Top Story | 4/30/14


Common Core Turns Four: Still Suffering the Terrible Two’s

This June will mark the fourth anniversary of the unveiling of Common Core State Standards, the last program of a troika of major national education initiatives in just the last twelve years: No Child Left Behind (2002), Race to the Top (2009), and the Common Core (2010). The three share a number of characteristics, including that they were all rolled out with strong bipartisan support and were, within a few years, subject to considerable push back.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were unveiled in 2010, supported by list of respected educators, from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and quickly adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. As Education Week notes about the ambitious four-year-old program, the CCSS are already “leaving their mark on curriculum and instruction, professional development, teacher evaluation, the business of publishing, and the way tests are designed.”

But instead of a youthful program finding its sea legs and settling into a rhythm of consistency, we have another major national initiative stuck in the terrible two’s: a program raising a ruckus.


Though there have been critics since the beginning, CCSS researchers and writers enjoyed a relatively quiet ride, even after the standards’ formal adoption, until the Pioneer Institute issued what might have been a rather mundane report in September of 2012. Instead, “How Common Cores’ ELA Standards Place Readiness at Risk,” by Sandra Stotsky, who had overseen the introduction of Massachusetts’s world-class standards in the late ‘90s, and Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, turned into the start of a major campaign by the Pioneer Institute against the standards (here). In fact, the authors said that “far from contradicting Common Core,” they were urging state and local education policy makers to “emphasize Common Core’s existing literary-historical standards” and “add and prioritize a new literary-historical standard of their own.” Sounded simple enough, but while Bauerlein would retain a neutral or even positive stance, Stotsky became a vociferous critic of the CCSS.

There would be much to study here about what happened next, but the short of it is that the floodgates of criticism seemed to open with the Stotsky/Bauerlein paper, bringing out, as The Daily Beast recently described it, “An unholy alliance between the Tea Party and the teachers’ unions [that] threatens to derail the most promising education reform in decades.” In that Daily Beast story, titled “The Incredibly Stupid War on the Common Core,” Charles Sahm of the Manhattan Institute described the piling on from left and right, and the strange bedfellows in between:

“Like Rocky in the early rounds, the new Common Core math and reading standards are being pummeled left and right. From the left: education icon Diane Ravitch says the Common Core represents a “utilitarian view of education” that is too focused on testing, data, and accountability. From the right, “ObamaCore” is denounced as federal intrusion. Heritage Foundation education fellow Lindsey Burke calls it “an effort to impose a uniform, standardized curriculum across the country.” From the further right, the always understated Glenn Beck says, “This is a progressive bonanza, and if it’s allowed to be in our schools in any form and become the Common Core of America’s next generation, it will destroy America and the system of freedom as we know it… This is evil stuff.” (That’s actually one of the tamer Beck quotes.)”

Sahm forgot the Catholics, some of whom have mounted their own concerted effort to derail CCSS. “We… judge Common Core to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation,” wrote 132 Catholic university professors in a letter sent to every bishop in the United States. A Google search of “Catholics against the Common Core,” brings up 10,800,000 results including Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core‎, Catholic School Parents Against Common Core, Catholic Parents Against Common Core – In Milwaukee, not to mention the press reports which followed: Catholic School Parents Organize to Oppose Common Core, Common Core: A Divisive Issue for Catholic School Parents, Parental revolt against Common Core, and Top Catholic Scholars Slam Common Core. As is often the case, these voices were more easily heard than others who were quietly putting the CCSS into place–such as the Catholic Diocese in New York, whose students also took the math and ELA CCSS-aligned tests last year and this. In fact, according to the same letter of protest cited above, by October 2013 one hundred of the country’s 195 dioceses and archdioceses had already decided to adopt the Common Core.

In addition, it is important to note that thus far, the actual consequences of the CCSS sniping have been rather modest. While Indiana, which greeted the standards with enthusiasm in 2010, “dropped out” in March and formally adopted its own standards, those standards are almost entirely a repeat of the CCSS. The rest is largely rhetoric: Bobby Jindal, governor of Lousiana, another early CCSS supporter, recently said, “We need Louisiana standards, not Washington, D.C. standards” (see Sahm), while in Missouri, another early adopter, there is chatter about dropping out, but as yet no action.

