Understanding the Common Core: What It Is, What It Isn’t

1. What is the Common Core?

The Common Core is a set of K–12 academic standards in math and English language arts that set out what students should know and be able to do. The English standards include reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language. The standards can be understood as academic goals for students to aspire to at each grade level. Here are a handful of example standards:

  • 1st grade English: “Capitalize dates and names of people.”
  • 5th grade English: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).”
  • 9th and 10th grade English: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. “
  • Kindergarten math: “Solve addition and subtraction word problems, and add and subtract within 10, e.g., by using objects or drawings to represent the problem.”
  • 3rd grade math: “Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units— whole numbers, halves, or quarters.”
  • High school statistics and probability: “Evaluate and compare strategies on the basis of expected values. For example, compare a high-deductible versus a low-deductible automobile insurance policy using various, but reasonable, chances of having a minor or a major accident.”

2. Why was the Common Core created?

Supporters argue that the purpose is to replace the states’ patchwork of 50 different standards with one common, high-quality set of standards. The Common Core standards, in supporters’ view, are better than previous state standards and will lead to improved learning across the board, particularly by replacing the weak standards of some states. According to proponents, common standards also ensure no states “dumb down” their expectations for students, a phenomenon in the wake of No Child Left Behind, which sanctioned schools that didn’t meet certain academic benchmarks. Finally, many advocates point to benefits of common standards for students who move frequently, such as those from military families.

3. What was the genesis of the Common Core?

The standards and accountability movement, which the Common Core is a part of, started many years ago and had many milestones. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of accountability with the publication of his administration’s scathing critique of the state of public education, “A Nation at Risk.” In 1994, student achievement standards were front and center when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized as the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. At the first National Education Summit, in 1996, the nation’s business leaders and governors pledged to work together to raise standards and achievement in public schools. They founded a nonprofit called Achieve and gave it a mission to work with states to raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability. By the 2001 Summit they were focused on helping states expand testing to provide better data and stronger incentives for higher student achievement. In 2002, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as No Child Left Behind  mandated that states, school districts, and schools ensure all students be proficient in grade-level math and reading by 2014. The American Diploma Project, a working group composed of Achieve, the Fordham Institute, the National Alliance of Business and the Education Trust, publishedReady or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts” in 2004. They said their benchmarks in English and mathematics “should serve as the anchor for every state’s system of high school assessments and graduation requirements.” In December 2008, a report by the National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve recommended that states adopt a common set of standards in math and English for grades K–12. In 2009, the federal Race to the Top competitive grant program, funded as part of a recession-recovery initiative, rewarded states that, among other things, adopted common standards.

4. How was the Common Core created?

The standards were created through a partnership between three organizations: The National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the nonprofit Achieve, which collectively produced a report in 2008 with the top recommendation being the establishment of “a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K–12.” From there, the Common Core Standards Initiative was created with the support of governors from 48 states (all but Texas and Alaska). It brought together teams of writers who drafted the initial standards beginning with the creation of “college and career ready” standards, which spell out what high school graduates should know and be able to do. These were released for public comment in late 2009 at around the same time validation committees were formed to ensure the quality of the standards. The individual grade level K–12 standards went out for public comment in March 2010. The two major teachers’ unions were also consulted and provided teachers for the development and review process. The final standards — officially called The Common Core State Academic Standards — were released in June 2010. The federal government played no role in creating the standards.

5. Who actually wrote the Common Core?

Here’s a list of the members of the K–12 standards development teams. They included a combination of university professors, staff from state departments of education, staff from education nonprofits, and K–12 educators, including a couple in the leadership of state and local teachers’ unions.

6. What is the difference between the Common Core and states’ previous standards?

It’s difficult to generalize because prior to the Common Core all 50 states had different standards, but according to supporters of the Common Core there are several key shifts in both math and English that apply to most states. Changes in English

  • An emphasis on complex texts and academic vocabulary as opposed to “focusing solely on the skills of reading and writing”
  • A focus on textual evidence when discussing and writing about texts as opposed to having students rely on “prior knowledge and experience”
  • Attention to building students’ background knowledge through content-rich texts including an increased focus on nonfiction reading.

Changes in math

  • A “greater focus on fewer topics”
  • An explicit linking of mathematical topics across grades
  • A shared emphasis on conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and real-world application

7. Are the Common Core standards better than states’ previous standards?

Supporters of the Common Core claim that the standards are academically stronger than past standards. The quality of standards is difficult to measure because the definition of quality is not widely agreed on — but many have still tried. A report from The Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, evaluated the Common Core and all 50 states’ standards based on their content, rigor, clarity, and specificity. The Common Core got high marks, and were judged as better than or about as good as all 50 states’ math standards and 47 states’ English standards. However, Indiana, California, and Washington, D.C.’s English standards were labeled as clearly superior to the Common Core.  (The Fordham report has been criticized because it was funded in part by the Gates Foundation, which also supported the Common Core’s development.) There is some evidence that states that had math standards similar to the Common Core had higher test scores, and there is also evidence that the Common Core requires higher levels of critical thinking and problem solving than previous standards.

