Policy Documents

Testimony to Tennessee Legislature on Common Core Standards

September 19, 2013

Testimony to Tennessee Legislature on Common Core Standards
Joy Pullmann

September 20, 2013


Thank you for inviting me to speak today. My name is Joy Pullmann. I’m a mother of three children and an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based, state-focused national think tank with the mission to research and promote ideas that empower individuals. Since we believe in academic freedom, I speak for myself and not on behalf of everyone at the Institute.


You may either believe I am trying to destroy my marriage or fanatical about Common Core, because to be here I left my husband on our wedding anniversary while he keeps the kids from setting fire to the house. Common Core subverts Americans’ rights to representative self-government on its way to promulgating low-quality academic mandates that are not likely to do one whit of good for children, and this is what I will address today.


You almost cannot discuss or read about Common Core without hearing someone say it was “state-led.” Notice they almost never explain what that means. Let’s look at the facts, and see whether “state-led” is an accurate description.


Two organizations spearheaded Common Core. They are the National Governors Association (NGA) and Chief Council of State School Officers (CCSS). These are private, Washington DC-based trade organizations that have no power to pass laws or create policies. Governors and superintendents themselves cannot pass laws without legislatures, and they have limited power to create policies. NGA and CCSSO are essentially networking organizations. They receive most of their funds from the federal government and the remainder from state contributions not all states pay and from corporate and private sponsors.[1] The sponsor for the Common Core initiative within NGA and CCSSO was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,[2] which is the world’s biggest philanthropy and pays for practically every big initiative related to Common Core. By August 1 this year, the Gates Foundation had spent $250 million to develop and push national standards.[3] Many of those speaking today have received Gates money, including Tennessee SCORE, which has received $1.8 million;[4] the Fordham Institute, which has received $6.7 million;[5]and the Tennessee Department of Education, which has received $3.6 million.[6] The Military Child Education Coalition has received $420,000,[7] the most recent grant “to develop and execute an advocacy campaign [for Common Core]…by leveraging…its network of military families and uniform leadership.”


In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a report on the future of No Child Left Behind, which called for national education standards.[8] In May 2008, the Gates Foundation awarded the Hunt Institute $2.2 million to promote national standards.[9] The Hunt Institute then began partnering with NGA to target state leaders with its national standards message.[10] In December 2008, NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve Inc. released a report calling for national standards. It recommended “a strong state-federal partnership” to accomplish this goal.[11] These three groups then answered their own call, and coordinated Common Core.

During this process, some 135 people are named as contributors to Common Core, including just one from Tennessee,[12] but the people who controlled the outcome were few. Committee members told me they had no power over the standards. That was reserved to the standards’ five lead writers, of whom none live in Tennessee, none have been K-12 teachers, and two had never written standards.[13] Although Common Core’s shepherds requested public comments, they never published these or responded to them publicly, which is typically required for public rule-making. Unlike state boards of education and legislatures, the activities of NGA and CCSSO were and are not subject to open records requests or open meetings laws.[14] Common Core was created entirely in private, and its contributors had to sign confidentiality agreements.[15]


State officials also promised the federal government Tennessee would adopt Common Core several months before a draft of it was even available. In its Race to the Top application dated January 18, 2010, Tennessee said it would adopt Common Core in July 2010,[16] and the state Board of Education proceeded to do just that, noting in its minutes “The verbatim adoption of these standards is required for Race to the Top approval.”[17] Apparently Tennessee’s state Board of Education is just a rubber-stamp committee for the state Department of Education, although state laws seem to set up the reverse. Unfortunately for transparency and open governance, the first draft of Common Core was not publicly available until March 2010,[18] and a final version was not published until June 2, 2010.[19] So Tennessee taxpayers, parents, and even decision-makers had no way of knowing what their state promised to do for $500 million from the nation’s taxpayers, or 6 percent of one year’s education budget[20] like the proverbial 30 pieces of silver, and it apparently didn’t matter to those who decided.


