So does the Common Core really matter, anyway?

When the debate over the common core standards first erupted, my initial reaction was, “do standards really matter that much, anyway?”

This still strikes me as a good question. For all the fears and hopes surrounding the new standards, I can’t help wondering why so many people assume  that more rigorous standards (and of course the rigor of the new standards is itself disputed) will drive either true reform or a federal takeover of education.  My reasoning is that standards seldom change what happens in the classroom, and that’s where really education reform needs to happen.

A recent blog by University of Arkansas education professor Jay Greene takes on the issue of why the standards don’t matter – and also why they do. To start with the first point:

Common Core doesn’t matter because standards mostly don’t matter.  Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution illustrated this point simply and convincingly in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education.  Loveless examines variation in the alleged quality of existing state standards to see if higher quality standards are related to academic performance on the NAEP.  They aren’t.  In fact, the correlation between the Fordham Institute’s rating of state standards and NAEP performance is -.06.  Somehow that fact never seems to come up when Fordham is invoked in defense of the quality of Common Core.  Loveless also demonstrates that there is no relationship between “performance standards” (the rigor of cut scores on state tests) and NAEP performance.  Loveless concludes:

Don’t let the ferocity of the oncoming debate fool you. The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.

Standards mostly don’t matter because they are just a bunch of vague words in a document.  What teachers actually do when they close their classroom door is in no way controlled by those words.  Changing the words in a standards document is very unlikely to dramatically change what teachers do.

Okay, that’s the same point I’d been trying to make. But if the Common Core is just a bunch of vague words that can’t guarantee any real change is delivered, why is it still important? Here’s what Professor Greene has to say:

1) Common Core is important because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies.  It will probably take about a decade for the failure of Common Core to become obvious to its most important backers.  Until that time Common Core is consuming the lion’s-share of reform oxygen and resources.

2) Common Core is inducing reformers to ignore and even denigrate choice-based reforms because they have to deny one of the central arguments for choice — that there is a legitimate diversity of views on how and what our children should be taught that choice can help address.  If Common Core folks have any support left for choice it is to allow parents to choose the school that can best implement the centrally determined education content.  You can choose which McDonalds franchise you frequent so that they can compete to make the best Big Mac for you, but you are out of luck if you prefer pizza.

3) Common Core enthusiasts support granting dramatically more power to the federal government over education to improve the odds that their centralized machine can be built and implemented.  Even after that fails, the precedence for greater federal involvement will remain, further eroding our decentralized system of education that has long produced benefits through choice.

4) Common Core is providing license to all sorts of crazy and contradictory local policies.  Districts are cutting literature, pushing back Algebra, increasing constructivist approaches, reducing constructivist approaches… all in the name of Common Core.  When parents and local voters complain, the schools  dodge accountability by claiming (perhaps falsely) that Common Core made them do it.  A big danger of trying to build a centralized system of controlling schools is that local education leaders will blame the central authority for whatever unpopular thing they choose to do.  It’s like the local Commissar blaming shortages on the central authority rather than his own pilfering.  It shifts the blame.

Now, if states really do adopt new tests based on the common core, and if these tests really do live up to the promise of testing higher reasoning skills, then we’re surely going to see an eruption of mutual blaming. Much as teachers hate the basic skills standardized tests that allegedly drive them toward rote learning, I think they’re going to hate tougher tests even more. Students who can’t pass a basic reading comprehension test are not going to perform well on a more complex essay test. Ditto for more complicated mathematical reasoning. What’s more, it may turn out to be much harder to predict what kind of questions will appear on the new assessments. We may end up missing that old teaching to the test.


  1. Howard Beale


    Perhaps we will come to the same conclusion but for different reasons.

    I don’t think the common core will matter much. Teachers as you say do their thing. There are probably some good things about the common core but bottom line say in Utah it won’t matter much with 30 plus students in our elementary classes and 40 plus in our secondary classes. You can have all the wonderful curriculum you want but unless teachers have a fighting chance in our schools, it won’t matter.

    Utah has chosen the course to devalue its teachers to save a few bucks. Many schools have nearly 50% of their teachers with three years or less of experience. Males are endangered species in our elementary schools and leaving the profession in droves. There is no magic curriculum to fix this. Advocates and opponents of the core curriculum merely argue about how to shuffle the chairs on the education Titanic, the boat will sink because Americans don’t value public education in general–we will reap what we sow in that regard.

    • Christel Swasey

      I’m grateful this issue is receiving publicity, even though I strongly disagree that Common Core doesn’t matter.

      Many believe Common Core is nothing more than education standards. Newsflash: there’s a larger Common Core agenda that includes:
      1) D.C. providing national “model” curriculum, 2)Utah including non-academic, belief and behavior assessment in common core student tests 3) Utah conducting lifelong, multi-agency surveillance of students –without parental permission or knowledge using federally paid for, federally interoperable SLDS data systems 4) spending educational tax dollars on exorbitant data mining technologies (and there’s still been no cost analysis on Common Core’s affect on Utah) 5)adding you-may-be-fired high stakes pressure to teachers prepping students for Common Core tests; 6) dumping legitimate math and not teaching kids how to convert fractions to decimals as one example; 7) skewing traditional English; no longer encouraging the love of reading or the ability to write narratively, not exposing kids to the traditional masses of classic literature but telling teachers to teach from info-texts to better prepare students to be “human capital” in the service of the State 8)redistributing wealth with the justification that it’s improving equitable education for all 9) aiming for international sameness of standards so that, throttled by the high pressure common tests, no one, anywhere, can innovate or diversify teaching 10) destroying constitutional local control by having D.C. groups in closed-door meetings with zero transparency, direct the common core 11) allowing no amendment process on the copyrighted standards 12) not allowing teachers or parents to view the common core tests before they are given to students with the exception of fifteen parents in the state 13) extreme environmentalism promoted across all subjects in common core aligned textbooks 14)never taking the time to prove whether the standards were an improvement or a dumbing down; they are often claimed to be more effective and more rigorous yet have not been based on empirical study and were put together by non-educators– literally they are a national experiment on kids 15) common core math standards put us behind the current Asian “math tiger” countries by two years according to math analysis by common core validation committee member James Milgram and mathematician Ze’ev Wurman 16) Common core bypassed legislators and had no public vetting yet it’s dramatically altering education for the worse while being dishonestly called “state-led” and “improved” 17) it’s going to raise taxes– Texas and Virginia refused to adopt Common Core because of the exorbitant cost– their states actually took the time to do a cost analysis 18) it’s illegal; read the General Eduational Provisions Act and our Constitution; both forbid the federal government from supervising, creating, micromanaging, testing or data collecting over schools and if you don’t think they are doing that, realize that there’s a federal technical review committee over the common core tests and a binding “cooperative agreement” with testing consortia that require them to share data with the federal government –I could go on and on and on.

