Common Core: What It Means for American Education

A new version of education reform is about to make its way into our kids’ classrooms. But are we ready for the change?

Common Core, Common Core Standards, Common Core State Standards
Students across the country are in for a change. Welcome to the new Common Core State Standards. (Photo: Getty Images)
Peg Tyre is the author of two bestselling books. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.

In this four-part series, award-winning reporter Peg Tyre examines how the controversial Common Core Standards will impact American education. We’ll explore the sweeping new goals of the initiative, how teachers are preparing for the changeover—and what's causing critics to sound the alarm.


Ready or not, here comes the Common Core!

In the next two years, what children learn in classrooms could undergo a big transformation. Schools all over the country are adapting to Common Core State Standards or, as they’re known, the Common Core. The standards were established as a way to “clearly communicate what is expected of students at each grade level.”

This is a serious undertaking.

Our last big effort to improve our schools was a 2001 federal program dubbed No Child Left Behind (NCLB). For NCLB, each state was required to determine a rough outline of what kids would be taught in classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade. Then the states were asked to come up with a series of tests to ensure kids learned the material.

After that, schools were required to publicly report English and math test scores, and break results down by groups, such as African-American kids, special ed students, and English-language learners.

Schools that couldn’t show improvement from year to year were cautioned, then put on warning lists, then marked for closing. And some of the lowest-performing schools were, indeed, closed.

Back then, the goal of NCLB was, in part, to ensure all kids were being taught basic skills (like learning to read, for example). Through NCLB, the federal government determined the lowest acceptable level at which states could educate kids. And looking at national data, it’s hard to deny that NCLB efforts have had a small positive effect.

Since the bill became law, there has been some slight improvement in basic reading skills of fourth graders around the country. The law’s biggest impact, however, is how it focused the country’s attention on the achievement gap between middle class kids and poor kids. It pointed out just how poorly America is educating its low-income kids and kids of color.

It turned out a lot of schools were teaching middle-class kids well, but black and Latino kids, or kids with learning differences? Well, they weren’t learning much of anything at all. To make matters worse, nobody was holding schools responsible.  

And while NCLB was a pretty good strategy for moving our national conversation about education to this massive and appalling inequity, the law included some big loopholes and created some unfortunate and unintended consequences.

For starters, some states adopted really strong standards (take a bow, Massachusetts). But in other states, standards were pretty low (I’m talking ’bout you, Arizona, Mississippi and Georgia).

Kids in states with low standards tended to be taught less, and the tests they were given held them to a less rigorous standard. This meant that a lot of those kids did pretty well on tests, and the state test scores looked okay. But the kids weren’t actually learning that much. Kind of a problem, right?

And there was another glaring problem with letting states determine their own standards. Testing kids was a good way of coming up with data on how kids did on the state’s specific test, but it didn’t do much to actually improve what happened in the classroom. And at the end of the day, that’s what determines how well children learn.

In fact, to accommodate NCLB, schools began teaching—and children began learning—less.

How could this have happened? Under No Child Left Behind, school administrators and district leaders quickly figured out the ugly consequences for schools when they failed to improve their students’ test scores: They were scorned, shunned and closed.

So in response, many schools demanded that their teachers dumb down instruction. Instead of embedding state standards in increasingly complex material, teachers were made to teach to the test in the most direct and simplistic way possible so more kids would do better on the tests, and schools would look like they were doing just fine.

This made school pretty boring for a lot of middle-class students, who supplemented their learning with reading books, engaging in enriching activities with their highly resourced families, and participating in a plethora of afterschool activities. You know, robotics class on Tuesday and tennis on Wednesday.

But dumbing down and teaching to the test was a profound setback for poor kids: They ended up on the wrong side of the achievement gap because they struggled from what is now being recognized as the knowledge gap.

In a nutshell, it’s been recognized that many poor kids don’t have opportunities to develop wide-ranging knowledge about the world. This can lead to smaller vocabularies, which then result in lower levels of reading comprehension, and then poor performance in school. 

Teaching poor kids less, or in a more simplistic way, was a disaster. The unintended consequence of NCLB was that it created a “bottom” level of acceptable instruction, but that geared the whole education system toward that low level.

So, in the early years of a new century, some deep thinkers in education, backed by deep-pocketed philanthropy, the big wigs at the powerful National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, began to put together a new reform effort. The framers were convinced by decades of research suggesting the achievement gap had its roots in the knowledge and experience gap.

They saw the compelling evidence that suggested when teachers deliver rich, deep, rigorous, orderly, well-sequenced content, children from all walks of life learn more. They had a vision of creating a high goal for schools to strive for, instead of a bottom set of standards that would ultimately doom them. And that coalition decided to act on it.

The idea of coming up with a standard curriculum had been talked about for decades, but for many reasons, it hadn’t gone forward.

The standards are silent on how they will be taught—that’s up to the school, the district, or the state—but what they will be taught is very clear.

Since 2009, the NGA and the CCSSO (don’t you love all the acronyms in the education world?), working with some of the biggest names in math and English language instruction, came up with a detailed description of what children should be taught in kindergarten through 12th grade, specifically in math and literacy. They also determined that higher order skills, like reading comprehension, analytic writing, and algebra, would be tested.

The Common Core, the framers believe, will reverse the trend of schools dumbing down their curriculums. And they believe the CCSS will ensure that poor kids who perform poorly in school because of their knowledge gap will be provided with the bedrock content they need to keep pace with their middle-class counterparts.

So next year, for the first time, every third grader in the 46 states that have adopted the Common Core will spend a chunk of time learning fractions—no matter where they live. And ten years from now, a high school diploma will signify that the graduate studied mythology, America’s founding documents, some classics from American literature, and Shakespeare.

The standards are silent on how they will be taught—that’s up to the school, the district, or the state—but what they will be taught is very clear.

States that adopt the Common Core will test kids through assessments developed by one of two federally supported consortiums—and will get some federal education dollars to put Common Core-related training programs in place.

In the next installment of the series, we’ll take a look at why people are criticizing the Common Core.

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