The Puzzling and Contradictory Nature of the Common Core State Standards


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The Puzzling and Contradictory Nature of the Common Core State Standards (Common Core) initiative. The Common Core is a multi-billion dollar initiative that was adopted by 45 states and territories, while only five states refused to adopt the standards. Four years later, support for the Common Core is eroding, and there is also a parallel protest for the high-stakes testing associated with the Common Core.

Why do we have the Common Core and why is the initiative such a divisive force in American society, schools, and politics?

In this post I am going to review very briefly the history of the Common Core, show some of the research related to standards-based education, and explore some of the reasons that groups of people are either for or against the Common Core in public schools.

The First Common Core Meeting

The Common Core State Standards initiative began in 2009 at a Chicago meeting held by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and people from the states, and Achieve, Inc.  This group charged Achieve, Inc. to develop and write common standards in mathematics and English/language arts.  The purpose of a common set of standards was to set up a consistent set of educational goals across the nation that would make sure that students graduate from high school and be ready for college and career. College and career readiness are underlying goals of the Common Core.

The Common Core official website is at Achieve, Inc., a corporation founded by the NGA. According to Achieve, the Common Core is designed to “Prepare America’s Students for Success.”  According to Achieve, teachers played a “critical role” in the development of the standards.  However, the critical role did not involve writing the standards.  Based on Achieve’s documents, teachers either served on committees to check the standards, or provided feedback on the standards.  Teachers were not involved in the actual construction of the performance standards, nor did they take part in any decision-making about the efficacy of the Common Core standards.

Colorado and Brown Studies of the Common Core: What does the research tell us?

William J. Mathis analysed the Common Core initiative and his results were published by the Education and the Public Interest Center, University of Colorado at Boulder (Mathis, W. J. (2010). The “Common Core” Standards Initiative: An Effective Reform Tool? Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved [March 13, 2014] from  He concluded that:

  1. The NGA/CCSSO common core standards initiative should be continued, but only as a low-stakes advisory and assistance tool for states and local districts for the purposes of curriculum improvement, articulation and professional development.
  2. The NGA/CCSSO common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials and subsequent revisions before implementation. During this time, states should be encouraged to carefully examine and experiment with broad-based school-evaluation systems.
  3. Given the current strengths and weaknesses in testing and measurement, policymakers should not implement high-stakes accountability systems where the assessments are inadequate for such purposes.

According to the Colorado study, the development of the common core took a path that undermined one of the tenets of research, and that is openness and transparency.  The writing was done in private, and there was only one K-12 educator involved in the process.  According to the Colorado study:

The work groups were staffed almost exclusively by employees of Achieve, testing companies (ACT and the College Board), and pro-accountability groups (e.g.,America’s ChoiceStudent Achievement Partners, the Hoover Institute). Practitioners and subject matter experts complained that they were excluded from the development process.

Recall that the first meeting calling for national standards was in Chicago in April 2009.  By the Spring of 2010, the Common Core was published, and in August 2010, the Obama Administration required that states seeking Race to the Top Funding had to adopt the Common Core if they expected to be funded.  But the real point here is that the Common Core was ready in just one year, without any field-testing or trial usage in schools.

Achieve makes sweeping statements about the Common Core.  For example, one statement you can find on its website is

According to the best available evidence, the mastery of each standard is essential for success in college, career, and life in today’s global economy.

However, independent research, such as the Colorado study, suggests that the Common Core lacks a convincing research base.  Furthermore, Achieve claims that the Common Core standards “raise the bar” and will result in students achieving at high levels than they are .  The problem with this kind of thinking is that an independent study at Brown University showed that student achievement was unrelated to the quality or rigor of standards.  The Brown study reported that there was little to no correlation between NAEP scores and the “quality” of state standards.  The correlation coefficients ranged from -0.6 to 0.08.  (Loveless, T. (2013) Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?: Brown Center for Education Policy. Retrieved March 13, 2014) from

The researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core.  In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.”  Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards.  And he says that they use too often.  In science education, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area.  Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.

Questioning the Rationale for Standards

There are a number of questions that the Colorado study raised, and are worth noting here.

  1. Do High quality standards results in high-test scores?
  2. Will the presence of national standards result in higher scores on international comparison tests?
  3. Is the United States in danger of not being competitive in the global economy because of the failings of the educational system?
  4. Do the Common Core standards meet the workforce needs of the 21st century?

Based on the research in the Colorado and Brown studies, the answer to each question is no, or we don’t know.  But more importantly, each question ferrets out the rationale used to support the Common Core, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  If you read the documents on the websites of the initiatives, you will read that America’s schools are failing, that we will lose the competitive edge in global commerce, but that by having national standards, achievement scores will go up, and students will be “college and career ready.”

