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What happened to the Common Core?

Originally published on September 3, 2014 in Harvard Ed. Magazine. Reprinted with permission of Harvard Ed. magazine and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2015.

The Common Core. Just last year (2013), according to a Gallup poll, most Americans had never heard of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, or “Common Core,” new guidelines for what kids in grades K–12 should be able to accomplish in reading, writing, and math.

Designed to raise student proficiencies so the United States can better compete in a global market, the standards were drafted in 2009 by a group of academics and assessment specialists at the request of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. With widespread bipartisan support from such ideological opponents as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, as well as the business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in 2010 the standards sailed remarkably fast through adoption in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Five more states embraced them over the next two years.

The public paid little attention — until the 2014–15 deadline for standardized testing of the new standards loomed. And suddenly, America woke up.

Today, the Common Core is not only on the public radar, but the focus of a growing nationwide resistance from an unusual coalition of right-wingers, liberals, teachers, and parents, for a variety of very different reasons. The Tea Party, dubbing the standards as “Obamacore,” paints them as an intolerable intrusion of the federal government into local control of schools. Parents sick of the testing culture are drawing a line with the new Core assessments, and some states are balking at the increased time and costs of these tests. Teachers’ unions are split: Some local groups, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the New York State United Teachers, oppose the new standards entirely, while the two national unions — the National Educators Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — support the Core but want delays in implementation.

Some parents find the new standards impossibly frustrating, especially the math component, famously skewered by comedian Louis C.K., whose mother was a math teacher, for making his daughters hate school. Critics complain that this massive change to American education — one of the most significant shifts ever — was rushed through without any real democratic process or empirical data supporting the value. Some worry that corporate interests are the real force behind the Core, since they’ll reap huge profits from selling new tests and preparation materials, and many are deeply suspicious of the hundreds of millions of dollars the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation poured into supporting the effort.

As all these concerns converged, the tide began to turn.

In March, Indiana, one of the first states to adopt the Common Core, became the first to back out. In June, South Carolina and Oklahoma followed, and other states are considering at least slowing implementation. In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal, formerly a strong Core proponent, has done a complete flip and is now battling his state’s education superintendent in efforts to scuttle the new standards. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently asked the state legislature to drop the standards.

Proponents — once elated at how fast the standards were adopted — suddenly find themselves scrambling to stem a mutiny. They are asking skeptics to simply give the standards a chance, insisting that their emphasis on reasoning and critical thinking will better prepare students for college and the workforce. Importantly, they worry that suddenly dropping or stalling the Common Core after four years of preparation, without offering a reasonable substitute, will seriously derail teachers and kids.

But with so much controversy and division, the question today is: Will the Core survive? 

High expectations

As former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts, Professor Paul Reville was instrumental in the Commonwealth’s adoption of the Common Core, and he remains a stalwart supporter.

“On the whole, I think the Common Core is a good thing for the country,” says Reville, former executive director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform. “The idea that we should have uniform high expectations for students all across the country is an important idea that states recognized and pioneered within their own boundaries long ago.”

The central concept, he says, is that the nation’s 40 million K–12 students should be offered the same high-standard education no matter where they go to school; a child in Mississippi, say, should finish each grade with the same general proficiencies as one in Maine — and ready to compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. This notion was extremely attractive to most of the nation’s governors, who worried that curricula developed independently in the nation’s 14,000 school districts varied so dramatically that some children were significantly disadvantaged simply by geographical accident.

“What [the Core] is saying is that if children’s education is important to our future, then irrespective of where they’re born, we ought to have high expectations for all of them, the kind of expectations that prepare them for 21st century employment and citizenship,” says Reville.

Amity Conkright, Ed.M.’11, has worked more closely with the new standards than most: She is an ELA Common Core curriculum writer for the Lake Elsinore Unified School District in California. She, too, is an unabashed proponent.

“Common Core requires a greater rigor than we’ve seen in the past, with more text complexity, and the reading levels have increased,” she says. “It also highlights skills you are going to need in real life — technical skills, writing skills. I think they’ve upped the game.”

Educators, business leaders, and politicians had applauded — at least in theory — the Core’s focus on reasoning, analysis, and problemsolving. In contrast to rote memorization, this approach is designed to prepare students for the critical thinking skills that modern employers seek. But once implementation began, teachers and parents were surprised by some changes the Core required, including less emphasis on literature: half of grade-school reading assignments must be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, that rises to 70 percent.