We thus find ourselves in an interesting moment. To put the matter bluntly, rhetoric and reality appear to be out of sync, even in the minds of mainstream journalists. So one finds commentators such as New York Times columnist David Brooks entering the fray with a piece written as if the CCSS were on their last legs, instead of being, as they currently are, the standards in 44 states:

“We are pretty familiar with this story: A perfectly sensible if slightly boring idea is walking down the street. Suddenly, the ideological circus descends, burying the sensible idea in hysterical claims and fevered accusations. The idea’s political backers beat a craven retreat. The idea dies.”

What’s Going on?

In some ways the drafters of the Common Core were victims of their own success; they garnered significant support without commensurate publicity. As I reported in my chapter for the American Enterprise Institute book Common Core Meets Education Reform: What It All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling, “The History of History Standards: The Prospects for Common Core Standards for Social Studies,” the developers of the Common Core clearly did not solicit lots of public attention, “as a visit to the Common Core’s website proves: the wizard is hidden. To this day [as of early 2013], more than two years after the CCSS project began, the names of those responsible for it cannot be found on the program’s official website.”

The site has since been revised, but a search for David Coleman, the “architect” of the CCSS ELA standards, according to Dana Goldstein writing in The Atlantic in 2012, and today as close as one comes to being a household name in education (he was one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” in 2013), still turns up “no results” at Instead, in the Frequently Asked Questions page (click on “Process,” then on “What makes this process different from other efforts to create common standards?”) you read an impressive list of names of organizations, but no people:

“From the very beginning, the process of developing the Common Core has been bipartisan and state led. It also has support from educators, policymakers, and business leaders across the country, including CCSSO, the NGA Center, Achieve, Inc., ACT, the College Board, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Hunt Institute, the National Parent Teacher Association, the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the American Association of School Administrators, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable.”

Indeed, a great deal of effort was put into dispersing responsibility for the design of the Common Core across a small army of researchers overseen by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA). Ultimately the authors, whoever they are, came to the conclusion that anonymity and a non-federal approach would increase the likelihood of success.

No doubt this tactic made sense in light of a cautionary precedent. As I describe it in my “History of History Standards” chapter, the 1990s effort to write history standards, like the CCSS effort today, was characterized by several hard years of work by dozens of academics and educators, and then approved by executives of the lead federal agencies (in the earlier case, they were at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the federal Department of Education (ED)). The history initiative’s writing group even met in a Crystal City, Virginia, hotel ballroom to celebrate what it believed to be a job well done.

Several months later, however, and just two weeks before the official unveiling of the standards, on October 20, 1994, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Lynne Cheney, who had once lead the effort as head of the NEH. Cheney had been out of the loop since inauguration day in 1993, when Bill Clinton became president, and had not seen the finished standards until the fall of 1994. Her Journal essay was ominously entitled, “The End of History.” Asserting that George Washington “makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as our first president” in the proposed standards and that “the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress is not” – and that was just the first sentence – Cheney’s essay unleashed a torrent of criticism so strong that within a few months, the United States Senate voted 99 to 1 to kill the effort.

The architects of the Common Core learned one lesson from that episode: that a standards effort led by the federal government (and perhaps by strong and well-known personalities) was a non-starter. But there may have been an unanticipated cost to keeping the design work relatively contained: those on the outside are free to throw rocks. In the case of the history standards, in losing Cheney (and Diane Ravitch at ED), the effort lost the Republican Party before the ink was even dry. The CCSS, in contrast, remained consistently non-partisan and state-lead well past the official unveiling; the question now is whether the current push back – carried through the rising power of social media to move arguments, rumors, and lies around at warp speed–will actually gain serious traction.

To that point, my bet is that the CCSS, while it may “lose” a few states (in the way it has “lost” Indiana) will remain the standards for the great majority of American K-12 students for some time to come. But the future is uncertain. Michael McShane of the AEI lists 17 “separate decisions” that have to be made “correctly” for CCSS to succeed. (See more from McShane below.) Two polls suggest that the space for argument is still wide open. While a survey of American Federation of Teachers members found that 75 percent of them supported the standards, Robert Rothman reported in Education Next, a PDK/Gallup poll of last year that found nearly two-thirds of Americans “had not heard of the standards.”