Center for American Progress Critics often point to a study from the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, that found little correlation between the measured quality of states’ standards and their academic achievement. From that, some argue that standards “don’t matter.”

8. Some say that the Common Core are a set of standards not a curriculum. What’s the difference?

Standards and curriculum are often confused, leading many people to believe that the Common Core is curriculum, when it’s actually a set of standards. Standards are expectations for what students should know and be able to do; curriculum encompassess the materials and methods that teachers, schools, and districts use to reach those expectations. For example, the Common Core sets a standard that kindergarten students should be able to solve addition and subtraction word problems with 10. The curriculum for how to teach students this — including choice of textbooks, worksheets, teaching practices and principles, etc — is not mandated by the Common Core and remains a local decision. No doubt, however, standards influence curriculum.

9. Why is the Common Core so controversial?

A lot of reasons. Here’s a non-exhaustive list in no particular order. First, there’s the weirdness of some of the new Common Core–aligned material. The seemingly odd approach to basic math has garnered a lot of attention. For example, one viral Common Core problem featured a frustrated parent questioning the value of a complicated approach to a simple subtraction problem. (Though there is in fact a reason for the new Common Core methods.)

  Second, there is the conservative and libertarian backlash to the federal government’s involvement in incentivizing states to use the Common Core, with the argument being that such an approach is a violation of local control and a threat to school choice. Third, there are concerns — often from the left and from teachers — about how the Common Core is related to testing and accountability. Indeed, part of the purpose of the Common Core was to better align assessments and accountability systems across states. Common Core skeptics  see this as part and parcel of the negative consequences that come, in their view,  from standardized testing. Fourth, and somewhat relatedly, are those who question the process by which the standards were developed. For example, blogger and former teacher Anthony Cody has argued that the Common Core was developed “undemocratically,” partially because the development process was heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Similarly, education historian Diane Ravitch — a longtime supporter of voluntary national standards — said she would not support the Common Core because the standards were  “fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.” Fifth, there are thosewhoargue that a focus on standards is misplaced and that there is no evidence that improving standards will lead to improved student achievement, and that the focus on the Common Core is likely a waste of time and resources. (See a response to these concerns here.) Sixth, there are the conspiracies and misinformation about the Common Core (sometimes known as ‘Corespiracies’). The Common Core has been said to promote Communism, homosexuality, Islamism, and an “extreme leftist ideology.” Republican Senator Rand Paul has claimed that the standards promote “anti-American propaganda, revisionist history that ignores the faith of our Founders, and data-tracking of students from kindergarten on.” A panel at the Conservative Political Action Committee was dominated by misinformation, including claims that the standards have a focus on sex education and evolution. There is no evidence that any of this is true, as the Common Core doesn’t even include history or science standards.

10. How many states have adopted the Common Core?

As of August 2015, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core. (Minnesota has adopted the English portion of the Common Core but not the math standards.) Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina originally adopted the standards but later withdrew amid political controversy — though Indiana’s and South Carolina’s revised standards are quite similar to the Common Core. The standards continue to face threats in other states.

Real Clear Education

11. Why did states adopt the Common Core?

This is a matter of controversy. States were incentivized to adopt the standards through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, a 2009 program that allowed states to compete for federal funds by adopting certain policies favored by the administration. One of those policies was the development and adoption of “common standards” — which essentially meant the Common Core. It’s unclear how many states would have adopted the Common Core without the federal incentives, though the fact that 48 states were part of the Common Core Standards Initiatives suggests that many would have. The federal government has also offered waivers from No Child Left Behind  NCLB) to states that adopt college and career ready standards. The Common Core satisfies this waiver requirement, but other standards do as well. Several states that have not adopted the Common Core do have an NCLB waiver.

12. Can the federal government force states to adopt the Common Core?

No — as evidenced by the fact that several states that have not adopted, or have pulled out of, the Common Core. The federal government has provided states incentives to adopt the Common Core.

13. Does the public support the Common Core?

Parents are generally divided on the Common Core, with a September 2014 poll finding that about one third viewed the standards negatively, one third viewed them positively, and one third were undecided. The same poll found that about two thirds of parents supported the idea of “one set of educational standards across the country.” Surveys of the public at large have found mixed results. A 2014 poll found that 53 percent of the public supported the Common Core, with 26 percent opposed, and 21 percent undecided; the percent supportive had dropped from 65 percent in 2013. Democrats were much more supportive of the standards than Republicans. Still a narrow plurality of Republicans were in favor of the standards. But a February 2015 poll found that the standards were quite unpopular with just 17 percent of Americans supporting the Common Core. Notably, the public has many misperceptions about the Common Core. The same survey that found limited support for the standards, reported that many people incorrectly believed that the Common Core covered sex education, global warming, and evolution.