Still, it’s the math component that has drawn the most criticism. In order to help students develop problemsolving skills useful in many areas of life, the Core’s focus on “conceptual” math requires students to understand the reasoning behind the correct answers to math problems. It’s a major shift, and many parents are finding it near impossible to help their children do their homework. And it’s a major modification for teachers, too.

“We are asking teachers to significantly change their practices,” says Professor Jal Mehta. “If you are a math teacher and you’ve been teaching a specific set of algorithms to teach geometry, now Common Core wants you to teach it in a much more conceptual way. That’s a really big shift.”

Even so, “My impression is that very few educators oppose the Common Core per se,” says Professor (emeritus) Robert Schwartz, C.A.S.’68, a former president of Achieve, Inc., an independent, nonprofit created by governors and corporate leaders to help states improve schools. “While people might legitimately take issue with one or another aspect of the standards, it is hard to argue that these standards don’t represent a significant improvement over most current state standards, and even harder to argue that we won’t be better off in having one set of standards…rather than 50 sets.”

Pockets of resistance

What proponents didn’t fully predict — perhaps because the standards sailed through with such widespread support — was the rise of so many different pockets of resistance uniting into a nationwide movement to kill the Core.

The discussion has become far messier because debate over the Core has become enmeshed — even conflated — with growing opposition to high-stakes testing. It’s been 13 years since a culture of consequential student testing was launched in the George W. Bush administration as part of the No Child Left Behind initiative. The Common Core requires new assessments to measure student performance, with two primary options, each backed by a consortium of states: PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Once the new tests connected to the Core kicked in, the opposition attracted many new adherents and the battle got a lot fiercer.

Already, some states that committed to these tests have backed out, in some cases because the cost of these tests is significantly higher than before; some are creating their own assessments. From New York to Florida, organized “opt-out” groups are springing up to fight the testing culture with rallies and other protests, and an estimated 35,000 kids in New York refused to take the Common Core assessments this year.

Professor Daniel Koretz points out that there was a movement in New York City by parents to opt out of standardized testing even before the Common Core. But, he adds, “The Common Core gives it more impetus because it’s a harder test, which makes people more upset.” Proficiency scores plummeted in New York state two years running, for example, after students started taking Core-aligned tests.

The Core presents a chance that various groups, including people with legitimate concerns about high-stakes testing, don’t want to miss, some believe. Transition to the Core is an opportunity to “push for a pause on current high-stakes testing policies and a delay in implementing new ones,” which is how the Core/testing issues have become conflated, says Associate Professor Martin West, who recently served as a senior adviser to U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

But for Core proponents, the timing couldn’t be worse: Just as states began implementing the new standards, 40 states receiving No Child waivers are also launching new systems to evaluate teachers, which will incorporate some measures of student achievement, including, where available, scores from standardized tests.

“That’s providing the opportunity for opponents of that change in high-stakes testing to use the Common Core and its implementation as a justification for delay,” West says, which is why “there are more and more examples of state and local [teachers’ unions] coming out in strong opposition to the Common Core.”

The right wing and “Obamacore”

And then there’s the political issue.

“What is capturing most media attention is the opposition coming from the Tea Party and others on the right,” says Schwartz. Now that Obamacare has become more successful than critics predicted, “Obamacore” is their next target, he says, “fueled by right-wing talk show hosts feeding listeners a steady stream of misinformation.” It’s putting enormous pressure on governors and legislatures in Red states to retreat from their support of the Core, including Jindal, and “there will probably be others before this is over,” he adds.

The super-right wing criticism isn’t terribly valid, in Reville’s opinion, because “it comes from a political place: ‘Since the Obama administration promoted it, we will be opposed automatically.'” For that reason, he says, “Those objections ought to be taken with a large grain of salt.”

But teasing out the various interests — and what they really represent — isn’t easy. That’s why the Common Core debate “makes the most sense to people who’ve studied the Cold War because it’s really a proxy fight,” says Rick Hess, Ed.M.’90, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“On the right, the Common Core is really a proxy fight over Obamacare and concerns about slippery slopes and federal involvement in state and local self-determination,” says Hess. On the left, it serves as a proxy fight over standardized testing being tied to teacher evaluations. Teachers’ unions “have consistently supported Common Core as a set of instructional standards,” he notes, but dislike the testing component, which is “super-sized” under the Core.

