The ABCs of Common Core

With the massive Public Relations campaign for Obamacare registration winding down, the next big $100 million campaign supporting a new federal initiative is ramping up. Five years in the works, the roll out of the first national standards for k-12 education is upon us and half of the states are giving practice tests amid pockets of resistance in several states.  Here is what the Common Core ruckus is about.

First, a definition. Common Core, an initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, seeks to establish consistent national standards with a focus on mathematics and English language arts to address the frequent complaint that the American public education system lags behind much of the developed world in preparing high school graduates for the work force and for higher education. With the incentive of $4.35 billion of federal Education Department “Race to the Top” money (part of the Stimulus Plan), some 45 states have been modifying their standards, training educators, and starting a roll out of modified curriculum and practice testing. The “Next Generation Science Standards” are being developed; there are currently no plans for social studies standards.

The public discussion, to the extent that there has been one, contains a mix of considerations, with emphasis frequently more on the process than the content.

A. Philosophical considerations.

Many conservatives subscribe to the principle that necessary government functions should be provided by the lowest, least centralized competent authority. In education, this has traditionally meant state standards implemented by local school boards, and since the 60’s the federal government has been prohibited from establishing national standards or curriculum. Common Core is thus positioned as the “voluntary” creation of governors and state education leaders. Secretary Arne Duncan has muted conservative opposition by advocating teacher and school measurement and accountability, and avoiding patently political subjects such as history and civics. Nevertheless, Race to the Top money is an opiate and the federal role in k-12 education is being substantially expanded.

Consistent with a desire to evaluate the success of educational programs, Race to the Top collects detailed information on student backgrounds, and the Department of Education has modified the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA – which guaranteed parents access to their children’s records and prohibits sharing with third parties) to limit parent access and encourage sharing with a Gates Foundation-funded data base, including a broad range of sociological factors which might affect learning. ACLU opposition in Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere has slowed this data base development as libertarians are enraged.

The “education-industrial complex” is alive and well. While the Department of Education, the governors and state school leaders are behind Common Core, the standards were actually written by a network of committees, feedback groups, and a validation committee which contained few teachers, operated in an opaque manner, and were dominated by five individuals, only one of whom had experience writing standards. They were not field-tested before roll out.  Included in one way or another as funders are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the US Department of Defense, the Ford Foundation, State Farm, Boeing, the Broad Foundation, Lockheed Martin and even the Koch brothers. Consumers of the billions include consultant McKinsey and Company, education conglomerate and textbook publisher Pearson Company, advocacy group Achieve, and an army of teacher trainers and consultants. America believes in education and in making a buck.

B. Implementation Considerations

While the long range goal is to increase accountability, for the next few years there will be a hiatus where states like California stop evaluating schools and teachers until 2016, and then they will have to start over on a new trend line. As the education community properly moves from a concept of measuring relative performance among students and schools to a concept of measuring individual progress the re-set will be debilitating. For underserved communities the hiatus will freeze the design and funding of special education and “English-learner” programs.

In another “the gain will be worth the pain” decision, all testing is to be computer-based. On the surface that is good for the 21st century; however … many school budgets will be stretched to get as many tablets and lap-tops as possible into the hands of the students, networks and technical support staff will need to be increased, teacher proficiency will require a technical re-training focus, and less-well-off districts are destined to fall further behind.

C. Curriculum content considerations

The standards themselves have been criticized as being below that of Massachusetts (the top state for the past decade) and California (near the bottom.) (There is, of course, a separate discussion about how many California students do not meet the state standards.)

A comparison of Common core mathematics standards to five Asian countries by Professor Jonathan Goodman of NYU  shows that all six generally cover the same concepts and skills with the US a bit ahead in statistics and lagging up to two years   in preparation for Algebra.  One criticism is that in Common Core the teaching of Euclidean geometry has been replaced by an experimental approach which has not been widely used or proven successful (remember the “new math” of the 60’s?).

Broadly, the English Language Arts standards require that students read more informational texts and less literature. Actually, the preference for critical thinking and problem solving over memorization is to be applied to science, history, and social sciences as well as mathematics, and testing is to emphasize open-ended solutions rather than multiple choice answers.

As noted by Williamson M. Evers of the Hoover Institute, educational excellence requires a combination of content standards, achievement tests for students, subject matter tests for teachers, accountability for teacher training schools, the ability to remove underperforming teachers, and school choice.  A change in standards alone – particularly national standards – will not make much difference, but our unique 50 laboratories will become one.  In the meantime, the country will take its eye off of the accountability issue.


This week’s video covers the indictment of San Francisco state senator Leland Yee for corruption and conspiracy to illegally traffic in fire arms. This is the third California Democratic senator to be indicted this year – a product, in part, of a one party system of government in the Golden State where the Democrats control both legislative branches and all state-wide offices – including those like Secretary of State which should be watchdogs, and for which Yee was a leading candidate.

www.rightinsanfrancisco.com – 3/28/14