An In-Depth Look at Common Core – What’s Working and What Isn’t?

Published  November 09, 2017 |
An In-Depth Look at Common Core – What’s Working and What Isn’t?
The Common Core State Standards Initiative, more commonly referred to simply as “Common Core”, was introduced to help American students graduate from high school better prepared for career and college. But what exactly are these "common core" standards, and are they working?

If you attended a public school in the United States, you have probably taken a standardized test at some point – probably a lot of them. Testing is one of the most common ways to evaluate the efficacy of an education program, though it may not always be the best way. One of the most well-known education programs that makes heavy use of testing is the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, more commonly referred to simply as “Common Core”, was introduced in the early 2000s, though many people still have a poor understanding of what it is and how it has affected the nation’s school systems. This system has been in place for half a decade and yet the jury is still out on whether it works or not.

Whether you have detailed knowledge of what’s going on in the nation’s education system or not, you are probably aware that the most recent presidential election has led to some big changes. Keep reading to learn about the history of common core, it’s future, and whether or not it really works.

A History of Common Core

According to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Common Core State Standards Initiative is, “a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy,” also known as ELA. These standards exist to outline exactly what a student should know at the end of each grade in public educational systems. In a perfect world, these standards will help to ensure that every student graduates from high school with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, in their career, and in their life, regardless of where they live.

But when was this system put into place, and does every state follow these standards?

The education reform movement that eventually led to the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative began in the 1990s. At the time, the Standards and Accountability Movement had already begun with individual states creating standards for what students should reasonably be expected to know and do at the end of each grade level. The movement also implemented assessments designed to measure student progress along the way.

Another important part of the Standards and Accountability Movement occurred in 1996 when a bipartisan organization called Achieve, Inc. was formed by various state governors and corporate leaders. The goal was to raise academic standards as well as graduation requirements nationwide in addition to improving standardized assessment methods and strengthening accountability among the fifty United States.

In 2004, Achieve developed The American Diploma Project and released a report titled, Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts, which set forth new standards for graduating high school seniors. According to the report, both colleges and employers were setting higher expectations for high school graduates than they had in the past. The report also noted that these standards were much higher than the expectations set by the current American school system. This realization became the motivation for the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Understanding the Initiative

Before getting into the details of whether or not the program works, you need to cultivate a basic understanding of what the Common Core State Standards Initiative is and what it requires.

As it has already been mentioned, Common Core exists to ensure that students graduate from high school properly prepared for college and career. The idea behind the program was to standardize education across all fifty states so that students would receive equal education, no matter where they lived. The program was announced on June 1, 2009 and forty-two of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia have accepted and implemented the standards. Several states have adopted the standards in part, and others that originally adopted it have since repealed or replaced the initiative.

The standards themselves were created with input from the nation’s educational experts and teachers with an emphasis on developing critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. According to the CCSSO, the standards were designed to meet the following requirements:

  • They are research- and evidence-based.
  • They are clear, understandable, and consistent.
  • They are aligned with college and career expectations.
  • They are based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills.
  • They are built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards.
  • They are informed by other top performing countries in order to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society.

Getting into the specifics of the standards themselves, there are five major components of the standards set for English and Language Arts: reading, writing, speaking and listening, language, and media and technology. Here is a quick breakdown of the standards for each category:

  1. Reading – As students progress through the grades, the complexity of what they are expected to read increase along with progressive development of reading comprehension skills. Students are expected to study works from noted authors such as Voltaire, Shakespeare, Poe, Frost, Yeats, and Hawthorne. Classic myths and stories from around the world should be studied as well.
  2. Writing – Students should be able to formulate and make logical arguments based on claims, reasoning, and evidence. Students should be able to write both short and long reports based on analysis and the presentation of significant findings.
  3. Speaking/Listening – Students should gain, evaluate, and present complex ideas and information through listening and speaking. They should also be able to sustain academic discussion one-on-one, in a small group, and in a classroom setting – this may include formal presentations.
  4. Language – Students should develop vocabulary through conversation, instruction, and reading. They should also be able to express themselves through language in many different contexts.
  5. Media/Technology – Media should be a part of every student’s life and they should be able to analyze and produce various forms of media. This includes instruction in keyboarding.

Prior to the adoption of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, critics of the American mathematics curriculum described it as, “a mile wide and an inch deep”. Common Core sets standards for mathematical practice as well as content. Here is a quick overview of those standards:

  1. Students should be taught eight principles of mathematical practice:
  • Making sense of problems and solving them
  • Abstract and quantitative reasoning
  • Constructing arguments and critique the reasoning of others
  • Modeling with mathematics
  • Using appropriate tools strategically
  • Attending to precision
  • Looking for and using structure
  • Looking for and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning
  1. Mathematical content is determined at each grade level with six categories to be covered in high school:
  • Number and quantity
  • Algebra
  • Functions
  • Modeling
  • Geometry
  • Statistics and probability

In addition to setting standards like these, the Common Core State Standards Initiative also provides a way for teachers and administrators to measure a student’s progress throughout the course of their education. Though this idea is great in theory, implementation of such a complex and detailed program is not easy. As such, it should come as no surprise that there are many critics of Common Core. Keep reading to receive information about whether Common Core is working and why.

