS standards had been certified as adequate by a state panel, but better ones are being developed.
In some Oklahoma schools, vestiges of Common Core’s brief life remain.
At the Edmond district’s West Field Elementary School, Principal Lisa Crosslin keeps a cabinet of books hidden away. One is “Vocabulary for the Common Core.” Others are “Pathways to the Common Core,” and “Using Common Core Standards to Enhance Classroom Instruction & Assessment.”
Teachers who still find Common Core methods useful sometimes take them out and peruse them. Then they put them back.
Ms. Crosslin says parents don’t like to see those books out anymore.
—Mark Maremont and Andrea Fuller contributed to this article.