Anna Klafter, Ed.M.’13, chief academic officer of TechBoston Academy in Boston, finds the new standards themselves “fine and good; they are things all kids should know, and the standards are broad and wide enough that a good teacher can get creative [and] they don’t restrain a good teacher.” But the new assessments are still missing the point.

“They are moving from rote memorization in the move from the MCAS to the PARCC, the Common Core assessment,” she says, referring to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System state test. “It’s attempting to touch on some more critical thinking and prepare students for more real-life knowledge versus algebraic equations or whatnot.” But at the same time, she worries, the new tests are “still far from a true measure of what our kids can do … because they are a high-stress, high-stakes, pen-and-paper situation.”

Joshua Starr, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’01, the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md., agrees. “I do think the PARCC questions, from what I’ve seen of the samples, are solid. It might be a good test,” he says. “But it’s the policies associated with the testing that I’m against.” Evaluating teachers based on the student test results is bad for everyone: “It’s like if the measure of your health and wellness were what you weighed every day — and so, if you were held accountable only for what you weighed, you’d be tempted to take diet pills,” he says. “We’ve been on diet pills in American education for the last 14 years, and it’s not healthy and sustainable. It’s not good for teachers and kids, and I’m encouraging people to get off diet pills.”

Schwartz says opposition within the education community mainly centers on implementation of the new standards, and the pressure on teachers. “Will teachers be given the time and support to change their practice in ways that align with the more intellectually ambitious modes of instruction envisioned by Common Core?” he asks. In a profession that already feels under siege, the decision in most states — encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education — to press ahead with using student test scores as a significant component of a teacher’s evaluation “just fuels the perception that we care more about weeding out weak teachers than giving the vast majority of teachers the time and support they need to make a successful transition to Common Core,” says Schwartz. That message may be getting through to Core proponents.

For parents tired of the testing culture, the growing attention to the Core has prompted great pushback to the testing culture. They’re asking why so much school time is spent on tests that aren’t much used to assist individual children but rather to compare schools and districts in an to attempt to close the achievement gap, says Hess. “Again, it’s a proxy fight,” he notes. “A lot of this angst is less about the Common Core in particular, but [Common Core] is short hand for testing, and I think certainly there’s an appetite for less testing.”

Common concerns

One misperception about the Core is that it mandates a national curriculum. In fact, the Core sets goals and standards but leaves curricula and materials in the control of local states and school districts. Proponents also take issue with the perception that the Core was federally mandated, since states chose to adopt them, albeit incentivized with federal money.

But these arguments don’t convince conservative politicians like Jindal, a probable 2016 presidential candidate, or even some at the Ed School.

“The proponents of Common Core are trying to bill this as a state-led, state-initiated effort, and, at best, it might have been state-initiated initially, although I find that is only part of the story,” says current doctoral student Chris Buttimer, Ed.M.’09. “This is clearly coming down from the Arne Duncan administration as well. I think [Common Core] is essentially a federal initiative at this point, having been created by a small group of people, including very few if any teachers, working in conjunction with the Duncan administration, and it has been at the very least aggressively encouraged for states to adopt, particularly through the Race to the Top funding.”

Professor (emeritus) Eleanor Duckworth is also concerned that few teachers helped in the development of the standards, “so I don’t have a lot of faith in the standards they would come up with,” she says. Moreover, she adds, “I don’t support the idea of top-down standards being delivered for the entire country.”

Buttimer is among a not-insubstantial group, many very prominent on the Web, who are deeply suspicious of corporations and other big-money interests behind the switch to the Core. They are convinced that Gates and the Koch brothers have financial motives lurking behind their stated interests in helping U.S. students become more globally competitive. And in their eyes, the testing and textbook companies are clearly self-interested.

“Standards in the United States have not been and will not be decoupled from testing, nor from the profit motive that’s at least partly driving the creation of standards-based reform and test-based accountability,” says Buttimer.

While Hess doesn’t disagree that testing corporations will benefit, he finds the argument that the profit-motive is the primary force behind the adoption of the Core “silly,” noting, “The corporations are making money off the old tests and will make it off the new tests.”

