Estimating Common Core costs

The adoption of the Common Core standards comes at tough time for districts that have cut teacher training days and textbook purchases to stave off further layoffs. But a new study for the Fordham Institute co-authored by a University of San Francisco political science professor concludes that the transition to the new standards in the next few years need not be onerous.

“The bottom line is that successful (Common Core) implementation does not have to be wildly expensive – and could also support changes that have a permanent and positive impact on the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning,” says Putting a Price on the Common Core: How Much Does Smart Implementation Cost?

“Smart” is key. The researchers, who included Patrick Murphy of USF, did a state-by-state breakdown using three scenarios for one-time costs for buying new materials, training teachers in the new standards, and implementing the new assessments. For California, the cost ranged from $380 million (the El Cheapo model the authors don’t recommend) to $1.6 billion, the Business as Usual model. The latter assumes the state would proceed with the Common Core as it has with previous state standards adoptions, with full purchases of printed textbooks for every student and 80 hours of professional development for every math and English language arts teacher.

However, the authors argue that technology and national standards create a third, “balanced option” costing $681 million. Common Core offers opportunities for California to piggyback on curriculum development and lesson planning that other states and national educator groups are doing well already. California can and should tap into those resources. The balanced or middle way assumes that teachers would receive some of their training in webinars and on their own through online lessons and the rest though the “train the trainer” method, in which one or two staff members receive intensive training and then teach others. Instead of a paperbound textbook, they could supplement materials using open source or other digital content. The assessments could be computer administered. (California is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium of states, which is creating computer-adaptive online assessments for 2014-15.)

Here are the estimated costs of Common Core for California and the next four largest states under three scenarios. Column 5 is the amount the states now have to spend on teacher training and textbooks. Columns 6 through 8 are the net costs, after applying Column 5 to the costs in Columns 2 through 4. Source: Putting a Price Tag on Common Core (click to enlarge).
The estimated costs of Common Core for California and the next four largest states under three scenarios. Column 5 is the amount the states now have to spend on teacher training and textbooks. Columns 6 - 8 are the net costs, after applying Column 5 to the costs in Columns 2 - 4. Source: Putting a Price Tag on Common Core. (Click to enlarge)

How much net savings?

Those are the gross costs. However, since states are already spending money on teacher training and textbooks and materials, the study assumes that for the next few years this money would be channeled to Common Core, so the net cost of implementing the new standards would be substantially less. As the study notes, “… it’s hard to fathom why any state or district would not seek to repurpose much of its current budget for standards implementation at least relative to math and English language arts.”

The study puts California’s current annual expenditures at $533 million. Subtract that amount from each of the three options, and the net costs for California drop substantially – to $1.070 billion for business as usual and $148 million for the “balanced” approach. In theory, the cheap model would save the state $153 million from what it is paying now by going digital and cutting corners on training, but this figure is silly, for reasons I’ll get to (see chart).

The Fordham study’s net cost to California of $148 million contrasts with the estimate of the state Department of Education. The Department of Education projects the cost of converting to Common Core at between $1.36 billion and $1.56 billion, according to figures that Paul Hefner, communications director for the Department, passed on. This is very close to Fordham’s “Business as Usual” amount and approach. It assumes $500 million to $700 million for textbooks and materials, plus $871 million to train the state’s 287,000 teachers ($2,000 for each middle and high school teacher, who’d be trained in one subject for 80 hours, and $4,000 for elementary teachers, who’d be trained in math and English language arts). Proposition 98 spending next year will be around $50 billion.

There’s no way of knowing now who’s closer to being right, Fordham’s middle way or the state, because the state’s charter schools and 1,000 school districts will be fending for themselves, some making the most of collaboration and new technology, some sitting around waiting for the state to tell them what to do.

Assembly, batteries are extra

But there are additional factors to consider:

  • Many districts have cut back on training and materials over the past several years, so the $535 million that the study estimates is being spent now on those items is high. The Legislature removed restrictions on materials purchases and professional development spending. A survey this year from the Legislative Analyst found that nearly 80 percent of districts had cut back on training, and more than 60 percent reported spending less on materials. That’s why it’s fatuous to say that the state could save $152 million under the cheapest option. It can’t save on what it’s not now spending.
  • The study doesn’t include the cost of technology needed to administer Common Core tests and achieve savings in the implementation – a major omission. In a Fordham webinar last week, Murphy cited two reasons: States and districts are all over the map in their use of and capacity for computers and bandwidth, and states should be investing in technology for its benefits to education that go beyond Common Core adoption. (Districts are in the midst of taking a survey that will reveal how well equipped they are for administering the SMARTER Balanced assessment in 2015.)
  • The Common Core cost estimates are for one-time expenses, but districts can spread them out over several years.
  • California shifted some of the Common Core standards in math to lower grades and added a few standards in English language arts. The study doesn’t factor in extra assessment and training costs from California’s deviations, and the State Board and Department of Education  haven’t dealt with the issue either.

One of Common Core’s sharpest critics in California, Ze’ev Wurman, believes that the Fordham study’s implementation estimates are way low. The technology costs will be substantial; the new computer-administered tests, in which teachers will grade essays and questions, will be permanently more expensive; and the teacher training needs will far exceed 80 hours, Wurman said last week during a webcast forum sponsored by Fordham. “Professional development will take hundreds of hours over many years,” he said. The needs will be in content, not pedagogy; Common Core requires teaching elements of geometry in middle schools, a more extensive knowledge of fractions, plus close reading to texts in English language arts. (He is not alone in believing that Common Core will expose  weaknesses in math  knowledge of many elementary teachers.)

“Eighty hours will not solve anything,” Wurman said.

In a foreword to the study, Fordham Institute President Chester “Checker” Finn and Ambler Winkler acknowledged the difficulty of implementing Common Core in a few years. “Let’s not kid ourselves. Of course it is going to be a challenge to implement the Common Core standards well. School leaders will be charged with advancing new teaching and learning paradigms, teachers with conveying more demanding material, and students with learning tougher content and skills.”

But Finn and Winkler also chided the rear-guard tactics by Common Core critics to overstate costs. “Having lost the adoption battle, Common Core opponents are now waging a budget battle, determined to paint the (Common Core standards) as a crazily costly mandate imposed upon the states. Though we loathe scare tactics, we do agree that states and districts had better go in with eyes wide open. After all, if they are to approach implementation seriously, they must have a solid estimate of its price tag.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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