Common Core

By | Updated Oct 28, 2015 3:58 PM UTC

How bad are U.S. schools? So bad that about a quarter of all high school graduates who go on to college need to take at least one remedial class as freshmen, a figure that can be as high as 60 percent at some two-year colleges. To fix this and bring order to a system where each state set its own goals, governors and school chiefs devised the Common Core standards. They’re the first national guidelines for what 50 million kids in kindergarten through 12th grade should know in English and math at the end of each year. Higher standards that let students move from one state to another without falling behind — what’s not to like? Well, some parents say several concepts students are required to master under Common Core are confusing. Teachers worry that the tougher standards will drag down test scores and hurt their job evaluations. The goals are at the center of a debate over education that pits reformers against conservative state legislatures and privacy advocates.

The Situation

Forty-one states are using Common Core. The English standards require a fifth-grader to find the theme of a story and describe how a narrator’s point of view influences events. The student also should be able to add and subtract fractions and understand volume. The federal government didn’t write the standards, but encouraged their adoption by awarding $4.3 billion in grants to states that pledged reform. Even though a bipartisan group of governors helped create the standards, there is a backlash in state legislatures that weren’t involved in their development. So some states have chosen to develop their own goals. Setting standards is one thing; getting states to use them effectively is another. Thirty-two states are working through two federally funded consortia to develop rigorous tests aligned to the Common Core. Misperceptions about the standards are widespread, and controversies, including whether they’re too hard on kindergarteners, are escalating. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who supported the standards when he was governor of Florida, embraces them despite opposition by his party’s conservative base.

The Background

For 150 years, students in public classrooms from California to Maine were taught to different standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative began in 2010 with a goal to replace some unclear state guidelines that required students to regurgitate facts rather than to think critically. The benchmarks are similar to those used in countries where kids test well, like Singapore. Common Core establishes what students should learn, but gives teachers freedom to develop their own lesson plans. More than 80 percent of districts in states that adopted Common Core developed materials locally. Tests are internationally benchmarked so parents can compare their kids to peers in other countries. These tests will replace those developed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to make yearly progress toward having all children perform at grade level in reading and math. Some researchers argued that states then dumbed down tests to increase scores and avoid federal sanctions.

The Argument

Many Republican presidential candidates view the Common Core standards as a federal intrusion into local control of education. There are parents who worry about too many tests. Others fear that the extensive data collected on the test computers’ cameras, including facial expressions and posture, will be used to mark children as having behavioral problems. Some parents have chosen to let their children skip the new assessments. Teachers say the new standards require extensive training; a 2014 survey suggested most districts felt rushed to make changes in preparation for coming assessments. Early tests of Common Core’s effectiveness showed some improvements. The standards’ creators say they will better prepare kids for college and to compete for jobs. Some teacher unions say Common Core will allow educators to “reclaim the joy in teaching” by developing creative lesson plans. And supporters expect the new tests will save families money by curtailing the need for remedial college classes.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Common Core State Standards Initiative explains the standards on its website.
  • Jeb Bush talked at length about his support for Common Core in this 2013 interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt.
  • Gallup polls of parents show they are evenly divided on the Common Core standards.
  • Intelligence Squared U.S. sponsored a debate on the pros and cons of the new school standards.
  • U.S. News’s history of the development of Common Core.
  • Governing magazine article: “Wyoming, the Red State That Likes Common Core.”
  • Pauline Hawkins’s resignation letter explained her frustrations as a teacher with No Child Left Behind and the Common Core.

First published March 13, 2015

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Jennifer Oldham in Denver at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at