Is Common Core Working?

Before getting into the details of whether Common Core works or not, it is important to note one thing:

While the Common Core State Standards Initiative dictates what students should know at each grade level in addition to describing skills they must develop to succeed in college and career, individual school districts are responsible for developing their own curricula based on those standards.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was released in 2009 which means that, in 2017, we are in the sixth year of its implementation. In that time, two major studies have been released regarding the efficacy of the movement. These studies compare improvements in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores between states that have adopted Common Core and those that have not. Unfortunately, those studies haven’t provided any conclusive data.

Why? According to an article published by Education Next, it is because there is such a limited array of outcome variables because NAEP is currently the only assessment tool available and it is difficult to measure career and college outcomes. It is also worth noting that the states studies may have adopted the standards at different times.

There are other ways to measure the program’s efficacy, however, and others have done so.

For example, the Associated Press summarized in the National Report Card that as many as two-thirds of graduating seniors are objectively not ready for college, citing the statistics that 75% failed the math test and 63% failed the reading test. These reports are by no means unexpected – findings have been similar for each of the seven years since the program was implemented.

But why is it that Common Core doesn’t seem to be working? Keep reading to find out.

What Are the Problems with Common Core?

There is a great deal of criticism out there for Common Core, from both educators and parents. But what do these critics say are the problems with Common Core? Here are the most common:

  1. It encourages teaching to the test.
  2. It follows a “one size fits all” approach to education.
  3. It focuses on the state not the student.
  4. It forgets about the basics.  

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these.

1. Common Core Teaches to the Test

The Common Core State Standards Initiative sets for specific standards for students at every grade level. In theory, this is supposed to ensure that students across the country receive equal education and that they are equally prepared for life after high school. Unfortunately, what often ends up happening is that school curriculums are designed around the test with the focus being more on student performance than student growth. School districts that do not perform well on the tests may receive less funding, so many schools focus more on the tests than on the students themselves.

2. It Follows a “One Size Fits All” Approach

The idea that setting a common standard for education across the nation will encourage equality in education is a good one. Unfortunately, it sometimes results in a “one size fits all” approach. Though having common standards should level the playing field a bit for students who live in low-income versus high-income neighborhoods, that isn’t always what happens. Students who have more limited access to educational materials like textbooks or to technology (even the Internet) are subjected to the same tests as students who have access to those educational tools – the tools that enable them to succeed in a Common Core curriculum. With disparities in education come disparities in wealth, family structure, and aspirations – if a child is raised in an environment where they are constantly labeled inadequate, it can hinder him for the rest of his life.

3. It is State-Centered Not Student-Centered

Another problem with the Common Core State Standards Initiative is that it operates under the assumption that the ends justify the means. If a school district does well on the test, it must mean that the system is working. In reality, however, it may be that the curriculum was simply designed for the test. Maybe the students learned the material as required, but do they really know how to use it? Do they understand how it might be relevant in their lives? An educational system that teaches things by rote may not actually prepare students for life after school – it only teaches them how to succeed while they are in school. A better way might be to integrate mathematical and language arts teaching into practical applications.

4. It Forgets About the Basics

Many teachers believe that the Common Core State Standards Initiative unnecessarily overcomplicate things. For example, if you think back to your own K-12 education, you may remember that memorization played a key part in learning new material. Common Core doesn’t recognize memorization as a skill but as a crutch, to some degree. The truth is, however, that your education is only useful as much as you can use it – you use what you know and, if you memorize something, that means you know it!

While there are undoubtedly problems with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that it is completely ineffective. There are plenty of cases where this system actually improved education and helped students to prepare for their futures. The problem is that every school is held to the same standards, not taking into account the fact that not only is each school district unique, but so are the children in them. Education should be fluid, adjusting to the needs of the student, rather than forcing the student to fit the mold of the curriculum. In the coming years as more data is acquired, perhaps a new and more beneficial system will be proposed.

What Does the Future Hold for American Education?

Because the problems with the Common Core State Standards Initiative are so obvious, it may lead you to wonder what the future holds for the state of the American education system. The Hoover Institution, an American public policy think tank and research group, has released a collection of essays written by members of the institution’s task force on K-12 education in which they make predictions about the state of the American primary and secondary education system in the year 2030.

Paul Peterson, a senior fellow and winner of the Thomas B. Fordham Price for Excellence in Education in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, seeks to show what education might be like in 2030 if nothing changes and only current trends continue. In his report, Peterson suggests that public education costs will continue to rise as student-teacher ratios fall. Control over the education system itself will shift away from families and localities to ever higher levels of government.

He also suggests that the courts and collective bargaining agreements may also gain some influence. Furthermore, technological innovation will precipitate an “enormous rate of change in curriculum design and information dissemination”. Throughout all, Peterson predicts that high school graduation rates will continue to drop and learning will stagnate.

These predictions are harrowing but they are just that – predictions. The truth is that the future is uncertain and, with recent changes in government, that uncertainty is likely to remain a constant. The best thing you can do for yourself and for your children is to stay informed and to make your voice heard whenever it is possible to do so. 


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