And for those who see the Core as a major step forward in American education, all of this criticism is extremely frustrating.

“The whole controversy about the Common Core and the assessments risks becoming an enormous distraction from the much more difficult work, the central education reform work of devising effective strategies for educating children to higher levels,” says Reville. “There are lots of education pundits out there who embrace the diversion of an endless standards debate because they are clueless about how to actually improve student learning.”

How strong is the opposition?

Still, Reville and others concede, opposition is real and growing.

“What’s hard to judge is how strong those forces are in comparison to economic leaders, governors, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and superintendents, many of whom have been supportive of the Common Core,” Mehta says. “How it plays out will depend a lot on the politics of particular states and whether there will be a pendulum swing. I think it’s too soon to know for sure.”

West, for one, believes the strength of the resistance may be overblown. “I don’t think we should overstate the extent to which the backlash has undermined the Common Core momentum,” he says. While several states have formally withdrawn, the vast majority have not. “I certainly think [the standards] can still be saved,” he says. “In fact, you might say they don’t need saving.”

What many want to avoid now is the scuttling of a new approach that may work very well — especially when the shift to the Core is so far along.

“Do I think it’s perfect? No. Do I want to lose Common Core? No. I don’t want to lose the tremendous effort our teachers in Vermont have put into it,” says Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, Ed.M.’90, Ed.M.’04, who is also a current doctoral student. “My fear is, to lose the Common Core, we’ll lose five years. We don’t want to lose the work and destabilize our system by going back and trying something else, given the current absence of anything more substantive.”

And there are steps that would go a long way toward restoring confidence in the new system, some believe.

“I think the solution would start with an understanding of the scale of the undertaking, and trying to explain that to the public,” says Mehta, “that we’re trying to educate children in a way we haven’t done before in America, a way that will ultimately make them more prepared for college and a career but that it will take a long time, and it will be slow.”

The valid concerns of parents about too much testing also should be taken seriously. If families feel their own kids are spending too much time taking tests that aren’t helping them, “that will create real and growing headwinds,” says Hess. On the other hand, if parents see concrete examples of teachers using Common Core assessments to assist the development of their own children — “If you see them saying, ‘Here are things we can do for your kid,’ — then you’ll start to see a lot more parental comfort,” he says.

Valid criticism should be respected and used to spur continued improvements to the Core, Reville agrees. “I think the opposition is gathering strength, and so proponents of Common Core and the new assessments will have to listen to that and respond,” he says. “I don’t think you’re going to see whole-scale abandonment of the Common Core or the assessments. I do think you will see some reconsideration about both the quantity and quality of testing. These concerns will likely be reflected in the work surrounding the new assessments.”

But if the Core is to succeed, there’s another challenge, says Mehta. “It will only work if there is really significant time, money, and political will put into supporting teachers’ ability to help students meet the standards,” he says. “In the absence of that, we’ll have No Child Left Behind redux. Common Core standards are significantly more demanding, so if we raise standards and don’t increase support and capacity building, the schools won’t meet the standards, which over time will lead to either lowering of standards or increased resistance on the part of teachers and schools.”

Buttimer shares this view. “As a former teacher, I don’t necessarily have an issue with the contents of the standards themselves, at least for middle and high school,” he says. However, “We’re setting high standards without helping teachers and students get to those standards” through professional development and other capacity-building support. By tying teacher performance to results without supporting them to make the change, “We’ve skipped right to the evaluate-and-punish stage.”

Indeed, Schwartz notes that California, which has made a “massive investment in professional development but also suspended state testing,” is a state that “seems most on track for successful implementation of the Core.”

It is a sad irony, he believes, that opposition to testing is rising “just at the point when we are finally going to have a set of tests coming from the two testing consortia that promise to be substantially better than the state tests currently in use. Will we be smart enough to slow down implementation, make the necessary investments in teacher learning, and move toward a system with fewer but better tests?”

That’s why, Mehta says, it’s critical to “try to create substantive support for teachers to learn how to teach the standards, to help teams of teachers work together and share what works. And then celebrate small moments of progress, and go back to the public and say, ‘We’re making progress,’ and use that to build support for the policy. We have to get away from our impatience mentality.”

Elaine McArdle

Elaine McArdle is a freelance writer for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.