Furthermore, Americans already have “state-led” mechanisms for instituting public policies. These are the state legislatures and U.S. Congress. Private groups are free to dream as they wish, but not to cover their attempts to direct public policy with a veneer of legal legitimacy. State legislatures and boards of education are the only bodies constitutionally granted power over K-12 education, not governors and state superintendents with dictatorial whims. Even so, NGA and CCSSO looped governors and state superintendents into signing a complete education restructure, without the consent of the legislature or state board, through memorandums of agreement committing to the Common Core project,[21] and subsequently to national Common Core tests.[22] The second agreement clearly subordinates Tennessee’s legislature to the national Common Core testing group it has joined, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known as PARCC. It commits the state to “address barriers in State law, statute, regulation, or policy to implementing the proposed assessment system.”[23]


No amount of spin can alter the fact that Common Core was created outside of Tennessee in a extra-legal process in which Tennesseans had no ability to determine the outcome themselves or through their duly elected representatives in the legislature, a right the state constitution is supposed to secure them.[24] Common Core is not state-led. It is special interest-led.


As is typical of special-interest projects, Common Core is at best of mediocre quality. Before we even get to the quality, however, we have to confront the evidence almost no one involved seems willing to discuss, which is the utter lack of evidence that standards improve student achievement. The Brookings Institution finds no statistical link between high state standards and high student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” a recent Brookings report concludes.[25]

So why do we keep hearing that Common Core is the magic pill America’s lackluster schoolchildren desperately need? Dr. Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas explains: “The only evidence in support of Common Core consists of projects funded directly or indirectly by the Gates Foundation in which panels of selected experts are asked to offer their opinion on the quality of Common Core standards.  Not surprisingly, panels organized by the backers of Common Core believe that Common Core is good…  The few independent evaluations of Common Core that exist suggest that its standards are mediocre and represent little change from what most states already have.”[26]


Let me present you more of that independent evidence. First, from the only two content experts[27] to sit on Common Core’s final committee, called the validation committee. These two—Dr. Sandra Stotsky and Dr. R. James Milgram—and three of their fellow committee members refused to sign their names to Common Core because they believe it is subpar.

Dr. Stotsky played a pivotal role in writing and implementing Massachusetts’ academic standards, which are acknowledged as the best in the nation. She says “Most of Common Core’s college-readiness and grade-level reading standards are content-free skills. Skills training alone doesn’t prepare students for college. They need a fund of content knowledge… There are more writing than reading standards at every grade level in Common Core. This is the opposite of what an academically sound reading/English curriculum should contain, as suggested by a large body of research on the development of reading and writing skills.” Research also shows the “informational text” Common Core emphasizes will not prepare children for authentic college work, she says. Only high-quality, complex literature does that, which is why English teachers are trained to teach literature, not nonfiction. [28]

Dr. Milgram is an internationally recognized mathematician who helped write California’s also well-regarded K-12 math standards. He says “[B]y the end of fifth grade the material being covered in arithmetic and algebra in Core Standards is more than a year behind the early grade expectations in most high-achieving countries. By the end of seventh grade Core Standards are roughly two years behind.”[29] He further notes Common Core “only require[s] partial understanding of what would be the content of a normal, solid, course in Algebra I or Geometry. Moreover, they cover very little of the content of Algebra II, and none of any higher level course.”[30]

Although Milgram and Stotsky have perhaps been the most prominent academics criticizing Common Core’s quality, they are far from alone. I’ll quote a sampling. Johns Hopkins University math professor and Common Core math feedback committee member W. Stephen Wilson says the math standards of California, Florida, Indiana, Washington state, and Washington DC are “clearly better” than Common Core’s.[31] When Seton Hall University professor Christopher Tienken reviewed the purportedly “large and growing body of knowledge” that supposedly grounds Common Core, he said “I found that it was not large, and in fact built mostly on one report, Benchmarking for Success, created by the NGA and the CCSSO… Only four of the cited pieces of evidence could be considered empirical studies related directly to the topic of national standards and student achievement.”[32] He further discusses research showing there is no link between test scores and economic competitiveness. Emory University’s Dr. Mark Bauerlein, the only other English professor to sit on any of the Common Core committees, says Common Core’s “secondary English language arts standards were not developed or approved by English teachers and humanities scholars, nor were they research-based or internationally benchmarked.”[33] Hillsdale College’s Dr. Terrence Moore, who has led a nationally recognized public charter school, examined Common Core’s list of recommended readings, and found them notable in several negative aspects, including that they only recommend students read the Bill of Rights, not the Constitution and all its amendments, and to understand the Constitution the readings assign modern scholarship that depicts our founding fathers as racists and misogynists as reason to consider the Constitution an “evolving” document. He also finds “there is nothing from what would be considered the Judeo-Christian literary tradition” inside the recommended readings, “although America’s literary tradition has long been tied up with its religious tradition,” and concludes “the case could be made that these texts were artfully chosen to convey a particular political persuasion.”[34]

I could sit here all day reading such quotes, but you get the idea.


