Common Core and Inequality

Incentives matter. And so do disincentives. Modern economics has displayed this again and again as people debate everything from social issues to race relations. Unintended consequences have ruined many a brilliant plan to benefit individuals and society as a whole. In the United States, the Obama administration has now implemented legislation that has had negative unintended consequences twice. The first is the well-intentioned Affordable Care Act, designed to ameliorate the shameful absence of health coverage for millions of Americans. While this is a sprawling, confusing law the provision I want to focus on is the one setting a full-time work week at 30 hours. The drafters of this legislation outsmarted themselves on this one. I’m sure that they figured, “We will make it so that companies can’t deny people coverage by giving them 39 hours a week and saying that they are part-time workers.” Unfortunately what occurred was that thousands of businesses merely reduced the number of hours people were working to 29 hours. This certainly created additional hardship in many low-income workers lives by forcing them to get another job and then juggling their schedules and lives, or, live with a reduced paycheck.

One of the pillars of Common Core, which has the noble purpose of combatting job loss due to globalization, is tying teacher evaluations to assessments. One immediate effect this will have is to disincentivize teachers from teaching in poor-performing and poorer districts. Teachers have little control of the conditions of the community which make schools into “dropout factories.” No matter how effective Common Core is at reforming education in schools, at least initially, there will not be immediate improvements. So, why would a teacher go through the effort of working at a school where they will be punished by the conditions prevailing in their districts. It will push more teachers to apply in better districts, depriving already poor-performing districts of the best teachers. The overall effect of this will be to exacerbate inequality as poor and minority-filled districts, which already struggle in assessment and graduation rates, will fall farther behind wealthy districts. The students will, presumably, get a worse education and will be less-prepared for gaining high-quality employment. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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