Common What?

What is Common Core and why is everyone—right, left—so mad about it?

Classroom kids.

Common Core isn’t a workout routine, and it is coming to a classroom near you.

Photo by Ryan Mcvay/Lifesize/Thinkstock

Everywhere you look these days, people are getting angry over something called the “Common Core.” A Baltimore parent protesting against it was removed from a recent community forum and arrested for pushing an officer. A YouTube video compares the Common Core to Nazi propaganda. According to PBS NewsHour correspondent John Merrow, “the Common Core has become—depending on one’s perspective—either an unstoppable bandwagon or a runaway freight train.”

But what is the Common Core? A recent Gallup poll found that more than 60 percent of the public has no idea. When asked about Common Core in this video, respondents answered that it might be a set of universal beliefs (like the Ten Commandments), an exercise plan, or perhaps a new diet.

Officially named the “Common Core State Standards Initiative,” Common Core is a massive effort to transform K–12 education in America by creating tough new standards for what kids should know and be able to do at each grade level—and tough tests to go along with them.

Quietly initiated five years ago by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the first stage was to develop and then implement rigorous new standards in English and math, with an emphasis on critical thinking, reading complex materials (nonfiction especially), and learning core math concepts rather than rote memorization. Common Core does not dictate what books or topics a school can cover—teachers still design their own courses and pick their own reading lists—but rather sets specific expectations for what students should be able to do. For seventh-grade English, for instance, students should be able to compare and contrast a written passage with an audio or video version of the same material, analyzing how the different formats affect the impact of the words.

Governors and state education chiefs commissioned David Coleman—aka “the most influential education figure you’ve never heard of”—to lead the development of these new academic standards, which are already being used in several states. Coleman, who now heads the College Board, which designs the SATs, created controversy in 2012 when he described what he saw as the overuse of low-quality literature and personal writing in American classrooms. “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood,” he quipped in a speech that offended some progressive educators. But that didn’t stop 45 states and the District of Columbia from signing on to Common Core. (The holdouts: Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota.)

The second stage, begun three years ago and slated to go “live” on a grand scale this spring, is to administer newly designed tests to measure whether students are actually learning at a higher level when faced with these new academic standards. Forty-one states plus D.C. are signed on to field-test these new assessments.

So why the outrage? According to its supporters, Common Core’s central goal is to make American schools more challenging and productive for students by setting high, uniform expectations across states—without any federal micromanagement. But according to its conservative detractors, it’s “Obamacore”—another massive overreach by the Obama administration into state and local decision-making.

Where do they get that idea? State participation and the development of the standards and assessments have all been encouraged with funding from the Obama administration’s signature 2009 Race to the Top initiative. So while it’s not a federal program, it certainly has strong federal support, enough to make it a controversial program that some Republican politicians have felt the need to back away from.

Then there’s the criticism from the left. Liberal opponents describe Common Core as a crude mandate that’s going to push arts and science even further out of schools, limit the teaching of literature and creative writing in classrooms, and end up being used to rate schools and teachers unfairly.

Or, as former George H.W. Bush Assistant Education Secretary Checker Finn likes to say: “Conservatives hate anything with the word ‘national’ in it, and liberals hate anything with the word ‘test.’ ”

The Common Core effort represents the latest in a long line of attempts to challenge American students, and to make the results of those challenges comparable among states and districts—efforts that have not been very successful in the past.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, governors, educators, and academics tried to come up with common academic goals and standards for American children that everyone could agree on, which proved enormously controversial and eventually lost steam. Then in the late 1990s, the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats tried to fund the creation of “voluntary” national tests for states to use if they wished, an effort that was blocked by House Republicans before it could even begin. With the support of both Democrats and Republicans, the No Child Left Behind Act  of 2002 required states to administer yearly tests and report the results—but allowed each state to use its own standards and didn’t say anything about how hard or easy its annual tests had to be.

Letting each state make its own decisions works out great for kids in places like Massachusetts, where the standards are high and the tests are demanding. Some states took NCLB seriously and raised their games. In many cases, however, states opted not to make things too hard for kids—and not to embarrass teachers and schools when test results come out every year. Studies repeatedly show that kids in some states are learning much more than in others. And international comparisons show that kids in other countries do much better than kids in many U.S. states. After 30 years of talking about high standards and making schools “internationally competitive,” we still haven’t gotten anywhere.

This time could be different, if only because Common Core has actually managed to get off the ground before opponents gained steam. Last year, the Common Core standards were fully implemented in seven states. This school year, 21 more are implementing the standards across all grades. Most states have already begun implementing the new standards at least partially. And while some teachers have complained about the new push, many have welcomed the challenge or don’t seem particularly bothered by it.  They were already teaching some of the skills and topics suggested in the new standards, some teachers say, or they’re excited by the training and new materials that are part of the process.  While both left- and right-wingers have been pushing back against Common Core, notably there’s been no national rebellion against the standards from classroom teachers.

In the next few months as Common Core gets closer to becoming a nationwide reality, however, roadblocks will continue coming from all sides—from progressives, like education icon Diane Ravitch, who objects to the under-the-radar way Common Core was developed (“We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time,” she writes), to Tea Party conservatives, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. “We do not support … a national or federalized curriculum,” Jindal said earlier this week. “We need Louisiana standards, not Washington, D.C., standards.”

A lot of this is politics: Nearly two-thirds of those Gallup respondents who know about Common Core believe that it’s a federal initiative, and three-quarters say that standardized tests have hurt or made no difference to school improvement. Some of it is economics: The new tests are also much more expensive than those many states currently use. (A Fordham University professor recently decried the effort as a “huge profit-making enterprise.”)

So far, four states—Georgia, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Utah—have pulled out of the test development process, and several others are considering it.  Earlier this week Florida officials announced that they no longer wanted to lead one of the test development networks (though the state will still participate in the process). In places like Michigan and Florida and Louisiana, the heat is on from Tea Party conservatives to get out.

A handful of defections is probably not a serious problem, but having too many states going their own way “undermines the premise of Common Core,” warns Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners consulting firm. Which is why in recent weeks, supporters have been stepping up their visibility on behalf of the initiative, as Bill Clinton did in late August, telling a crowd at the March on Washington anniversary celebration said that, “we cannot be disheartened by the forces of resistance to building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes, or to rebuilding our education system to give all our children a common core of knowledge necessary to ensure success.”

So where do things stand right now? While lots of states are talking about defecting, all of the 45 states and D.C. that signed on to the standards portion of Common Core remain formally committed. Three states have already given tests that were at least partially aligned with the Common Core standards. And even with the recent defections, 41 states and D.C. are still in the pipeline to administer the new tests this year or next.

Despite the recent string of bad press, it may simply be too late for critics to block the Common Core effort from lurching forward.  But it won’t be pretty.