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Explainer: What is Common Core?

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common-coreWhat is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort that established a single set of educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics.

What do the educational standards entail?

Common Core is intended to cover fewer topics in greater depth at each grade level. In English language arts, the Common Core State Standards require certain content for all students, including: Classic myths and stories from around the world; America’s Founding Documents; Foundational American literature: and Shakespeare. The remaining decisions about what content should be taught are left to state and local determination. In addition to content coverage, the Common Core State Standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

In Mathematics, the Common Core State Standards lay a solid foundation in: whole numbers; addition; subtraction; multiplication; division; fractions; and decimals. The middle school and high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges in an attempt to prepare students to think and reason mathematically.

Did the federal government implement Common Core?

No, the program is not being implemented by the federal government — though the Obama administration has had some influence over the program. Common Core is an initiative driven by state governors and education commissioners, through their representative organizations, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). However, President Obama is a strong supporter and the federal government poured $438 million of economic stimulus funding into developing standardized tests aligned to the Common Core. Additionally, the federal government strongly encouraged states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” in the competitive grant program Race to the Top and through No Child Left Behind, which outlines consequences for schools that do not meet goals.

Have all the states adopted Common Core?

The English and math standards were voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Minnesota adopted only the English standards. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia have chosen not to adopt the standards.

If the states chose to adopt the Common Core, why are so many people shocked that it is being implemented?

In most of the states in which it was adopted, the approval by the state legislators was not required to adopt Common Core. (Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, and Washington were the only states where the Common Core required direct approval from legislators.) In most states, boards of education or comparable state agencies or the chief education officer for the state approved the Common Core. Because this process was not public, many parents and teachers are only now learning it has been adopted in their state.

Do private and parochial schools have to adopt Common Core?

Private and parochial schools do not have to adopt the standards, though many schools are voluntarily doing so. For example, approximately 100 out of 195 Catholic dioceses throughout the U.S. have embraced the new Common Core State Standards.

What are the reasons people support Common Core?

Four primary claims are frequently cited in support of Common Core:

1. Improves standards for learning – Supporters claim, “Common Core offers American students the opportunity for a far more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K–12 education than most of them have had.”

2. Promotes consistent standards – Supporters claim the standards provide “clarity and consistency in what is expected of student learning across the country.”

3. The standards internationally benchmarked – Supporters claim the standards are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society.

4. The standards ensure students develop the skills and knowledge needed to graduate college- and career-ready – Supporters claim the standards will force teachers to “design lessons that address the particular academic needs of their students rather than relying on textbooks or scripted, pre-packaged, lessons.”

What are the main objections to Common Core?

Four primary objections are frequently cited in opposition to Common Core:

1. The standards are academically deficient – As Anthony Esolen says, “[Common Core] is a bag of rotten old ideas doused with disinfectant; its assumptions are hostile to classical and Christian approaches to education; it is starkly utilitarian; its self-promotion is sludged up with edu-lingo, thick with verbiage and thin in thought; its drafters have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is to be a child.”

2. The standards will not fix the broken education system — Brookings Institute policy analyst Grover Whitehurst observes that high academic standards and high student achievement are not connected and that statistics show states with high academic standards score about the same on standardized assessments as states with low standards.

3. The method of implementing the standards is flawed and expensive — Randi Weingarten, president of the second-largest teachers’ union in America, opposes the Common Core because of the “high stakes attached” to its implementation. She argues that the Common Core will only be destructive since the government has done nothing to prepare teachers to successfully utilize the standards. Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has pushed for national standards for years, criticizes the government’s use of Race to the Top funding to coerce states into adopting the Common Core.

4. The federal government has overstepped its bounds — The Republican National Committee passed a resolution stating that “even though Federal Law prohibits the federalizing of curriculum, the Obama Administration accepted the [Common Core State Standards] plan and used 2009 Stimulus Bill money to reward the states that were most committed to the president’s CCSS agenda.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Fazricki

    Now that we know that Joe is in favor, how about a balanced discussion?

    • What in that post gave you the impression that I’m in favor of Common Core? (I’m not — not at all.)

