Demystifying Common Core: A Collection of Perspectives on State Standards and What They Mean for the Future of Education in the United States

Welcome to the state of education, a podcast about education policy by EdTech Times. We’ll be speaking with educators, policymakers, reformers, and entrepreneurs about the biggest trends in education today. Our first topic on the state of education will be Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards initiative is a U.S. initiative that lays out what K-12 students should know by the end of each grade. Although it has been supported by the U.S. government in the past, many have criticized the Common Core.

So, how do we get to the bottom of the great Common Core debate? To get the full picture, we had experts in education interview experts in education to discuss this topic as well as the state of education today.

Now, you’ve probably heard the term “Common Core” floating around — but what is the Common-Core State Standards Initiative?

In the simplest terms, the Common Core State Standards are a series of benchmarks for each grade level of English language arts and math. For example, it says that first graders should be able to print all upper and lower case letters, and that eighth graders should know the difference between rational and irrational numbers. (In case you’ve forgotten, an irrational number is like “pi” or the square root of two and cannot be written as a fraction, while a rational number can be written as a fraction, like three-fourths.)

I know what you’re thinking. Weren’t there nationwide and international benchmarks before Common Core?

According to Ranjini Govender of Stand for Children Massachusetts, there were some national and international benchmarks, but there was much inconsistency in the standards used from state to state.

“I think some states were most likely doing it better than others,” said Ranjini. “I think that Common Core was sort of born out of that idea that we should have a set of common expectations.”

The federal government actually isn’t allowed to come up with national standards. Instead, the National Governors Foundation worked with the Gates Foundation on a series of standards.

According to Linda Noonan, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), the Common Core was initially a set of standards worked out by the National Governor’s Association in 2008. 46 states signed on to the standards in 2009 at a Chicago Meeting.

“Unfortunately, Common Core has become a proxy for a lot of political and ideological disagreements and for anything that somebody wants to criticize in education,” says Linda.

“But what really occurred was a voluntary collaboration of states, under the leadership of the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, to get the best and brightest minds together, to get the best thinking from across the country, and come up with a Common Core set of math, English, and language arts standards, again, of what every child, no matter where they live, needs to know in order to succeed after high school.”

Fast forward to 2012 — when the Democratic National Platform referenced the Common Core. Later, President Obama pointed to the Race to the Top funds which states used to, in his words, “develop smarter curricula and higher standards.”

“Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.”

But why is it important to understand Common Core?

A few reasons. First and foremost, it is because 46 states have signed on to this program in some fashion. And by my math, the standards are now used to educate 40 million students in American public schools.

Another important reason is that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about Common Core — and a lot of voices spreading those misconceptions.

Ranijini Govender of Stand for Children, says “I’m often shocked by some of the misconceptions that are out there about Common Core.”

“I think there have been two major misconceptions here in Massachusetts…One, is that these are in some way substandard to what we used to have in Massachusetts, whereas the reality actually is that Common Core was based on Massachusetts standards.”

As Massachusetts has previously been ranked number one in the nation for educational standards, it is natural that many of the standards were adopted because of their success in the state.

“I think that the second one is that they can’t be state specific. Whereas in reality, [it’s] up to 15%…which I think is great in order to be tailored to our unique system here in this state, and that educators were involved in every step of the process along the way.”

Now anything that affects this many students is going to have critics. But the rhetoric surrounding Common Core can often sound extreme: some critics make it sound like a completely illogical way to teach children with the added torture of non-stop testing, while some true believers talk about it like these standards will be the birth of an American intellectual renaissance.

But why are there so many varied opinions? Partially, it’s because Common Core and other such initiatives are easily politicized.

Take, for example, No Child Left Behind. In a move of bipartisanship, the Democratic Lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy championed President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind. But it became controversial on all sides when teachers and parents found the testing frequency meddlesome.

And while 46 governors voluntarily signed on to the Common Core standards in 2012, it was at the beginning of the 2016 presidential election, during the Republican and Democratic debates, that politicians really started to pump up their criticism.

In January 2016, then candidate, now President Donald Trump said Common Core is a total disaster.

“We are rated 28 in the world,” said Trump, “And frankly, we spend far more per pupil than any other country in the world. By far. It’s not even a close second. So here we are, we spend more money, and we’re rated 28. Third world countries are ahead of us. We’re going to end Common Core, we’re going to have education an absolute priority.”

Proponents of Common Core say the standards are high, but achievable, and that the clear benchmarks give them something to work towards. Opponents say that there’s still too many tests, and the handing down from on high of standards doesn’t always make sense for students.