Perhaps there is value in academic sameness across schools and states, even if that sameness is lackluster. Indeed, we keep hearing about how common standards would benefit sympathetic figures like military and poor families, who move often. These statistics, however, are overblown. As Major Terry Smith of Military Families Against Common Core writes, “The most successful school systems are not in wealthy suburbs, but on military bases. Regardless of race or socioeconomic level, military brats succeed—with 97 percent graduating from high school and scoring among the highest among all students nationally, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Advocates promote Common Core under the guise it will make it easier for students to transfer to another state when only a total of 1.7 percent[35] of all students transfer each year.”[36] He notes the successes of Department of Defense schools educating their highly mobile population, which indicates others can do it, too.


Indeed, most military kids attend public schools, not DOD schools: 2.4 percent of school-age U.S. children are in military families and attend public schools.[37] Their families move approximately every three years.[38] Furthermore, even with common standards teachers can teach the different units at different times during the year, meaning the only real way to ensure kids who move don’t miss anything is to act like France, where it’s joked the prime minister knows what page in what book each child is reading at any given minute of every given day, the curriculum is so scripted. Hardly anyone in the U.S. would support that, so rather than reorient the entire system for a change that will not even benefit the very small minority cited as a prime reason for this change, it seems wiser for schools and states to assess transfer students to find the gaps in their education and give them personalized services to fill those gaps without disadvantaging the other 97.6 percent of children with dull, repetitive classes.


Of course, everyone everywhere will be damaged if Common Core is ineffective. The academic debate over that question has been stunted because the political maneuvers to pass Common Core zoomed right past an essential component of a free society: Robust, open debate. And this returns us to the central, yet entirely bypassed question: Why do we have public education? Is it to lump children onto a conveyor belt into a factory tasked with outputting the next decade’s workforce? That is, after all, what Common Core promises: “College and career readiness.” Somewhere, along the way, they forgot that in the United States, public education exists because our form of government requires people who can govern themselves. From its beginning to its end, Common Core utterly ignores the American form of government. Its proselytizers and courtiers speak not a word of citizenship, apparently because this does not concern them. But if you believe in government by the people, of the people, and for the people, it’s time to jettison this milquetoast, special interest-directed pork project, and start considering what system of education best serves that form of government. Perhaps you might even involve the public in deciding that question. This is not only our American tradition—it is a right our laws secure.


Thank you. I welcome your questions.

[1] “‘State-Led’ Common Core Pushed by Federally Funded Nonprofit,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, April 24, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/04/24/state-led-common-core-pushed-federally-funded-nonprofit; “Tax-Sponsored Common Core Meetings Closed to Public,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, January 3, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/01/03/tax-sponsored-common-core-meetings-closed-public..

[2] “Education Policies Led by Gates, Not States?” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, February 11, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/02/11/education-policies-led-gates-not-states.

[3] Author’s calculations from Gates Foundation grants database, calculations public here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AlHzNS1Lt37tdHAweF9OWWZ6aEZtRXAtNXN6SjBDdGc&usp=sharing.

[7] Gates Foundation Grants, Military Child Education Coalition: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work/Quick-Links/Grants-Database#q/k=military.

[8] “Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children,” Commission on No Child Left Behind, Aspen Institute, 2007: http://www.aucd.org/docs/Aspen%20Commission%20on%20NCLB.pdf.

[9] “Our Response to Florida Republican Leaders’ Defense of Common Core,” Jane Robbins, American Principles Project, July 24, 2013: http://americanprinciplesproject.org/preserve-innocence/2013/our-response-to-florida-republican-leaders-defense-of-common-core/.

[10] “Five People Wrote ‘State-Led’ Common Core,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, June 7, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/06/07/five-people-wrote-state-led-common-core.

[11] “Benchmarking for Success,” National Governors Association, Chief Council of State School Officers, and Achieve Inc., December 18, 2008: http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/0812BENCHMARKING.PDF.

[12] “Common Core Standards Initiative K-12 Standards Development Teams,” National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, November 10, 2009: http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/2010COMMONCOREK12TEAM.PDF.

