Widgets Magazine


A clarification of Common Core misconceptions

The era of good feelings in education is long gone. The optimistic, bi-partisan rhetoric that surrounded passage of No Child Left Behind has fallen away, replaced with a weird, difficult-to-parse battle that ignores typical partisan lines. As the mudslinging has escalated, perhaps the most divisive issue has been the Common Core, a set of math and English/Language Arts standards that have been adopted by 43 states, four territories and Washington D.C.

Supporters believe the standards will raise the academic bar by pushing teachers to develop students’ critical thinking skills and to prepare all children, not just the most privileged, for college and career. Critics attack the standards from a variety of angles. Some call them a federal takeover of public education, while others call them confusing, in conflict with child development research and likely to demoralize low achieving students, widen achievement gaps or lead more students to drop out of school. Ultimately, the primary problem in this debate is that hardly anyone knows what they’re talking about. According to a recent poll from Education Next, huge percentages of the American populace (including a good chunk of teachers) don’t know basic facts about the Common Core. Because the facts are so unclear, the goal of this column is not to take sides but to clarify important information about the Common Core standards.

Perhaps one of the most contentious questions surrounding Common Core is whether or not the standards represent national intrusion into state power over education. To a certain extent, both the critics and supporters are right: the federal government did not develop the standards itself, nor did it provide money for their development. However, it did play a role in their adoption. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program granted priority to states that adopted “college and career ready standards,” and it has informally convinced other states to do the same in exchange for relief from No Child Left Behind accountability.

Although states could adopt standards other than the Common Core, it was easier to adopt the Common Core than to develop “college and career ready” standards of their own. And while the Common Core standards are not a curriculum and do not dictate teaching materials or techniques, standards do have influence over what is taught if they affect test design. Since about half of the states have adopted Common Core-aligned assessments, and since teachers have a tendency to teach to the test, these standards are influencing the material being taught in (and the curricula being developed for) American classrooms.

Another contested issue is whether or not the Common Core is more rigorous than existing state and international education standards. The short answer is that no one knows for sure. From an international perspective, Common Core supporters claim that the standards are “internationally benchmarked,” but all that really means is that drafters of the standards consulted other nations’ standards in the process of developing their own. The best information on how Common Core compares to previous state standards comes from a 2010 Fordham Institute report, which found that Common Core English/Language Arts standards were “clearer and more rigorous” than those of 37 states and that Common Core math standards were clearer and more rigorous than those of 39 states. However, the standards are also less rigorous than those of some states, and, as critic Frederick Hess has pointed out, the Fordham Institute endorses the standards. Whether or not Fordham’s endorsement biased the analysis is impossible to know.

The third major debate is over the extent to which Common Core is “evidence-based.” Critics claim that there is no evidence supporting Common Core, while supporters claim that the standards are deeply rooted in research. Unsurprisingly, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In the development process, drafters of the standards did consult some existing research and look at pre-existing standards, and the Common Core development and feedback groups included a wide variety of educators, researchers, administrators and professors.

That said, a large group of experts has expressed concerns that the standards conflict with research on early childhood development, and it is probably the case that some Common Core proponents have exaggerated the research base supporting the standards in order to promote their adoption. Moreover, the research community has such a limited understanding of standards that we’re not even sure how much standards actually influence student achievement. They may have a significant effect on achievement, they may not or they may only have an influence when paired with other education reforms. Therefore, although significant research did go into the development process, Common Core supporters probably promise too much when they wax poetic about the benefits of “evidence-based” standards.

Unfortunately, in recent years, polemical critics on both sides have obscured the legitimate issues surrounding the Common Core. Rather than promote rational dialogue, they have caricaturized the issue, depicting the standards as confusing, developmentally inappropriate and tyrannical on one hand and as near-flawless, research-based brilliance on the other. Ultimately though, as is often the case, truths lie somewhere in the mean between the extremes. In my next column, I will build off of the analysis in this article to develop a more evaluative stance on the merits of Common Core.

Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu


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  • jaxon

    Here are some people that DO know what they’re talking about:

    Marina Ratner, professor emerita of math at the University of California,
    Berkeley, and winner of the 1993 international Ostrowski Prize, has

    “The most astounding statement I have read is the claim that Common Core
    standards are “internationally benchmarked.” They are not. The Common Core fails any comparison with the standards of high-achieving countries. . . . They are lower in the total scope of learned material, in the depth and rigor of the treatment of mathematical subjects, and in the delayed and often inconsistent and incoherent introductions of mathematical concepts and skills.”

    Stanford University mathematician and former Common Core validation committee member Dr. James Milgram, who refused to sign off on the Math standards states,

    “The Common Core standards claim to be ‘benchmarked to international standards’ but this phrase is meaningless. They are actually two or more years behind international expectations by eighth grade, and only fall further behind as they talk about grades 8-12. Indeed, they don’t even fully cover the material in a solid geometry course, or in
    the second year algebra course.”

    of the leading experts in English Language Arts curriculum in our nation, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, makes the best case for why these are not higher standards. Dr. Stotsky not only opposes the standards, she was also on the validation committee for Common Core, and like
    Dr. Milgram, refused to sign-off on them because of their lack of quality. The points that she makes are very specific as to why these standards are not good for our children:

    Most of Common Core’s reading standards are content-free skills.
    Most of the statements that are presented as vocabulary, reading, and
    literature standards point to no particular level of reading
    difficulty, little cultural knowledge, and few intellectual
    objectives. These statements are best described as skills or
    strategies when they can be understood at all and therefore cannot be
    described as rigorous standards. Common Core’s ELA standards (and
    its literacy standards for other subjects) do not specify the
    literary/historical knowledge that students need for authentic
    college-level work. The document provides no list of recommended
    authors or works, just examples of “quality and complexity.” The
    standards require no British literature aside from Shakespeare. They
    require no authors from the ancient world or selected pieces from the
    Bible as literature so that students can learn about their influence
    on English and American literature. They do not require study of the
    history of the English language. Without requirements in these areas,
    students are not prepared for active citizenship in an
    English-speaking country. In addition, they are robbed of their own
    civic and cultural inheritance as Americans.

    Common Core’s ELA standards stress writing more than reading at
    every grade level—to the detriment of every subject in the
    curriculum. There are more writing than reading standards at almost
    every grade level in Common Core, a serious imbalance. This is the
    opposite of what an academically sound reading/English curriculum
    should contain. The foundation for good writing is good reading.
    Students should spend far more time in and outside of school on
    worthwhile reading than on writing in every subject of the

    Common Core’s writing standards are developmentally inappropriate
    at early grade levels. While most adults know what “claims,”
    “relevant evidence,” and academic “arguments” are, most
    children don’t. They have a limited understanding of these concepts
    and find it difficult to compose an argument with claims and
    evidence. It would be difficult for children to do so even if Common
    Core’s writing standards were linked to appropriate reading
    standards, but they are not.

    Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least half of their
    reading instructional time on informational texts—something they
    cannot teach. Common Core lists 10 reading standards for
    informational texts and 9 standards for literary texts at every grade
    level, reducing literary study in the English class to less than 50%.
    However, English teachers are trained—by college English
    departments and teacher preparation programs—to teach the four
    major genres of literature (poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction)
    and the elements of rhetoric, not fragmented information on a variety
    of contemporary, practical, or historical topics.

    Common Core fails to develop critical thinking. Critical thinking is
    based on knowledge gained from courses in the content areas and on
    the development of analytical thinking in the English class–when
    students learn how to read between the lines of complex literary
    works. It cannot take place in an intellectual vacuum. Reducing
    literary study in the English class not only cheats students of
    instructional time for learning how to read analytically but also, in
    effect, retards college readiness.

    Common Core’s standards are not “fewer, clearer, and deeper.”
    They may appear to be fewer in number than those in many states
    because very different objectives or activities are often bundled
    incoherently into one “standard.” As a result, they are not
    clearer or necessarily deeper.