To get an idea of how the Common Core is being implemented and received in the classroom, we spoke to a few local teacher.

Ariel Maloney, an English teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says she feels her teaching has improved since she’s embraced the Common Core standards.

“Because the standards, like the Common Core standards, are much more competency based, I have more freedom and flexibility to use a variety of texts, to use media, to extend beyond what felt like a more limited and prescriptive scope, for what I could teach at different grade levels,” said Ariel.

Chaitra McCartey, a teacher in Barnstable, Massachusetts, says that implementing Common Core and getting a better understanding of the standards has helped her provide a high quality education to her students.

“I think from an ELL perspective, a lot of the students come to me lacking fundamental English skills, and the Common Core forces you as a teacher to continue to push your students to think in their home language, in English, and to use more than just, the tools in front of you,” says McCartey.

“I think that it makes me more passionate, and it drives my instruction, because I know where they need to be, and what they can become capable of it. And it’s not a checklist saying ‘I’ve done this,’ it’s skills that they’re walking out of my classroom with, ready to go on to the next grade level.”

But…what about the other side?

Marc Prensky is the founder and executive director of the Global Future Education foundation and Institute — he says skills and standards should be about helping turn kids into effective, world-improving people.

“I think that most people see education in an old way, and we need to move toward the future. Common Core and this whole idea of subjects and content is absolutely the past, and it’s really sad that we’re wasting so much effort on these kinds of things because we’re hurting our kids tremendously, compared to the things we could be doing.”

Anthony Cody, a former Oakland, California science teacher and an outspoken critic of Common Core, says standards by design will limit teaching and learning. He says a big reason that so many states signed onto this so quickly was not because the standards were so great, but because there was a lot of money on the table.

“2010 was the year that Race to the Top money was being made available. And so, every state wanted that money wanted a piece. You could get potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for your state. So every state was trying to get a piece of that pie. So that’s why, within, a year or so, and most of the, many of these had lengthy processes by which their standards were created, many states the state superintendent would just sign off on it and it was adopted very quickly, because they needed to do that in order to qualify for this competitive grant process.”

And while we did hear from Ariel and Chaitra that they feel more creative in their teaching — Anthony says he’s hearing something very different.

“I do see teachers who are very much under pressure to teach to the test. And I think that there is a little bit more latitude in the sense that Common Core doesn’t always tell you what texts to use, but I still think that the pressure to teach to the test, especially those places that have used test based evaluation, teacher evaluation are really suffering from that.”

Since its implementation nearly 7 years ago, two states, Indiana and South Carolina, have formally repealed their Common Core standards, with five other states reviewing and replacing parts of them.

But a majority of the United States is still operating under Common Core standards.

Earlier, you heard now President Donald Trump criticizing the Common Core standards, and saying “we’re going to end Common Core.” Testing, which is associated with the Common Core Standards, remains pretty unpopular. A 2015 national gallup poll found 67 percent of public school parents thought there was “too much of an emphasis on testing.”

But how much can the new Trump administration, and the Republican-controlled House and Senate, do to change or get rid of, the Common Core standards? Especially since the standards were created outside the federal government, with states adopting or repealing them independently?

According to many, not a lot. As you heard earlier, the standards remain fairly popular with educators. And as reported by NPR in November, even though Race to the Top and the grants that go with it are over, that program has been replaced by legislation called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA actually prohibits the the Federal government from “mandating, directing or controlling” instruction, standards, assessments and many other aspects of educating.

So unless the president can coerce dozens of states into dumping the Common Core standards — they’re here to stay. At least, for now.

Read (and listen to) the rest of our “Demystifying Common Core” series:

Common Core Revisions: What Are States Really Changing?

6 Crucial Facts You Should Know About Common Core

State of Education: Interview with TeachPlus Teachers About Common Core

Why Teachers Should Take the Lead on Implementing New Educational Standards

Employers Think Applicants Lack Real World Job Skills, According to New Poll Conducted by the MBAE

Welcoming Parents to the State Standards Conversation: Interview with Ranjini Govender, Stand for Children Massachusetts

Beyond Learning, Beyond Standards: Author Marc Prensky Shares His Achievement-Based Vision for Education

Or listen to the full podcast series on SoundCloud or iTunes.

Kassandra Sundt

Kassandra Sundt

An Army Brat born in Canada, Kassandra got her start reporting and producing at Emerson College's WERS 88.9 FM, and later at WBUR 90.9, both in local Newscast and Radio Boston. When she's not writing about education, she's covering local Boston news and sports. Often, she can be found playing roller derby or knitting.