The Mischief Makers: Common Misperceptions about the Common Core

That lack of knowledge on the part of the American public is the source of much of the current skirmishes. Interest groups relish the public ignorance vacuum, which they have rushed in to fill. As described above, “discussion” about the Common Core has been a feeding frenzy of, in David Brooks’ words, “hysterical claims and fevered accusations.” The problem is, as ever, that the truth is not simple.

Take, for example, the accusation that the Common Core Standards are federal standards. In any straightforward sense, they are not. As mentioned above, the CCSS were created by a partnership of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers – and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. In 2009, the Obama administration made adoption of “College and Career Ready” standards a part of the requirements for earning RttT funds. De Facto, for many states, this meant the CCSS, for they had nothing else to offer. “In hindsight,” writes MI’s Sahm, “this was probably a mistake because it opened the door to legitimate charges of federal coercion.”

The second charge has been that the CCSS impose a curriculum. As my colleague at the CUNY Institute David Steiner might argue – “if only!” As I wrote in my “Common Core Conflation Syndrome” Policy Briefing last summer, the Standards themselves clearly warn against this conflating of standards and curriculum (here): “[W]hile the standards make references to some particular forms of content, … they do not … enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.” Once again, however, the truth is not so simple. In mathematics, the requirements of the CCSS are quite granular – they specify the mathematical operations and concepts that children at each grade level are expected to master. While it is true that one might choose to teach that material in a variety of ways, the distinction between a standard and a curriculum is blurred. Even in the English Language Arts, there is clearly a requirement that America’s founding texts, ancient myths, and Shakespeare are taught, and that fifty percent (for the early grades) and later 70% of the content needs to be drawn from non-fiction sources.

The third charge is that the Common Core standards were written (in secret) by non-educators. As mentioned above, and explained in another FAQ on the CCSS website, over the course of two years,

“The Common Core State Standards drafting process relied on teachers and standards experts from across the country. Teachers were involved in the development process in four ways: they served on the Work Groups and Feedback Groups for the ELA and math standards; the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), among other organizations were instrumental in bringing together teachers to provide specific, constructive feedback on the standards; teachers were members of teams states convened to provide regular feedback on drafts of the standards; teachers provided input on the Common Core State Standards during the two public comment periods.”

Although Common Core claims to have received 10,000 comments during two public comment periods, the critics claim that input from K-12 teachers in the standards writing has been exaggerated. But this criticism is less about the number of teachers involved in the process (a number that is hard to come by) than about CCSS seeming to ignore, as Mercedes Schneider, a blogging teacher with a doctorate in applied statistics and research methods, writes, the “already-written” standards of the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that CCSS has not adopted.

Fourth, the charge that the new standards constitute a “dumbing down” of current standards would seem to be exaggerated. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been grading state standards since 1997 (with a report written that year by Sandra Stotsky) and is well-qualified on this subject. In 2010 Fordham published “The State of State Standards—and The Common Core,” comparing the CCSS math and ELA standards with those in effect in the states. While the report gave CCSS an A-minus in math and a B-plus for ELA, it found that only California, Indiana, and the District of Columbia had better standards. Eleven other states were “too close to call.” As for “the Massachusetts Miracle,” the report finds it still a leader, but that CCSS are “in the same ballpark.” As Charles Sahm points out, “The Common Core is intended as a floor, not a ceiling.” At the end of the day, most of the states that have adopted the CCSS would seem to need that floor.

Finally, just as critics have complained about the standards’ being too weak, others have complained about their being too rigorous. Andrew Hacker, a retired political science professor at Queens College, in a letter replying to my “Common Core Conflation Syndrome” essay, protested that the CCSS would hold “students all over the country….to Winnetka-Brookline levels of college preparation,” which Hacker believes is “willfully throwing a million and more young people overboard” in a policy that “is not only radical, but sadistic and immoral.” The calm answer to this is that it all depends: on how the standards are translated into curricula, how teachers implement them in our classrooms, and how we assess those standards, with what performance requirements for our students.