[13] “Five People Wrote ‘State-Led’ Common Core,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, June 7, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/06/07/five-people-wrote-state-led-common-core.

[14] “Tax-Sponsored Common Core Meetings Closed to Public,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, January 3, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/01/03/tax-sponsored-common-core-meetings-closed-public.

[15] “Message from Professor Jim Milgram, Standford University, to Richard Innes Regarding the Conduct of the Common Core State Standards Validation Committee, May 11, 2013: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/images/8/81/Message_from_Professor_Jim_Milgram_Regarding_Delphi_Issues.pdf.

[16] "Race to the Top Application for Initial Funding," Tennessee Office of the Governor, January 18, 2010, p. 49: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/tennessee.pdf.

[17] "State Board of Education Minutes," July 30, 2010, p. 6: http://www.state.tn.us/sbe/October2010pdfs/July%202010%20Minutes.pdf

[18] "Draft K-12 Common Core State Standards Available for Comment," National Governors Association, March 10, 2010: http://www.nga.org/cms/home/news-room/news-releases/page_2010/col2-content/main-content-list/title_draft-k-12-common-core-state-standards-available-for-comment.html.

[19] "National Governors Association and State Education Chiefs Launch Common State Academic Standards," National Governors Association, June 2, 2010: http://www.nga.org/cms/home/news-room/news-releases/page_2010/col2-content/main-content-list/title_national-governors-association-and-state-education-chiefs-launch-common-state-academic-standards.html.

[20] Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/stateprofiles/sresult.asp?mode=short&s1=47.

[21] “Common Core Standards Memorandum of Agreement,” National Governors Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, May 8, 2009: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/images/c/c6/2009_CCSS_Commitment_MOA_from_Open_Recs_Request.pdf.

[22] Race to the Top Assessment Program Application for New Grants, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, June 6, 2010, p. 191-197: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/rtta2010parcc.pdf.

[23] Tennessee Memorandum of Understanding for Race to the Top Comprehensive Assessment Systems Grant, June 3, 2010, p. 14 and 15: http://www.fldoe.org/parcc/pdf/MOUTennessee.pdf.

[24] Tennessee Constitution, Article XI, Section 12: http://www.state.tn.us/sos/bluebook/05-06/46-tnconst.pdf.

[25] “How Well Are American Students Learning?” Tom Loveless, Brookings Institution, Volume III, Number 1 (February 2012): www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/2/brown%20center/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf.

[26] Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jay Greene, September 21, 2011: http://jaypgreene.com/2011/09/21/my-testimony-on-national-standards-before-us-house/.

[27] “Common Core’s Invalid Validation Committee,” Sandra Stotsky, University of Notre Dame, September 9, 2013: http://www.uaedreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2000/01/Common-Core%E2%80%99s-Invalid-Validation-Committee.pdf.

[28] "Invited Testimony for a Hearing in Michigan on Common Core," Sandra Stotsky, August 14, 2013: http://www.uaedreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2000/01/Stotsky-Invited-Testimony-for-Hearing-in-Michigan-on-Common-Core.pdf.

[30] “Michigan lawmakers should not fund Common Core Standards implementation,” Laura Krentz, Muskegon Chronicle, September 2, 2013: http://www.mlive.com/opinion/muskegon/index.ssf/2013/09/viewpoint_33.html.

[31] “The Common Core Math Standards,” Ze`ev Wurman and W. Stephen Wilson, Education Next, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 2012): http://educationnext.org/the-common-core-math-standards/.

[32] “Common Core State Standards: An Example of Data-less Decision Making,” Christopher Tienken, AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice, Winter 2011, Vol. 7. No. 4, p. 6: http://www.aasa.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/Newsletters/JSP_Winter2011.FINAL.pdf.

[33] “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk,” Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, Pioneer Institute, September 19, 2011: http://pioneerinstitute.org/download/how-common-cores-ela-standards-place-college-readiness-at-risk/.

[34] Unpublished analysis of Common Core by Dr. Terrence Moore, in possession of author.

[36] “Common Core Bad for DODDS,” Maj. Terry A. Smith (ret.), Stars and Stripes, July 25, 2013: http://www.stripes.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/common-core-bad-for-dodds-1.232169.

[37] Author’s calculations from National Center for Education Statistics and Department of Defense data. See http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=55763 for DOD numbers.