      And while I strived to be balanced, I admit it is somewhat tipped toward the anti-CC side.

      • @educationfreedo


        Thanks. I initially read it that way as well (that you are in favor), but perhaps that’s b/c I have spent the last year+ going through thousands of pages that deal with Race to the Top (can’t separate CC from RttT, in which they were flown), it’s application, appendices, contracts, MOA’s, etc., and I’m overly sensitive to the false claims with which honest folks are still not familiar.
        With all due respect, the program was not state led. The NGA & CCSSO are DC-based trade unions w/absolutely no legislative authority. In Ohio, that legislation was changed piecemeal once the federal gov’t sent out the RttT announcements, to fulfill it’s directive to “remove statutory and legislative barriers to effective implementation.” Really, lol?
        In fact, after a complicit legislator threw language onto the back of an Ohio budget bill allowing the SBOE to adopt the standards, the ODE sent the feds an “Amendment” to their application stating: “Under Ohio law, the [State] Board now has the authority to adopt the standards without the approval of the general assembly.” This gave them more “points” you see…

        What’s worse: The 2011-present RttT Early Learning Challenge Grants marry healthcare and education (“Child Link”)., hence the push for medicaid expansion..single payer option all around via the coercion-in. Hopefully it will fully implode.


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  • commonsenseneeded

    I am a teacher who
    is frustrated. Not with my students, not with the lack of classroom resources,
    but I am frustrated with the constant swaying pendulum in education swinging
    back and forth leaving teachers and students in a debilitating flux with no
    structure or direction. With the current switch from State Standards to Common
    Core standards, we are presently required to teach our students at higher
    levels of thinking…think Bloom’s taxonomy, and now we are left with holes to
    fill in because this is the first year it is being used. It is assuming prior
    knowledge has taken place, and that the students have been trained at this
    level the prior years before. It is not providing curriculum to support holes
    of knowledge which are necessary to support the entry level that teachers are
    provided with this year.

    standards of yesterday were many things. They provided clear structure for an
    ever changing transient population. If a student were to relocate to a
    different school, the mapping would ensure they would start off in the same
    place they left off academically. It provided teachers with common vocabulary
    and conversation because of its consistent structure. People accused teachers
    of teaching to the test, but that simply wasn’t the case. We wanted to choose,
    as a nation, skills that were agreeably necessary to build successful students
    for the future. And we did that with State Standards. Without the State Standards, teachers could
    teach a subjective curriculum with no measurable data, and no consensus as to
    what should be deemed important. In Idaho, we were seeing great gains with
    these standards. They were measurable, structured, showed weaknesses and
    strengths, thereby giving teachers data driven points by which to intervene or
    move forward. These standards were helpful for our second language learners as
    they provided academic vocabulary first, thus providing a sound knowledge based
    platform to scaffold students when necessary.

    The current
    common core standards leave us with gaping holes. Along with not being aligned
    for transient students, students are now assumed to be ready for higher level
    thinking. They are not given a rigorous foundation of fundamental skills
    necessary to ensure higher level thinking readiness. The program assumes
    students at all levels are ready to analyze, evaluate and prove concepts
    without first having to practice these skills with rigor. During my college
    courses and education of Bloom and cognitive development, at no time do I
    remember him saying that knowledge and comprehension weren’t important, simply
    that the other levels were not utilized as much as they could be. Saying
    knowledge and comprehension are not important is like saying the foundation of
    any structure is not important, that just doesn’t make any sense. In fact,
    recent brain research has proven that a majority of students often can’t even
    recognize a concept without constant repetition taking place with simple
    activities such as understanding the definition and use, both which take place
    at knowledge and comprehension levels. I would also like to point out that this
    “all for one” prescription on teaching higher levels is not conducive to what
    cognitive development teaches. What is good for high school students is not
    necessarily what is good for elementary students. First grade students should
    not be evaluating and synthesizing at the same level as high school students,
    that is just not rational. Hearing some of the conversations that are taking
    place in elementary classrooms right now is very worrisome. I see many students
    using these complex cognitive concepts with really no idea why. I believe this
    is because they are not developmentally ready to be dealing with concepts in the
    abstract exclusively. While I agree that
    higher level thinking is more creative, more colorful and opens the door to so
    much discussion, I think it is hasty to believe students can perform at this
    level without first learning the knowledge and application of such skills. The
    new assessments will also be somewhat subjective as the skills tested are in
    essay format and critique the creative working processes. These standards are
    good in that they have open ended questions, however, that is not to say that
    certain questions don’t have legitimate
    answers and really aren’t dependent on the creative process. There are most
    definitely questions that have a right or wrong answer and to teach otherwise
    is a disservice to our youth and could lead to many unnecessary arguments.

