Unpacking the Common Core

Amidst the firestorm of political controversy over the national education standards known as the Common Core, what has been lost is a pedagogical evaluation of the standards themselves. Can they help students learn better? What is it about these standards that would facilitate greater student achievement? What do they look like in the classroom? The Common Core is likely neither the essential key to improving student learning that some supporters trumpet, nor the injurious educational bludgeon some critics claim. Its impact is more likely to be modest, serving as one helpful instructional vehicle if teachers are effectively trained to apply it intelligently.

But before examining the standards themselves let’s first clear away some of the volatile politics. Rigorous curriculum standards, as the Common Core purports to be, are actually nothing new in public K-12 education. States have been adopting them over the last three decades. California adopted a comprehensive set in 2000. The thinking is that by articulating the essential skills and content knowledge students should have, teachers have a blueprint for what to teach in their classrooms and student learning is consistent and rigorous. Teachers could also be held more accountable because their work could be evaluated against the learning goals specified in the standards. The Common Core, developed for math and language arts, advances the same premise but adds the seductive extension that the regime goes national. We would now have a single uniform college prep K-12 framework. One argument for a national set of standards is that it promotes equity. Theoretically any student, whether in a resource-rich wealthy suburb or a poor rural hamlet, would be taught the same essential skills in graded sequence. The Common Core doesn’t prescribe curriculum. It is only a skills-based framework. But it is the first federal gesture at something like a national curriculum.

That the Common Core promotes a national, federally-supported teaching effort has many conservatives fulminating. While conservatives initially heralded the rigor of the standards, the tide has recently turned with Republican governors like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal arguing that the standards are a federal intrusion on states’ authority over education. Even some seeming moderates like Chris Christie of New Jersey have criticized the standards. While 46 states originally adopted the Common Core, four have repealed adoption and nine others are reconsidering. Actually, the standards do not represent federal intrusion on state education control. The National Governors Association and its partners with funding from the Gates Foundation devised the Common Core and it is up to individual states to adopt them. The Obama administration has, however, made their adoption a prerequisite for federal education funding and increasingly has demanded that use of the standards be tied to high stakes testing.