The resolution of these issues will answer the most important question of all; will the standards matter as much as defenders hope and detractors fear? Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Petrilli, president and vice-president, respectively, at the TBFI, acknowledge the impact problem in the foreword to the 2010 Fordham report, writing that, “It’s no great surprise that serious analysts, recently including the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst, have found no link between the quality of state standards and actual student performance.”

But Finn and Petrilli then argue, “That’s because standards seldom get real traction on the ground. Adopting good standards is like having a goal for your cholesterol; it doesn’t mean you will actually eat a healthy diet. Or like purchasing a treadmill; owning that machine only makes a difference if you tie on your sneakers and run. But when great standards are combined with smart implementation, policy makers can move mountains.”

Into the Future

So where are we? Two useful pieces that get beyond the rhetoric are Robert Rothman’s “The Common Core Takes Hold” and Michael McShane’s “Navigating the Common Core.”

Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of an earlier history, Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (2011). (A follow-up volume was published last year, Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice.) In “The Common Core Takes Hold,” he summarizes the developments surrounding the CCSS since 2010 in the same measured and non-histrionic style as he employed in his book. Rothman describes how “hundreds of teachers, school leaders, and district officials” in Kentucky are implementing the Common Core – with minimal uproar. He notes, too, that the state prepared the public for “retooling its state test to align with the common core standards.” His point? Done right, CCSS could work.

While Rothman admits that “the road ahead for the standards remains rocky,” that “funding necessary to support implementation is not yet clear,” and that the political battles “will likely intensify,” he remains an optimist. “[T]he work already under way suggests that the common core standards are beginning to penetrate the classroom and will have an impact on teaching and learning.”

Michael McShane, research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and coeditor with Frederick Hess of Common Core Meets Education Reform (see above), would be considered a CCSS skeptic. But in the piece referenced here, he seems to have accepted that the Common Core train has left the station, and raises questions only about whether the new standards “will be successfully integrated into existing efforts to reform schooling.” On that score he remains a robust doubter. In addition to the 17 specific implementation decisions that must be made for such successful integration, McShane describes three major challenges to winning Common Core success:

“1. Oversight. Because of the quasi-decentralized process of standards adoption – i.e. through the NGA and CCSSO – McShane says that “it is not clear who or what is going to perform [the long-term management and oversight] functions.” And although he knows there are suggestions on the table, including a “Common Core Czar,” a “national network of organizations…that would serve as revisers, implementation watchdogs, and political advisors,” and “a national curriculum aligned to the common core,” he’s not convinced that there’s any way to “ensure faithful implementation of such a complex program in 100,000 schools in 14,000 school districts in 50 states across the country.”

2. Infrastructure. Instead of “Where’s the beef?” McShane wonders, “Where’s the hardware?” He points out that the two multistate consortia writing the CCSS tests – The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC)–“are creating computer adaptive exams that will offer customized questions based on student responses,” creating a multitude of problems, not the least of which is how such customized tests can be used to measure standard performance. McShane also notes that the cost for the necessary hardware upgrades alone is a staggering $6.87 billion. (For more on the Common Core assessment problems, see David Steiner, Frederick Hess, and Elizabeth Phillips.)

3. Politics. Although the recent controversies have resulted in CCSS’ “shed[ing] most of its Republican wing,” says McShane, not to mention the Obama administration’s denial, like St. Peter’s, that they ever knew the Savior, McShane admits that “carrots are not sticks,” and suggests that measures can be taken “to reduce the political noise on the right.”’

In short, as with most four-year-olds, the jury is still out. But it would appear that the witch-hunt hyperbole is subsiding. McShane can turn to Thomas Jefferson, whom he cites as having “outlined a pretty reasonable set of standards back in 1818,” and who has been followed by E.D. Hirsch, “who has brought this call into the 21st century…. Echoing Jefferson, Hirsch argues that a basic set of common knowledge is essential to our economy, our democracy, and our society.”

Perhaps a more fleshy comment by Jefferson for these parlous times comes from in a letter to William Charles Jarvis in 1820:

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

We have in this advice both an exemplary piece of complex text and a challenge going forward. We need, suggests Jefferson, both an informed public and an educated one.

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