What is the Common Core?

Common Core Standards posted in an elementary school classroom in Reno, Nev. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

The Common Core stems from a school reform movement that started in the 1980s. Back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published an influential report called A Nation at Risk. It warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American public schools and asserted that the nation was failing to meet the need for a highly-trained, competitive workforce. The report touched off a wave of school reform efforts focused on setting new expectations — or standards — for what students should learn in school.

Being promoted ought to mean more or less the same thing in California as in New York

The job of setting educational standards was left to the states. There is a strong tradition of local control of education in America. In fact, the federal government is prohibited by law from directing, supervising or controlling curriculum or instruction in public schools. So it was up to each state to decide what their students should learn.

This led to 50 different sets of standards. Both Republicans and Democrats thought that was a problem. At a 1996 education summit of governors and business leaders, Republican Paul O’Neill, then CEO of Alcoa and later treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, said, “Why on earth can’t we insist on universal standards at least for nine-year-olds? Can’t a nine-year-old multiply by nine and get the same answer in all 50 states?”

At the same summit, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, declared: “Being promoted [in school] ought to mean more or less the same thing in Pasadena, California, that it does in Palisades, New York. In a global society, it ought to mean more or less the same thing.”

A push for national education standards in the early 1990s had gone up in political smoke. Conservative groups attacked the idea as a liberal effort and an abuse of federal power; activists on the left were concerned about the national testing that was being proposed with the standards, saying tests would be a “cruel hoax” for poor and minority students who needed better opportunities to learn, not tests they were likely to fail.

But by the mid 2000s it was clear to many experts that letting states write their own standards was not working. Studies by the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank in Washington, D.C., consistently found most state standards were severely lacking. “Vague, uninspired, timid, full of dubious educational advice, and generally not up to the task at hand,” is the way one of Fordham’s reports characterized the state of state standards. (You can read the reports here, here, here and here.)

A number of education experts began calling for a new effort to improve education standards, but the idea of a federally driven effort remained politically untenable. So the nation’s governors and school superintendents took up the charge. The idea was to come up with a set of common standards that states could choose to adopt, or not.

In 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (the organization that represents state superintendents of education) convened a meeting. They drew up a Memo of Agreement that said, “The time is right for a state-led, nation-wide effort to establish a common core of standards that raises the bar for all students.” (Click here to see a copy of the Memo of Agreement, in this case the one signed by state officials in Idaho.)

The governors and school officers agreed the common standards would “include rigorous content and skills,” be “aligned with college and work expectations,” and also be “internationally benchmarked.” The idea was to look to the best performing nations in the world, as well as some of the highest performing states in the nation, to see what they were teaching their students. The governors and school officers agreed to develop a set of common assessments to go with the standards. And they agreed that participation in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) would be voluntary, but that states had to decide if they were in or out within three years.

States quickly line up to embrace the standards

Kentucky, with unanimous backing from its state board of education, was the first state to adopt the standards, in April of 2010. At that point, the final draft of the standards hadn’t even been completed, but Kentucky was under pressure to adopt new education standards because the state legislature had deemed the state’s old standards inadequate. (To learn more about how the Common Core Standards were written and who wrote them, click here and here.)

Over the next two years, other states quickly lined up to embrace the standards, motivated in part by money the Obama administration was offering in its Race to the Top (RTT) program. That program was launched in the summer of 2009, just as the American economy was hitting bottom due to the Great Recession. States were desperate for money for their schools, and RTT was offering billions of dollars in competitive grants. But to be eligible, states had to agree to adopt “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace.” Most experts agree that was code for the Common Core standards. Technically, states could have written their own standards, but there was widespread support for the Common Core back in 2009, and the process of coming up with new standards would have been expensive and laborious for individual states.

By 2012, 45 states plus the District of Columbia and all Department of Defense schools had adopted the Common Core and were in the process of putting the standards into place. The only states that did not adopt the standards were Texas, Virginia, Nebraska and Alaska (though the Anchorage School district adopted the standards on its own, and an analysis by Alaska’s own legislature revealed that Alaska’s new education standards are virtually identical to the Common Core). Minnesota adopted the English standards, but not math.

Tainted by federal involvement

For supporters of the Common Core, especially those who were veterans of the war over national standards in the 1990s, the swift adoption of the new common standards was amazing. But there was growing uneasiness about the role of the federal government. In addition to the Race to the Top program, which rewarded some states for adopting the standards, the Obama administration gave more than $350 million dollars to two groups to develop Common Core tests. The nation’s governors and state superintendents, in their original Memo of Understanding, had endorsed the idea of the federal government providing financial support for the development of common standards and tests. But that may have been a mistake, say some political observers.

“The support of the Obama administration for this hitherto voluntary national effort [created] confusion as to whether CCSS was a … federal effort. When viewed as a federal effort, CCSS became ripe for politicization,” wrote Richard Day, a professor in the School of Education at Eastern Kentucky University.

Mike Petrilli, one of the leading proponents of Common Core and president of the conservative Fordham Institute, puts it more bluntly. Common Core “was tainted by federal involvement,” he says. “I don’t think we would have gotten 45 states [to adopt the standards] without the federal incentive, but the downside is that this has become a poison pill for the right.”

Others say the standards would have been embraced without the federal incentive. All the states that eventually adopted the Common Core signed up before Race to the Top was announced, says Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). He’s referring to that fact that every state except Texas and Alaska joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative back in 2009, though Virginia and Nebraska ultimately decided against adopting the standards for their public schools.

Growing opposition

Whether states adopted the standards in the hopes of getting federal money or not, there’s no dispute about the fact that Common Core has become hugely controversial. Opposition started on the right, and the main concerns are about the role of the federal government. But soon opposition began coming from the left as well. Liberal concerns tend to focus more on the opportunity for private corporations to make money by selling Common Core products to schools, and the fact that testing companies are helping to write some of the Common Core tests.

“The politics are interesting,” says Chris Minnich of the CCSSO. But he insists things are different than they were in the 1990s, when an effort at national standards failed. “This time, we had a group of states working together, deciding what’s best for their kids. And that’s why we’ve been able to get as far as we have,” he says. “I don’t think large numbers of people object to kids being able to understand place value in mathematics by the end of second grade.”

Minnich points out that despite the recent controversy, most states are still committed to the Common Core. As of August, 2014, only three states that had initially signed on – South Carolina, Indiana and Oklahoma – have dropped the standards.

“It’s going to work this time,” says Minnich. “And this will be good for kids.”

To learn more about what the standards say and how they’re supposed to be changing teaching and learning, click here.

Episode: Greater Expectations