Professional Judgement

At the Network for Public Education (NPE) conference last week in Austin, TX, a panel was assembled to discuss the Common Core.  Anthony Cody was the moderator, and the Panelists included Paul Horton, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, Mercedes Schneider, Jose Luis Vilson, Randi Weingarten.   You can view the panel discussion here.

One of the panelists was Mercedes Schneider, a 22 year veteran teacher and highly regarded education blogger.  She has written extensively about the Common Core.  One of the points that she made in the panel discussion is that the Common Core, as presently conceived, does not include the professional judgement of teachers.  As she suggests, teachers do have one thing in “common” and that is they make judgements every day about the nature of learning in their classroom.

The Common Core, which is a set of performance standards not written by or for teachers restricts the very notion of good teaching.  Teachers have to make decisions every day about their students, and the quality of their teaching is unrelated to the performance standards that dropped into their in-box.  To be successful in the classroom, teachers need to know themselves and their students.  They need to know what works for their students.  They need to be able to make the decisions that enable their students to learn and understand mathematics, reading, science, history, music, and art.

Prescribing a set of performances that are of questionable value is part of the virus that Finnish educator and researcher Pasi Sahlberg names as GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement).  Standards and standardized testing is one sign that GERM has infected one’s educational system.  Nations around the world have borrowed from each other, thus infecting each other with failed and diseased parts.

The Wallace Study

Another aspect of the Common Core initiative has been investigated by researcher Dr. Carolyn Wallace.  Working as a full-time teacher in a south Georgia high school, Dr. Wallace studied the effect of Georgia’s standards-based accountability system on her professional work as a teacher, and subsequent learning of her high school biology students.

According to Dr. Wallace,  a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science.  She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.

One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion “that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science.”

  1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fit the needs of their students.
  2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to meet them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.

Dr. Wallace’s suggestions are significant in that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, bringing America very close to having a national set of common standards and possibly a national curriculum, at least in English language arts and mathematics, with science next in line to be adopted by each state.

And to further support the idea of inflexibility of the standards, Achieve makes the assumption that one set of standards will provide consistency, and the appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.  This is a troublesome assumption in that it is in conflict with findings in the learning sciences about how students learn.  Do all students learn in the same way?  How do students prior experiences and conceptions of science concepts fit into the way standards are written?

And on the heels of these standards is the development of Common State Assessments, with funding from Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA), with the goal to develop a technology based next-generation assessment system.

Behind the Scenes of the Common Core in Georgia

What is really going on in Georgia about the Common Core?  Why do the Governor and State Superintendent and educators support the Common Core, while a majority of the Georgia Senate voted to support SB 167 which will essentially opt the state out any future federal based standards and assessment?

According to Charlie Harper, editor-in-chief of Peach Pundit, a Georgia political blog, SB 167 was never about the Common Core.  As he points out, SB 167 would not have removed the Common Core from being used in the State, but it would have prohibited the state from using any future standards that a federal connection.  In particular, the Next Generation Science Standards.

Then Harper nails it when he said this in his article:

As I said last week, SB 167 wasn’t about Common Core Math or English standards.  This is about a small, vocal group of people who start all policy discussions with the belief that the basic tenets of science are lies from the pit of hell.  Common Core was a convenient boogey man, but this bill wasn’t about removing Georgia from Common Core.  It was about using the relative unpopularity of one initiative  to enshrine roadblocks to teaching basic scientific principles in Georgia schools.  “SB 167: It Was Never About Common Core.” Peach Pundit RSS. Peach Pundit, 13 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2014. <>.

Harper provides another piece of information about the forces at work here.  On the day that the Georgia House Committee on Education and Youth invited people to speak about SB 167, one of the speakers was Mike Griffin representing his church, the same church that Paul Broun, a candidate for U.S. Senator said that “evolution and the big bang theory are lies straight from the pit of hell.”

The Common Core initiative has brought together disparate groups who either oppose and stand with the standards.  Nearly every state has a “stop common core” group, and you can find conservative and liberal bloggers coming to the same conclusions.  But the reasons for reaching similar conclusions are vastly different.   In Georgia it appears that those who oppose the Common Core are fundamentalists who think that “values” are being compromised by including any form of national standards or assessments.  The Common Core is the federal government’s “Trojan Horse” which after arrival will open Georgia’s children to content and values that do not meet fundamental Christian beliefs.  Those who support the Common Core in Georgia are the education establishment, the Georgia Department of Education, the Governor’s Office, the Chamber of Commerce, and many businesses.  

What is your opinion on the Common Core?  Do you think that the Common Core should be implemented in your state?  What are your reasons?

Photo 2013 NMH Honors Chemistry Class, Creative Commons
About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University