      It’s hard to get the truth unless you study on your own. There is an enormous propaganda machine advocating for Common Core.

      Many have been “taught” fictitious claims of improvement about Common Core –by people paid by the foundations that fund Common Core, foundations that get very rich from implementation of Common Core: Bill Gates, Microsoft, Pearson, G.E. and others.

      Even the national PTA and the opinion-making educational magazine, Education Week, are paid to advocate for Common Core. But remember, no empirical evidence showed the standards to be good.

      I promise everything I have written is true and verifiable with documentation. Anyone can and should study it for themselves to know the truth.

      Where to start: see the A.I.R. (Common Core testing company) website, the Dept. of Education’s own speeches and agreements, and the reviews of the members of the common core validation committee (who went on to testify to legislatures that these standards diminish education.) Read Professor Christopher Tienken’s and Professor Thomas Newkirk’s and Professor Sandra Stotsky’s reviews. Watch the videos at Georgia’s Stop Common

      I have been documenting these things for over a year at whatiscommoncore.wordpress .com.

      Thousands of Utahns who have studied and know these issues daily pray that our Governor, media, teachers, school boards and parents will see the truth and will fight for our children and our liberties which are absolutely being thrashed by Common Core.

    • Stephanie Sawyer

      I think Utahns/Americans value public education in theory; they just don’t necessarily value how it works out in practice. And class size is not the issue; the issue is what the teacher can and cannot do. When the district/state restricts WHAT and HOW you can teach, then the issue is really that parents feel that they have no say or control in the process.

      The response you are seeing to Common Core implementation has nothing, really, to do with the common core itself. It is about that the already-unresponsive district is about to be replaced with an even more unresponsive state.

  2. Oak Norton

    Here’s a brief writeup on Utah’s new assessments from the research of an Alpine School District board member. Common Core assessments don’t test higher thinking, they are going to test some education knowledge, but the testing company specializes in behavioral testing. Couple that with the state longitudinal database tracking of our children and how it’s shared with the feds and other interested parties, and you start to see that the problem with Common Core is 10% standards, and 90% globalization agenda.

  3. Tiffany

    If only Common Core were just another set of standards. Ms. McConnell has a lot of homework to do. What about Utah’s new testing company AIR? Do you know that they are not actually an academic testing company, but rather a behavioral and social science company with a far left agenda? What about the aggressive data mining and lack of privacy? Common Core is a federal takeover of education. The National Governors Association is not a state led body from Utah elected to reform education, but a public policy organization based in Washington. The Gates Foundation has committed 354 Million dollars to this project. Do the people of Utah have any idea that he is one of the single largest contributors to Planned Parenthood. In his last TED talk, he expressed a wish to reduce the population 10-15%. This man does not represent Utah values and yet he has influenced these standards and the standards are quickly being developed into curriculum to be used in our schools. Wake up Utah!

  4. David N. Cox

    As one of those endangered male elementary teachers, I began when there were usually at least one or two male teachers in each of the upper grades until now I am the only male teacher in the whole school. This is not only due to salary. It has perhaps more to do with the crazy methodology pushed from the colleges of education, high stakes testing, the eroded security of the position, or in other words all the “reforms” that are actually hurting the education of kids. Common Core just makes that all worse and gives away any sense of local control or responsibility. We are just cogs in a gigantic wheel that will now be run by Washington. We need to give up the carrots and hooks and return ALL control back to the local community. Reject Common Core!

  5. Carolyn Sharette

    Perhaps Mary isn’t as worried about the Common Core leftist agenda (I am not saying that exists to the degree other posters believe it does) because she teaches for a Catholic school and would likely not have subjected her children to public schools that promote a secular agenda.

    If it is true that the new common core is worse than what we currently have (again, in comparing the two I am not sure that is the case) it will be more important than ever that we adopt a full voucher program so that parents truly can control the education their children receive.

    I have always thought it curious that in Utah,there are so many people who don’t support vouchers, yet who have strong feelings about dictating what should or should not be taught in public schools. I believe they are in denial about what kind of control you can exert in your local public school district, and while they fight on, year after year with very little ground gained, their kids suffer year after year.

    It seems it would be much better to take all the energy being wielded against the Common Core (and against all the failed educational agendas that parents have been fighting against) and open charter schools or private schools that will serve your kids how you want them served. That way, your kids are getting what you feel passionately that they need, and you are also creating something that others can look to and perhaps do the same thing. Over time, families will have their children learning what they want them to learn, in the environment they want them to learn it. I daresay that will NEVER happen on a large scale (or any scale?) in the public schools.

    • