Aiming at the Core: Why Does the Common Core Matter?

A reflection on "Common Core" and the American Education system.
Amy Sapenoff

The phrase “common core” has become synonymous with controversy and discord. The newest set of educational standards, designed by the Board of Governors and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia is the latest in a long line of attempts at educational reform aimed at closing the achievement gap amongst America’s students.

Few could argue that substantial gaps exist in terms of educational achievement in America. Standardized test scores and other indicators reveal results that vary not only from state to state, but also between socioeconomic classes and races across the rural/urban divide. Even fewer could disagree with the importance of ensuring rigor and maintaining high expectations for teachers, students and schools alike. The need for well-educated, well-formed, and prepared students is universally accepted.

However, the development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has generated a vitriolic response, coming from the many stakeholders involved in education and from both sides of the political aisle. The controversy reveals confusion about the true nature of the core, but it also highlights an unwillingness to ask the most prescient questions related to education in America. What is education for and who is best positioned to address that question? Stemming from these broad questions, the discussion can then become more focused. What is the role of standards? How do they impact teachers, students and parents? What is the relationship between standards, curriculum and assessments? Are revised standards enough to “reform” American education? The answers to these questions remain elusive, while the controversy surrounding the Core, in its early stage of implementation, continues to swell.

The Development of the Common Core: Content and Goals
The political impetus for the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) began in 2008 with the efforts of Governor Janet Napolitano (Arizona), who was then serving as chair of the National Governors Association of America. As chair, Napolitano expressed a desire to assess how the gamut of state education standards stacked against international standards. Napolitano partnered with Achieve, a DC based nonprofit that focuses on education, to implement a study that would benchmark American students against their international peers.

Historically, states have been responsible for providing their own education standards. Over time, this has resulted in a patchwork of standards and corresponding curricula that differed greatly from state to state. The Governors Association study was intended to highlight the major discrepancies in what states considered “proficient” for academic achievement.

Once the study was completed, it quickly transitioned into a pathway for reform; work on a set of common standards was underway. Math and English Work Groups were assembled to facilitate the task. In 2009 the Board of Governors and the Council of Chief State School Officers began to draft an educational proposal that would cut across not only state lines, but across the various social strata that impacted learning and teaching in America’s classrooms. According to the Common Core website, “State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life.” At the heart of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a desire to ensure that students are college ready and prepared to compete in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world. As stated by the authors of the standards, the goal was clear, “the standards as a whole must be essential, rigorous, clear and specific, coherent, and internationally benchmarked.”

The standards are designed to increase critical thinking and sharpen analytical skills rather than expose students to particular ideas. In this sense, the standards underline skills over content. For example, the English standards give equal weight to works of fiction and nonfiction; the emphasis is thus shifted towards general literacy rather than a study of literature.

The development process drew from several key sources, including best practices from states already using standards deemed “rigorous” by the Math and English Work Groups, teachers, educational experts, and other stakeholders in education. In addition to Achieve, Inc., testing organizations such as College Board and ACT were among the most involved. Non-profits and non-government organizations were heavily involved. For example, the project was bankrolled in large part by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

In addition to the Work Groups designing the standards, Feedback Groups were also assembled. The Feedback Groups consisted primarily of academics coming from institutions of higher learning with expertise in pedagogy and education.

Interestingly, during the development process, the Standards Development Work Group solicited feedback from the public, receiving over 10,000 comments on the standards from parents, teachers and administrators during two feedback periods. In fact, over 50% of the respondents during the feedback period identified as teachers. A full report of the feedback can be found here.

Additionally, the two largest teachers unions in the United States, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both backed the Common Core and were consulted during its development.

The development of the Common Core State Standards was not merely designed to integrate the educational standards used from state to state into one cohesive set of benchmarks, but were also intended to better position states to receive assistance and resources from federal educational initiatives. By proposing exacting standards allowing for greater access to resources, the authors and proponents of the CCSS tout it as a path to increased academic achievement across America. Additionally, proponents of the Common Core argue that it brings other benefits, including broader data to draw from to assess success of standards against international targets, and larger markets for textbooks and teacher support material, which theoretically improves the quality of what is available.

To date, only the standards for math and English have been released, though History, Science, and Technical Subjects are in the works.

New Models of Assessment
The implementation of the Common Core State Standards coincides with the development and rollout of a new set of assessments designed to align with the CCSS. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a coalition of states seeking to standardize the assessments that are used to test skills. Two types of assessments have been developed and are ready for initial use. The first is a performance-based assessment and the second is an end of year assessment.

PARCC end of the year assessments are computer based tests created to measure achievement levels and growth in relation to the new standards. Serious questions have emerged concerning the methodology behind the assessments. However, there is no real way to evaluate the assessment methods until the standards have been implemented for several years and data is gathered on the assessments used. Both early criticism and accolades will be premature. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have joined the PARCC consortium and intend to implement the tests beginning in the spring of 2015.

