When Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, announced that the Common Core wasn’t working and that he would commission a committee to overhaul the state’s “Common Core system,” the governor became the first Democrat to venture down a path well-worn by Republican governors in red states like Oklahoma, Indiana and Louisiana.
Whether this is a sign of a coming bipartisan dismantling of the Common Core or just a sign that Cuomo is willing to sacrifice the Common Core to keep his other educational priorities – particularly test-based teacher evaluations – afloat is up for debate. Less debatable is the uniqueness of how New York went about implementing the Common Core, a set of math and reading standards in place in 44 states and the District of Columbia.
No state has so strongly embraced the Common Core. In 2011, a year after the standards were released, the state education department started the long (and expensive) process of procuring thousands of Common Core-aligned curriculum materials, which were used to build the EngageNY website for teachers. New York schools were told to start implementing the new standards during the 2011-12 school year, and students started taking Common Core tests in the spring of 2013 – a full two years before students in most states. Under those new tests, the percentage of students passing the state’s reading and math tests dropped by over 20 points.
At the same time, Cuomo has been intent on holding teachers more and more accountable for their students’ performance on those tests. In 2012, Cuomo, despite the outcry of the state’s teachers unions, got the legislature to pass a teacher evaluation system that based 20 percent of teachers’ ratings on their students’ test score growth. Dissatisfied that 96 percent of teachers were still getting good ratings – despite the fact that only about 35 percent of students were passing the new, harder Common Core tests – Cuomo got the legislature to agree to make it harder for teachers to be rated effective and harder for teachers without effective ratings to get tenure. This is in sharp contrast to many other states that have hit the pause button on their teacher accountability systems during the transition to tougher tests.
Deven Carlson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies how states are integrating the Common Core into their existing accountability systems, sees the teacher evaluation system as one of the central grievances of the New York parents and students, who – with some help from educators and the teachers union – orchestrated the largest sit-out of annual state tests since the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act that mandated them. Carlson says that Cuomo’s refusal to delay teacher evaluations make New York a special case.
“This is primarily a teacher evaluation story,” said Carlson. “New York tried to implement the Common Core in tandem with whole new teacher evaluation policies and tests. In many ways, that was unique to New York, where the strength of the teacher evaluation policy and the unwillingness to reconsider it infuriated teachers and unions who then did a good job getting parents on their side.”
Carlson says that Cuomo is more likely to make tweaks to the standards or tests than to throw out his teacher evaluation system.
“It looks like Common Core is going to be the fall guy for a very complex set of educational policies that Cuomo is trying to implement all at once,” said Carlson. “It’s a lot easier to rename the standards something other than Common Core or to tweak some of the language than it is to go back on the hard-fought victories you won on teacher evaluations.”
Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, isn’t so sure that the consequences of Cuomo’s commission will be so narrow.
“This is a bellwether if a staunchly Democratic governor and an unapologetic reformer in a deeply blue state is making the calculation that he is happy to sacrifice Common Core for other elements of his reform agenda,” said Hess. “It suggests just how challenging the circumstances are for the Common Core. The idea – that these are just a few political bumps and that with the standards on the books in 40 states, the hardest part is done – is quickly fading away. Having the standards on the books is just the first mile of the marathon. It’s the other 95 percent where you run into enormous challenges. If I was a staunch Common Core advocate, I would be worried.”