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Is the debate over education’s Common Core the wrong debate?

In North Carolina and around the country, a heated debate is taking place over whether states should use what are called the Common Core standards. But it is the wrong debate. The more important debate is whether it is realistic to assume that all students, especially at the high school level, should be expected to reach the same standards.

Traditionally, education in the U.S. was considered a state’s rights issue resulting in a hodgepodge of different standards.

The Common Core standards grew out of a concern in the nineties that U.S. students were falling behind the educational achievement levels of students in other developed nations. That concern led the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to work together and develop standards that were voluntarily adopted by the overwhelming majority of the nation’s fifty states – 46 states adopted the standards, including North Carolina; 4 states did not adopt the standards, including Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia.

The development of national standards represented a major departure from the tradition of education in the United States. Traditionally, education in the U.S. was considered a state’s rights issue resulting in a hodgepodge of different standards. What would be considered above average achievement levels in reading or math in one state might be considered failing in another.

The adoption of Common Core standards benchmarked to the levels of high-performing countries1 around the world was an attempt to address the hodgepodge and enable the public, policymakers, and educators to accurately assess the performance of their students not only when compared to students in other states but to students in other countries.

Adding to the growing list of criticism of the Common Core is a large financial grant program – Race to the Top – by the U.S. Department of Education focused on successful implementation of the Common Core, leading to charges of a top-down federal system of education.

However, since states adopted and began using the Common Core standards, problems – real and imagined – have plagued the implementation in many states, including North Carolina. Heading the list of often cited problems is the training of teachers that would have enabled them to successfully implement the more challenging standards. Not far behind is testing and charges that schools are now focused only on “teaching to the tests.” Adding to the growing list of criticism of the Common Core is a large financial grant program – Race to the Top – by the U.S. Department of Education focused on successful implementation of the Common Core, leading to charges of a top-down federal system of education.

All of these problems and more resulted in conservatives uniting around a move to eliminate the Common Core and return to the day when states set their own standards. In North Carolina that resulted in passage of N.C. Session Law 2014-78 (Senate Bill 812) – AN ACT TO EXERCISE NORTH CAROLINA’S CONSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY OVER ALL ACADEMIC STANDARDS; TO REPLACE COMMON CORE; AND TO ENSURE THAT STANDARDS ARE ROBUST AND APPROPRIATE AND ENABLE STUDENTS TO SUCCEED ACADEMICALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY.

The more important debate is whether it is realistic to assume that all students, especially at the high school level, should be expected to reach the same standards?

While the debate here and around the country rages, more people should ask whether this is the debate we want to have. The more important debate is whether it is realistic to assume that all students, especially at the high school level, should be expected to reach the same standards?

Schooling in the United States, especially at the high school level, is very different from schooling in almost all other industrialized nations. Most developed countries, including virtually all of the top educational performing countries in the world – countries like Finland and Singapore – separate high schools into academic (i.e. those that prepare young people for a college education) and occupational or technical schools (i.e. those that prepare young people for gainful employment).

In Europe, the tradition of focusing on meaningful occupational training dates back centuries to employee guilds, which represented workers in specific areas like carpentry or masonry, working with education officials and creating apprenticeship programs that led to certification in specific skill areas. From those beginnings, countries like Germany and virtually all of the Scandinavian countries have developed very sophisticated and demanding occupational and technical schools, some focused on manufacturing, others on robotics, and still others on occupations such as hotel and restaurant management.

In the Pacific Rim, the same thing is true. In Japan, for instance, there are maritime high schools dotting the shoreline of the island nation that lead to certification in navigation or training in building and maintaining commercial fisheries. Inland, high schools focus on manufacturing located near and cooperating with plants owned by Sony and other Japanese-based companies. In Japan’s cities, high schools focus programs on accounting, secretarial work, technology, and other skills needed in urban-based offices.

Students in these programs continue receiving education, but it is education based on the skills they will need in the workforce.

In contrast, the overwhelming majority of schools in North Carolina and in most of the United States are primarily focused on a “one size fits all” educational program that ostensibly is preparing all young people for community college or college.

While vocational education programs flourished in most schools through the fifties and into the sixties, vocational education has declined dramatically and taken a back seat to academic education. To see what is valued in our schools, one needs only to see who is recognized as successful at a high school graduation ceremony where students accepted to college and especially those receiving scholarships are singled out. Other countries value not only students excelling at academics, but students coming out of technical and occupational high schools prepared to assume demanding jobs that help build the economy.

It must be noted that the European and Asian countries that distinguish between academic and technical high schools provide students a strong foundation in the basics as they move through elementary and middle school. Contrary to the assumptions made by critics of vocational education, their accountability standards and the achievement level of their students are among the highest in the world.

The overwhelming majority of students in North Carolina remain part of a “one-size-fits-all” approach which is arguably not working.

The North Carolina New Schools program has the potential to move the state in the direction of creating sophisticated career-oriented schools. It has created schools focused on preparing young people for careers in areas like medicine and technology and is the major reason the state has seen an upswing in the number of students receiving career and technical accreditation in occupational skill areas. However, only about 10 percent of North Carolina’s students are able to enroll in these schools because of limited capacity, even though they’re an option available in more than two thirds of the state’s districts. The overwhelming majority of students in North Carolina remain part of a “one-size-fits-all” approach which is arguably not working. Consider a survey of corporate executives by the NC Department of Commerce finding that nearly one-half of North Carolina employers identify the lack of sufficient numbers of skilled workers is a serious economic challenge facing the State.

On a personal note, I must admit that when I began my career in education as a high school English teacher I looked down my nose at vocational education. However, after having the opportunity to study education in nine countries all of which separate academic and technical high schools, I have come 180 degrees on this topic. Whether one looks at the issue from an economic viewpoint (i.e. preparing skilled workers) or from an individual viewpoint (i.e. giving students a pathway to meaningful employment in a rapidly changing work environment) our one-size fits all approach to education leaves a great deal to be desired. As for the Common Core debate, we are debating the wrong issue. It would be far more productive if the State was debating instead how high schools could be organized to better serve North Carolina and its young people today and tomorrow.


The N.C. Business Committee for Education has been working over the last year with Nationwide and Gerber Collision to address employment and education needs in their industries. This program at Fayetteville Technical Community College provides avenues to assure that graduates have a higher level of job readiness through a new Associates Degree focusing on repair and refinishing.

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  1. The sources consulted for the standards are listed in the appendices: http://www.corestandards.org/read-the-standards/
John Dornan

Education advocate. International traveler. Photographer. Reader.

John Dornan was the founding executive director of the North Carolina Public School Forum, serving from 1986 to 2011. A native of Pennsylvania, Dornan’s career spanned a variety of positions related to education over 46 years.