14. Do teachers unions support the Common Core?

Officially, yes. The two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) both support the Common Core. However, both unions have also been sharplycritical of how the standards were implemented, particularly over how some states used scores from new Common Core–aligned tests for teacher and school accountability. Local teachers unions have not always supported the standards. For example, the New York State United Teachers withdrew support for the Common Core “as implemented” and the Chicago Teachers Union has taken an even more unequivocal stance against the standards. At the 2014 AFT convention, a heated debate broke out about the standards with some members arguing that the union should disavow support altogether. Ultimately, the AFT reiterated its backing of the Common Core, emphasizing the need for more teacher input in the standards’ implementation.

15. Do politicians support the Common Core?

Officially, yes. The two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) both support the Common Core. However, both unions have also been sharplycritical of how the standards were implemented, particularly over how some states used scores from new Common Core–aligned tests for teacher and school accountability. Local teachers unions have not always supported the standards. For example, the New York State United Teachers withdrew support for the Common Core “as implemented” and the Chicago Teachers Union has taken an even more unequivocal stance against the standards.

16. What are the Common Core tests?

There is actually no such thing as the Common Core tests, as in one set of tests. There are many different assessments that purport to measure the skills in the Common Core. When people say “the Common Core tests” they’re usually referring to a math or English test that is aligned to the Common Core standards. There are two sets of Common Core–aligned tests used by multiple states, the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which were funded in part by the federal government. The purpose of having multiple states use the same assessment was to ensure test quality, decrease the per-pupil cost of the exams, and allow comparability across states. In 2015, 10 states used PARCC and 18 used SBAC — though Ohio has since dropped PARCC and Maine and Missouri have dropped SBAC. There is no requirement that states use tests from either. States that don’t but have adopted the Common Core — such as New York — have created their own Common Core–aligned tests. These assessments are controversial in many states, not just because of their relation to the standards. Some of the negative reaction has centered around Pearson, a for-profit company that creates and grades standardized tests in many states. Opponents of Pearson question the quality and transparency of their assessments.

17. Has the Common Core led to more testing?

Probably not. The Common Core is a set of academic standards — that’s it. The standards are related to the move to hold teachers and schools accountable for student performance, and the standards undoubtedly led to changes in states tests. But there’s no evidence that the Common Core lead to more testing. The biggest driver of increased standardized testing may have been the federal government’s push for states to evaluate all teachers based on student test scores. This means that much of the growth in testing were in subjects other than math and English.

18. How much will the Common Core cost?

Estimates vary, and the cost will also vary from state to state. A study by the Fordham Institute, which supports the Common Core, estimated that the transition to the new standards would entail one-time transitional costs of between $3 and $12 billion nationally (or between 1.5 and 3 percent of total local, state, and federal education spending). The amount would include the costs of textbooks, assessments, and professional development, and would depend on whether districts used “traditional” approaches or bare-bones models such as free, online curriculum and virtual professional development programs. In contrast, an estimate from the Pioneer Institute — a conservative, Boston-based think tank, which opposes the Common Core — put the price tag at more than $16 billion over seven years.

19. How’s the implementation of the Common Core going?

Most people, including supporters of the standards, seem to agree that implementation of the Common Core has been rocky both from a political and educational perspective. Some majors challenges:

  • There has been unexpected grassroots pushback by parents, particularly in red states, leading many Republicans to disavow support.
  • A handful of states have dropped the standards altogether, and even more have left the Common Core testing consortia.
  • Teachers’ unions have wavered in their support of the standards.
  • Support for the Common Core from rank-and-file teachers has plummeted.
  • A cottage industry of conspiracies and misinformation regarding the standards has flourished.
  • Parents across the country have opted their kids out of Common Core–aligned tests, due in some cases to opposition to the standards.
  • Classroom materials to teach the Common Core, including textbooks, has been of spotty quality at best.

Still supporters have some reason for optimism:

  • Most states in the country are still using Common Core.
  • Some polls find that much of the public continues to support the Common Core — or at the very least is not opposed to the standards.
  • Research suggests a small positive correlation between student achievement gains and whether states have aggressively implemented the Common Core. Another study found that Kentucky’s early  implementation of the standards may have produced student achievement gains.

The biggest questions can’t be answered yet: Will the political controversy die down or continue to grow? Will there be further evidence that the Common Core improved (or harmed) student outcomes? On these, we’ll have to wait and see.

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