On this 40th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Education, how are students doing under national standards?

Forty years ago today, the United States Department of Education began operating after the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was split into two different cabinet-level positions under the Carter administration. Supervised by the U.S. Secretary of Education, the Department manages an annual budget of $68 billion.

As the Department’s role and structure has changed over the years, so has its efforts to improve U.S. student academic outcomes. But despite these efforts, such as an attempt to speed up academic improvement through a single set of national curriculum standards called the Common Core, the United States continues to struggle to compete internationally with the progress much of the developed world has made in reading and math.

On this 40th anniversary, it is worth noting that student scores in the United States are not improving, and have, in fact, seen historic declines since most states implemented national Common Core standards in English and math six years ago, according to the Pioneer Institute and its new study.

While Common Core was promoted as improving the international competitiveness of U.S. students in math, our international standing has remained low while the skills of average and lower performing American students have dropped in both math and reading.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in mathematics, not only do U.S. 15-year-olds still lag far behind students in top-performing countries, but they are also significantly below the average of developed countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Even more shocking, the slow but relatively steady gains in student achievement that we had grown used to in recent decades have not only stopped since the implementation of Common Core, but we are now seeing the first sustained declines in student achievement since as far back as we have national test score trend data.

These trends in student performance “should lead us to reconsider the federal role in education and whether the initiative for policymaking should be returned to local schools, communities, and states,” the Pioneer Institute continues.

Nationally, fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP math scores were rising gradually in the years before Common Core was implemented (2003-2013). Post-Common Core, scores at both grades have fallen, eighth grade at nearly the same rate as it was previously increasing.

The declines are most acute for the lowest-achieving students, increasing inequality.

From 2003 to 2013, national fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores were increasing at an average of about half of a point each year.  Since 2013, fourth-grade reading scores have been falling by less than half of a point each year, while eighth-grade scores have dropped by nearly a full point a year.

It should come as no surprise that defenders of Common Core often blame its poor performance on lack of money, but funding for public schools continued to increase throughout the implementation of Common Core and “stands at an all-time high.” And when compared to developed countries in the world, the U.S. spends more per student than nearly all of them.

According to a recent international comparison of K-12 education spending, the U.S. ranks second out of 27 OECD countries in annual per student expenditure and spends $3,300 above the average.

Further, from the 2012/13 school year through the 2018/19 school year (which includes Common Core implementation), U.S. public school spending per student increased by approximately 10.5 percent in constant dollars, from $11,552 to $12,760 (not including capital expenditure).

In the years immediately before Common Core was implemented in most classrooms, between 2008/09 and 2012/13, per-student public school spending was cut by approximately 5.2 percent due to the economic recession, yet student achievement mostly continued its prior upward trajectory. Sustained decreases in student achievement occurred after 2013, when full implementation of Common Core began in most classrooms and despite coincident increases in spending!

So, where should we go from here? There is concern that without national standards, states would create their own, which could put them at odds with each other (such as, the highest standards in one state could be too low in another). But now we have an ideologically-driven, top-down education establishment designing curricula standards which, given the negative results of Common Core, have not served students well.

Would students be better served if states and local districts were encouraged to try a broader and more flexible range of approaches over those mandated at the federal level?

Share your thoughts below.