    In looking
    at both sets of standards, I see benefits from combining the skills required
    from both tests. We should use a curriculum that continues to teach at a basic
    skills level, seeing if students can, in fact, perform such skills successfully,
    then also provide a portion of the test to see how they create with these
    skills. It seems politics have made a decision that has left us to teach one
    set of thinking skills over the other. Brain research clearly shows students
    need both. As adults, we would not see the benefit of deciding where to pitch a
    tent first, if we did not, first, know how to put the tent together. But yet
    now, with core standards, we expect our students to be able to learn from such
    requests. State Standards gave us the “What” to teach in education. I think
    that is a legitimate need we as educators all have. The core standards now give
    us the “How” to teach instead of the specific what. To me that just doesn’t
    make sense. What we need to teach should have agreed upon parameters so our
    society is a part of determining what good education is. “How”, on the other
    hand, can simply not be a prescription handed down from a group of politicians.
    Students come into classrooms at all different developmental stages, and with
    different learning styles. The “how” we teach is what should be left open to
    interpretation, not the “what”.

    In an age
    with so much information I would expect us to make sure that education provides
    structure and sense for our children. I would expect that we would teach in a
    progressive manner with a solid foundation and plenty to discuss after wards.
    At this pivotal point in this century, I don’t see that moments can be wasted
    on poor political choices just because the vote has passed. I feel it is
    crucial to see this as an error and fix it as soon as possible before it is too
    late. I am not sure how to do this as I am a teacher and not a politician, but
    wanted to put this letter together as a hope that those who know how, and those
    who can, will attempt to see that changes must be made for the urgent
    well-being of our children.

    Signed, a very worried teacher.

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  • Don Dureau

    As usual, the doubters lie. This is not a federal government program. The feds had not input into its development. They did help with funding. I guess it would be ok with you for your church to help fund it without having a say as to what was in the program. Well the Obama administration let it be overseen by Bill and Melinda Gates. While I never trust corporations or their leadership, I trust them more than any church or state education system developing a critical thinking curriculum in math and English.

    • More or less. ” … the Obama administration fatefully decided to award extra points to
      states adopting the Common Core when deciding which would get big grants
      under its stimulus-funded Race to the Top program. So 45 states plus
      D.C. quickly did so—surely more than otherwise would. And Secretary of
      Education Arne Duncan put $300 million into the development of common
      assessments to go along with the standards.

      But that’s it. That’s the extent of federal involvement. I understand
      that, for many conservatives, these incentives and investments tainted
      the entire Common Core project. But they don’t come close to turning
      Common Core into “Fed Ed,” as pundits like Michelle Malkin like to say.

      Let me be clear: I do not defend the administration’s actions on
      Common Core, the rest of its education agenda, or anything else. The
      charge of Obama’s being an “imperial presidency” has legs, in my view.
      Arne Duncan’s aggressive use of “conditional waivers” from the NCLB
      mandates is both unconstitutional and unwise, and his ham-handed push for test-based teacher evaluations and school discipline quotas
      is apt to cause serious harm to America’s schools. (That the Tea Party
      isn’t up in arms about the latter is completely baffling to me.)

      But get beyond the surface debates and any fair-minded observer can
      plainly see that the Common Core doesn’t fit into this narrative. It
      started in the states. Many Republican governors still support it. Many
      prominent conservatives do, too. The federal government played a role,
      but a limited one.”