The President Has Little Control over States’ Use of Rigorous, Comparable Education Standards


Writing for Breitbart News, Susan Berry argues President-elect Trump’s appointment for Education Secretary could determine whether he is able to follow through on his pledge to “end the controversial Common Core Standards and finally get Washington, D.C. out of education.”

“As president, Trump can do a lot to fulfill his promise,” contends Joy Pullmann, Heartland Institute education fellow. “The federal government has funded and graded states’ curriculum mandates and tests, a mechanism that greased the skids for Common Core and has kept them greased for Common Core’s inevitable successor. With Congress, Trump can and should end this practice.”

However, states’ commitment to high, comparable education standards began as and remains a state-led effort. There is no federal mandate the president can repeal. And, in fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to demonstrate full ownership of their standards and assessments, prohibiting federal authorities from incentivizing or otherwise pressuring states to adopt any certain set of standards or assessments.

“The Common Core was never a program of the federal government,” the Daily Caller reported in March. “It’s not possible for Trump, as president, to repeal or otherwise get rid of it, because there’s nothing to repeal.”

“Supporters and critics alike agree the incoming president has little, if any, power over the education standards that are already in place across the vast majority of states,” the Washington Times reported today. “Making good on his campaign promise to get rid of the standards… would depend almost entirely on Mr. Trump using his bully pulpit to convince states to dump Common Core,” which would be “an uphill climb.” 

The Every Student Succeeds Act, Washington Post columnist Lyndsey Layton wrote previously, marks “a profound reset of the relationship between federal and state governments. States, not the federal government, decide curricula, teaching methods, academic standards, what to do about struggling schools and how to define success or failure… States decide academic standards. That has been true for years but was spelled out explicitly in the new federal education law.”

Overwhelmingly, states and districts remain committed to high, comparable education standards. No states passed full-scale repeal legislation this year, the second year in a row in which policy makers snubbed predictions of a mass retreat away from efforts to raise expectations in classrooms.

“The debate over high, comparable standards has subsided. Predictions of widespread repeal have failed to materialize,” Collaborative Executive Director Jim Cowen wrote in May. “If there were any question remaining, it seems to be firmly resolved: states are sticking with higher standards.”

Instead, states are reviewing their education standards and assessments, and tailoring them to their students’ needs – which is exactly how the Common Core was designed. The standards were always meant to set a floor, not a ceiling, for student growth. In that regard, the Common Core has achieved its purpose.

A Harvard study observes, “In short, the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”

John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent, previously articulated that point. “We have accomplished what we needed to accomplish,” he explained in 2015. “States have adopted higher standards, states have tests that measure those standards and they’re comparable, so there can be an honest baseline… That is a fantastic success for each state and for America and its children.”

States are seeing the results of their commitment to raising classroom expectations. This year most states administered assessments aligned to higher standards for the second consecutive year. Overwhelmingly student proficiency in math and English language arts increased. Some of the biggest gains came among early-grade students, who have spent most of their education learning to higher standards. In third-grade math, proficiency rates increased by an average of nearly four points.

As states develop plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act it is imperative they use the newfound flexibility and control to build on the success higher standards are having.

“Under ESSA, states have been given broad new authority over the steps they take to produce better outcomes,” New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera explains. The gains states are making “send a clear message that it’s a mistake to retreat from high standards or go back to low-quality tests.”