Education Matters: Common Core One Year Later

Comedian Louis C.K. joked about it. This summer, conservative radio talk show pundit Glenn Beck convened a “call to action” (broadcast in hundreds of theaters nationwide) to encourage citizens to stop it.

One year after widespread implementation, the Common Core State Standards (also known by its acronym, CCSS), the national education road map for English language arts and math instruction that was barely on anyone’s radar last September, has become a political hot button that could feature prominently in the upcoming presidential election. Presumed GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana and an early Common Core supporter, has reversed his position on the standards. Jindal is calling for his state to pull out of Common Core and, as a result, is now subject to a lawsuit from the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and other groups. Other presumptive candidates, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are carefully assessing which way the Common Core winds blow.

Want to have some fun?

Get on Twitter and search the hashtag #ThanksCommonCore to see the societal evils these new school learning standards are associated with. One example: the fact that hot dogs come in packs of eight, but their buns come in packs of six.


The standards were originally adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia; three states (Oklahoma, South Carolina and Indiana) have pulled out of Common Core as of this August, with others threatening to follow suit.

Some states are keeping the standards, but bowing out of the standardized tests associated with them. There are two different Common Core assessment consortia in the U.S. — Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — with roughly half of the states that have adopted Common Core in each one. Both consortia will debut their assessments during the 2014–15 school year.

New York state, an early implementer of Common Core, saw disappointing results in an earlier version of Common Core–aligned assessments last year. Educators elsewhere are hoping to avoid similar results.

How did an attempt to apply consistent education guidelines for America’s students as a means to increase academic rigor and be more competitive with international students become such a hot potato? Where do we go from here?

Whose standards are these, anyway?

The essence of the Common Core debate is over who should control education. Though the standards were developed at the state level through a collaborative process, the fact that they are meant to be applied nationally and are supported by the U.S. Department of Education smacks of “big government” control to some.

Education is mostly funded and controlled through state and local jurisdiction. However, in recent decades, federal education funding has been tied to compliance with federal education policy, as mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a law that dates back to the George W. Bush administration and that many feel is overdue for revision. The feds decide the steps that must be taken for schools to be deemed successful. If states and districts choose not to comply with federal recommendations, they risk losing funding.

This year, Washington state became the first state ever to lose its NCLB waiver (given to states that agreed to adopt certain education measures, such as tying teacher evaluations to test scores) because it failed to revise its state teacher evaluation protocol. The result was the loss of control of nearly $40 million in federal education funding for the state’s low-income students.

What’s so special about Common Core?

In addition to providing academic consistency from state to state, the Common Core State Standards distinguish themselves in English language arts by focusing on regular practice with complex texts and vocabulary, using these texts to build knowledge in a variety of subject areas. In math, there is greater focus on fewer topics, with conceptual understanding building from grade to grade.

It’s important to remember that these are standards, not curriculum. One teacher I interviewed last year, responding to allegations that Common Core takes the creativity out of teaching, disagreed. “Common Core gives me a clear destination to get to, but also allows me the freedom to drive the bus.”

Problems with implementation

Common Core is an unfunded mandate — which means that the ability to purchase the new teaching materials, provide teacher training and conduct widespread community outreach needed to successfully implement the standards differs among school districts.

(Some of the crazy math problems you may have seen on the Internet, attributed to Common Core, may have more to do with a poor choice of teaching materials than the standards themselves.)

Jessica Vavrus, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, is concerned that professional development for teachers suffers when education funding is in jeopardy. But, she is optimistic that Washington state’s teachers can tap into a library of high-quality teaching materials offered by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, developers of the Common Core–aligned standardized tests that debut in Washington in the spring of 2015.

Last year’s release of New York’s Common Core test results was a touch point for the anti–Common Core movement. Critics said the tests were too rigorous, resulting in a widespread drop in scores. Some say the assessments posed an unfair disadvantage to struggling students, who were not prepared for the significant increase in rigor. Others say the lower test scores are evidence that previous academic standards were not rigorous enough. 

What the future holds

The advent of the new school year will put Common Core front and center, especially as school districts prepare for the new assessments in the spring of 2015.

Common Core architects and supporters acknowledge that public outreach, particularly to parents, has been inadequate.

To quell the growing tide of criticism over the coming months, a vigorous public relations campaign is expected to get under way to dispel the myths about Common Core and reassure parents that these standards are a crucial tool in helping kids prepare for college and careers.

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