A New Point on a Political Trajectory
The Common Core is only the latest iteration in a litany of reform efforts. One recent example is the Bush-era “No Child Left Behind” program. NCLB emphasized rigorous testing in order to measure student growth, though it still gave states and schools the autonomy to choose standards, curricula, and testing methods. While No Child Left Behind was able to demonstrate where schools were failing, it provided few resources or tools for failing schools to improve. Instead, it focused on alternatives. No Child Left Behind was coupled with an increased emphasis on charter schools and voucher programs that attempted to galvanize community support, involvement and accountability in schools. No Child Left Behind ultimately failed to provide the increased test scores it promised.

President Obama responded to the shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind by proposing “Race to the Top”. Race to the Top is an incentives program urging schools to expand the educational opportunities they provide to students, making schools culpable for producing “college-ready” students. Schools that adopted more rigorous standards and adopted proposals to properly implement those standards received corresponding federal aid. The idea is to reward innovation in schools with resources and tools, rather than simply condemning failing schools. The Obama administration has at least tacitly given their support to the Common Core State Standards by making states who have adopted the Core standards automatically eligible to apply for federal funding under the Race to the Top program.

The Common Core, An Infringement of Federalism?
The political controversy that has been spawned by the rollout of the Common Core has been constant and unrelenting. The debate is couched in two principle concerns. The first charge is that the federal government has overstepped its boundaries by encouraging the use of Common Core Standards and PARCC assessments. It is thus mistakenly identified as an overreaching bureaucratic program, a “Fed Ed” initiative that limits the flexibility of states and educators to respond directly to the needs of their schools. In some circles, the Common Core is referred to as “ObamaCore”.

State teachers’ unions, most notably in New York, have pulled their support from CCSS until certain questions are addressed, primarily related to questions of how liable teachers are for student achievement and how to roll-out new assessment models.

Both sides of the political aisle have attacked the Common Core, though the Republicans have crafted it into more of a wedge issue in both 2012 elections, the current midterm elections, and 2014 state and gubernatorial elections..

However, it is important to note that even today, states are not required to adopt the Common Core State Standards and remain perfectly free to continue to use their own set of standards and assessments.

The Core in the Classroom: A Limit to Creativity or Useful Guideline
The second principle objection stems from confusion regarding the difference between curriculum and standards. The Common Core is a set of standards and does not propose its own curriculum. While standards are the criteria that determine the benchmarks for what each student should learn in a given year, the curriculum is the pedagogical tools and content used to meet those standards.

There has been vociferous debate over practices used to teach the new math standards and many parents see the curriculum designed to implement the Common Core as too complex for elementary school students. Facebook posts and blog entries from discontented parents catalog a host of math problems with “new” and convoluted methods of problem solving that have seemingly replaced older, tired and true methods. Multiple sets of curricula have been developed to respond to the Common Core, mostly designed by competing textbook companies. In many cases, the new curriculum has been designed hastily and without ample field-testing. However, one can critique the curriculum without calling into question the standards themselves.

The criticism over curriculum and teaching methods sheds light on an interesting question. Do teachers benefit from having a strong set of standards that serve as a guidepost for the work being done in their classroom? Or do standards curtail creativity and innovation in favor of rote accomplishments? In order to truly evaluate the efficacy of nationalized standards, these questions must be approached more openly and without the bias of ideology.

Objection on Principle
In addition to the two concerns listed above, others reject the Common Core as a matter of values. The most vocal dissent in the Catholic world has come from a letter penned by Gerard Bradley, a law professor at Notre Dame, and signed by hundreds of Catholic university professors. The chief criticism is the replacement of the humanities as a good in of themselves with water-downed attempts to imbuing students with “critical thinking” skills, putting emphasis on developing a skill-set instead of a literary and cultural knowledge. The so called “Bradley-letter” and other principled objectors have rightly posed the question, if the common core is encouraging critical thinking as a neutral good, what is the content that students are thinking about?

However, a counter criticism can easily be made. Catholic schools across the country, regardless of whether the state where they are located, are under no obligation to adopt the CCSS. However, many Catholic school administrators have chosen to do so. Catholic schools have not done the work of drafting their own standards, which could be used to make an original educational proposal. To date, over half of the Catholic Schools in America are using at least part of the Common Core State Standards.

Focusing the Issue
The criticism of the Common Core totally sidesteps the enormously important task of asking the most basic and fundamental questions that should be at the center of any conversation surrounding standards, those questions posed at the beginning of this article. What is the purpose of education? In evaluating both the praises and complaints concerning the Common Core, nobody is challenging its most essential claim that the purpose of education is to produce students who are prepared for college and the work force.

Americans have an unrelenting need to “fix” what they deem broken. However, in this case, as with others, attempts to find a solution never get to the heart of the problem. In order to remain competitive, to prepare our students to be adults in a globalized world, we need a system that educates beyond such a narrow goal and works to generate people. While bards continue to be thrown from every corner of the United States regarding the Common Core, there are far too few voices willing to ask the most demanding questions.