The besieged curriculum standards have been treated more as a political artifact than a pedagogical tool. Politics aside, the question to examine is what impact might these standards have in the classroom? One important starting point is to recognize that the Common Core, like all state and other K-12 standard outlines is developmental, promoting progressively deeper levels of achievement through the grades. Theoretically one could isolate a particular skill and trace a through line from early elementary school to high school seniors. So if first graders identify a simile in “The Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe,” seniors might explicate a conceit in a Spenser sonnet. One first grade writing standard calls on students to:
Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure.
This standard actually comprises four inter-related skills (the last of which, providing closure, being vague) built around the learning goal of expressing an opinion. The corresponding standard for grade five asks students to:
Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
The first two tasks here are the same as those specified for first graders. The difference is that the fifth graders have to organize supporting ideas around the opinion. High school students might correspondingly have to build a multi-point argument that refutes a counterargument.
The standards are actually amorphous in key ways. They cannot concretely articulate how complexly or deeply the argument needs to be. The fifth grade standard could just as well be the 12th grade standard. Nonetheless the concept of grade to grade articulation is instructionally helpful, especially if subject area teachers from different grades discuss how they are using their respective standards. Wouldn’t it be powerful if first, fifth, eight and 11th grade teachers sat down together to explore how their students drafted arguments?
A developmental approach to the standards makes pedagogical sense, but a problem is that the leveling may not be appropriate. The designers of the standards, most of whom were not educational experts, could not necessarily assess how well a fourth grader can weigh textual evidence. Some teachers and parents have been disturbed by what they see as an attempt to push overly difficult skills on learners in the lower grades.
But the emphasis on critical thinking, what some people consider a higher order skill not accessible to young children, is right on. Critical thinking is a sometimes overused catch phrase that really means evaluating evidence and assertions well, often based on a text. The intellectual task goes beyond memorization and recall to an emphasis on inquiry and discernment. A first grade standard asks students to “identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.” This is rudimentary literary-based psychology for tykes. Students might notice that if a character has her arms wrapped around her mid-section that might suggest worry. This is challenging and age appropriate. In fifth grade students advance to “determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details.” In grades 11 and 12 students “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.” This focus on text analysis is crucial because the ability to comprehend complex texts is the most significant factor differentiating college-ready from non-college-ready readers. Such analytical thinking standards are not limited to language arts. In math, for example, fifth graders “generate two numerical patterns using two given rules. Identify apparent relationships between corresponding terms.”
This type of standard isn’t groundbreaking. Forward-looking math programs seeking to surpass the “drill and kill” techniques of standardized math curricula have been using such standards for years. Many of the standards in fact recreate existing curriculum. The algebra standards may look familiar even to parents who haven’t manipulated a variable in 30 years. Algebra students “graph linear and quadratic functions and show intercepts, maxima, and minima.” That’s straight out of my freshman math class. At times the standards are conventional but dressed in overwrought language. First graders “understand subtraction as an unknown-addend problem. For example, subtract 10 – 8 by finding the number that makes 10 when added to 8.” If you break down the language of many of the fundamental standards you could overlay much of schools’ existing language arts and math curricula onto the standards and get a pretty good meshing.
Besides the sometimes tortured phrasing of the standards another issue I have is that they can be vague and even tautological. A description of mathematics practices for 1st grade says that students will “make sense of problems.” Another statement directs students to reason “quantitatively,” an odd point given that math is inherently quantitative. “Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding” is a meaningless statement because it merely asserts that students will be able to do what students at that level are supposed to do. What teacher is helped by that?
Whatever the quality of the standards and the precision of the language with which they are articulated, the issue remains that nothing will change in our classrooms until teachers are trained to improve instructional practice. The standards themselves change nothing. They are a framework. Establishing a call for second graders to think critically is one thing, but actually knowing how to cultivate such thinking when you have never done it before is quite another. Without a rigorous program of professional development in every school, the standards are merely a wish list.
Standards can also be turned into flimsy statements teachers manipulate in order to maintain their existing teaching practice. I have seen teachers work backwards to satisfy a school’s requirements that the standards be employed by continuing to do the same lessons they have always done and mechanically attaching the standards that most closely align, providing themselves political cover.
While individual standards may be quite helpful in guiding teaching if used creatively, a problem is that for a given grade and subject, the whole body of standards is impossible to cover with any depth. A principle of good pedagogy is depth over breadth. Teachers would probably be best off taking a few standards and covering them developmentally over the course of a year. Yet schools face pressure to cover them all and the standardized tests now being devised to assess students’ mastery of the standards are comprehensive.
Not only does classroom teaching need to develop, so do schoolwide practices. It is a great step to have developmentally progressive standards that set benchmarks from year to year, but this design will be effective only if teachers across grade levels develop articulated curriculum. That would require something unheard of, that elementary and secondary teachers talk to each other.

It’s unfortunate that the standards were created in an insulated inorganic way without the ongoing collaboration of teachers in the field. This has made implementation bumpy at best, and damaging at worst. If the standards had been considered a draft and then field tested before high stakes assessments were imposed, they might have been more easily swallowed. In New York state a first round of testing based on the standards measured only 30% proficient, generating a community backlash as well as a blow to the self-esteem of many children.

It is ultimately naïve to think that uniform adoption of the Common Core nationally will somehow generate academic parity across demographics. The value of standards, however well they are used, is limited given the deep socioeconomic disparities within American society that have produced corresponding inequities in the quality of public education. Poor urban schools that serve primarily students of color are woefully lacking in resources compared to schools in suburban and high income areas. To claim that somehow the standards will foster success for all our children is to cynically elide
these inequities. A kid in Compton using the standards is not going to get an education that touches the education of a kid using the standards in nearby Beverly Hills. We are a country that invests faith in measurements. Hence our standardized testing obsession in public education. If you look closely at their statements, the creators of the Common Core and the U.S. Department of Education seem to believe that by setting high performance expectations and then testing the results, students everywhere will naturally rise to new levels. But this is unlikely to happen until local, state and federal governments move to address much deeper problems of poverty, underfunding, inadequate teacher support, low teacher salaries, elimination of arts programming, and school violence. The Common Core can put into practice some important pedagogical concepts and has its place in school reform efforts, but to claim it provides a key to a solution is to vastly overstate the impact it will have.