WSJ Common Core Story Over-Emphasizes Setbacks, Lumps States Into Mystery Categories

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 1.10.27 PM

Screengrab from last week’s WSJ Common Core story.

It’s not hard to come away from reading last week’s front-page WSJ article (Financial Woes Plague Common-Core Rollout) feeling like things are going really, really poorly for the nationwide standards-setting effort called Common Core: 

“Though 45 states initially adopted the shared academic standards in English and math, seven have since repealed or amended them,”writes investigative reporter Michael Rothfeld. “A dozen more states are considering revising or abandoning [them].”

Things aren’t going much better on the assessments front, according to the Journal: “A total of 21 states have withdrawn from two groups formed to develop common tests, making it difficult to compare results,” writes Rothfeld, leaving just 22 states and DC in one or another consortium.

“Five years into the biggest transformation of U.S. public education in recent history, Common Core is far from common,” according to Rothfeld.  In Oklahoma – the setting for the opening and closing of the piece – little more than “vestiges of Common Core’s brief life remain.”  

But is that true? Upon closer examination the picture is not so clear.

The WSJ categorization of states having revised or repealed the Common Core doesn’t entirely match with what other outlets have reported, or what organizations tracking the issue have described. There are also issues of balance and context-setting that have come up. 

To some extent, the WSJ story is a Rorschach test, revealing as much about its readers as the story itself. Looking at the map below, do the many blue states who have adopted the standards catch your eye or the other states?

image from si.wsj.net

Map accompanying WSJ story. States categorized as “revised” — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania — are in white.

The story also reveals the absence of any independent system of measuring the extent to which states are following up with the Common Core and the challenges of categorizing states’ efforts. 

From the pro-Common Core point of view, the WSJ piece is extremely off. In a post titled 9 Reasons Why the Wall Street Journal Got it Wrong on Common Core, the Coalition For Student Success’s Karen Nussle lambastes the front-page story saying that it “at best, misrepresented the persistence of the Common Core, and at worst, was largely erroneous.”  Its “most outlandish misstatement” is that the Common Core is far from common.

The gist of Nussle’s complaint is that it confuses “repeal” with “review,” and takes too literally the stripping out of the Common Core name even when the substance of the new expectations remains. “The standards have demonstrated a remarkable political resiliency,” according to an email Nussle sent to Rothfeld. “Tweaking or amending Common Core is not the same as repealing it.” 

According to the WSJ, three states — Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Carolina – are categorized as having repealed the Common Core. Four more [Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Pennsylvania] are said to have amended the Common Core. Another 12 states [in light blue] are said to be in the process of reviewing/revising the standards.

According to Nussle, only Oklahoma has truly repealed the standards in the sense of going back to the previous expectations. Other states like Indiana and South Carolina have in the end “adopted standards that are largely identical to the Common Core.”

According to Achieve’s Chad Colby, only one state has really repealed the Common Core. South Carolina and Indiana’s new standards aren’t substantially different from the Common Core ones – and Achieve is the only organization that’s reviewed them. “They haven’t retreated,” Achieve’s Chad Colby told me in a Friday phone call.“I don’t really know where he got those numbers.” 

About that, EdWeek would seem to disagree. The trade publication whose reporters have been tracking the process closely agrees that there are 3 states – Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma – that have repealed [“reversed’] on the standards:

image from www.edweek.org

EdWeek map above shows three states in grey as “reversed” on Common Core.

Fairly or not, the WSJ tallies seven states in the repealed/revised list — more than double the number that Common Core advocates would agree with.

But the definitions and categorizations are unclear. What defines “revised,” for example – journalists, outside organizations — the states themselves? Putting states’ standards into simple categories like repealed, revised, and under review is no simple, clear-cut task. In fact, it can be quite political. Some states want to be known as sticking with the Common Core, others just the opposite.

According to a few education reporters I spoke with last week (none of whom would speak for attribution), the WSJ piece isn’t wildly inaccurate – there are different ways to talk about what states have done with the Common Core – but doesn’t describe the state of play in the same ways that they and others have.

The WSJ story doesn’t explain how it arrived at its categorizations, though it does indicate that it received information directly from states.

At least the WSJ dared to specify a number it believes have repealed or amended the effort. An October NYT story only goes as far as to say it is “a few states.”

Speaking of the NYT, one reason that pro-Common Core advocates may have reacted so strongly is that they feel they didn’t get a fair shot in a recent NYT article by Motoko Rich (Test Scores Under Common Core Show That ‘Proficient’ Varies by State).

In that case, CAP’s Carmel Martin wrote a response (Common Core Gives Us a Common Measure Across States), suggesting that the article was looking at the progress that had been made backwards, judging it as a disappointment compared to the original 45 states that signed onto Common Core, rather than comparing it to the handful of states that shared a regional assessment before Common Core came along.

The issue of context comes up again here. The glass is half empty if you compare it to the tally of states involved at their high point, which is the view the WSJ story tends to take. It’s half full if you compare it to where things stood before Common Core began: “In 2015, not a single state passed legislation to repeal their Common Core standards, despite nearly 50 bills nationwide aimed at doing so,” notes Nussle. “Today, we can compare across more states than ever before, totaling more than 20 between the Smarter Balanced and PARCC exams.”

To its credit, the WSJ piece tries to cover lots of ground, including the standards adoption process, the testing and assessment issues, and the costs of implementation. It’s a broader effort than many other journalists have tried in a mainstream publication, and it seems clear that a lot of time and reporting went into the effort. Numerous folks are quoted, including John Engler, Mike Casserly, Philly deputy chief Christopher Shaffer, and Georgia deputy state superintendent Melissa Fincher.

And the piece does include a scattering of positive news and quotes, including Mike Casserly saying “I think that this decade will ultimately result in higher expectations and academic standards that are better than what they were before” and Gates’ Vicki Phillips talking about Kentucky.

It’s not much, but it’s not nothing, either. 

In the end, I come away with a deeper appreciation of how hard it is to categorize where states are on Common Core adoption and implementation. But there are other journalistic issues to highlight: It would have been good for the Journal to have indicated to readers how it coded and categorized the states. The absence of any methodological explanation creates confusion and sows doubts about the accuracy of the categorizations.

And it would have been better if the piece had provided more context to readers about progress that’s been made and successes that have taken place. The journalists who worked on the piece may not believe that they’re arguing that the Common Core is failing, and no such prediction is made outright. But the story is overwhelmingly focused on setbacks. There’s no other way, really, to expect readers to interpret assertions made in the reporter’s own voice like “After a burst of momentum and a significant investment of money and time, the movement for commonality is in disarray.”

Asked about his story, Rothfeld referred me to communications. The paper stands by its story, according to an email from corporate communications staffer Colleen Schwartz: “The Wall Street Journal’s report on Common Core was accurate and fully reported. The determination of where the states stand with respect to Common Core, as well as the testing consortia, was made with extensive input from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”

I received no response from the NGA or CCSSO.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.