Tom Loveless is an education researcher, former teacher, and former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been studying education policy for many years. In his new book Between the state and the schoolhouse: Understanding the failure of common core, he uses clear engaging prose interweaved with clear summaries of the research on Common Core to tell the story of this huge undertaking and all the many factors that went into it. As he notes in the interview that follows, given the enormous investment in this undertaking and what he views as its failure, it is surprising that education analysts have not given as much attention to this policy and what we might learn from it. Thus, this book is aligned with other volumes on education policy, such as Failure up close, that emphasize the importance of dissecting why education reforms did not work. In the interview that follows, Tom provides what an understanding of the failure of Common Core can teach us about what we should focus on when trying to change policy in the future and also provides suggestions for what types of education policy research might be most useful in the future.

As Eric Kalenze says about the book, it “is a measured and clever tour through the Common Core’s history, design, and (meager) results, and it utterly brims with lessons that future education reformers would be wise to bear in mind.”

Why did you write this book? 

Common Core was a massive effort. I thought it was important to take stock of what it had accomplished or failed to accomplish. I’m a policy analyst, and after a decade into one of the most ambitious efforts ever to change American education, a book length review of the policy seemed in order. When one considers all of the books written about the Iraq war by foreign policy analysts or the Affordable Care Act by health care analysts, the fact that Common Core has not received comparable attention from education analysts is remarkable.

What can an understanding of the failure of common core teach us about changing education policy? 

It’s difficult to improve education through policy. The K-12 system is multi-layered, requires different types of expertise at each layer, and repeatedly invites political input and divergent administrative interpretations at every stage of implementation. The Common Core State Standards failed not so much because they are terrible standards—although they are certainly not perfect—but because the theory of standards-based reform is faulty. The system has too many places for hiccups in implementation. Moreover, Common Core advocates often characterize standards as simply establishing the topics teachers are expected to teach and the learning outcomes that schools are expected to accomplish. But by insisting that important downstream components of education, in particular, curriculum and instruction, be aligned to the standards, the focus on outcomes fades and the standards serve to anchor a regulatory regime.

I hope policymakers abandon standards-based reform. Treat the other big four components of education systems—curriculum, instruction, assessment, and accountability—as independent policies with their own design challenges. Tying them all to standards hamstrings practitioners, especially teachers, and creates distortions. The distortions are most evident with curriculum and instruction. Today, one hears Common Core advocates pushing for “effective, aligned” curriculum. Why is alignment placed on the same level as effectiveness? Two good sources on evaluating the effectiveness of curriculum are What Works Clearinghouse and Evidence for ESSA. They evaluate textbooks based on solid evidence, meaning either scientific or quasi-scientific evaluations, and identify materials that successfully lead to learning. If curricula do that and aren’t aligned with Common Core, who cares?

What are your thoughts on the most useful education policy research in the future? 

I urge more research into the technical core of schooling, in particular, curriculum and instruction. That would better inform schools and classrooms, the lower levels of policymaking in K-12. In the book, I speculate about what would have happened if the U.S. government, the states, philanthropic foundations, and school districts that poured money into Common Core had instead singled out a known challenge to kids’ learning and focused on that instead. In math, fractions immediately come to mind. Fractions are a difficult transition from whole number knowledge. They conceptually pose a huge wall that many 4th, 5th, and 6th graders cannot climb. We currently have several amazing researchers working on the problem. Let’s help them and supply practitioners more tools to help kids climb over the fractions wall. Relatedly, policymakers will need to think more modularly, in other words, not building incentives on what students in third grade should know, but providing curriculum and instructional approaches that third grade teachers can use with all of their students, including those two years above or two years below grade level. The policy era of “these students are in third grade and so here’s what you should teach them” should end.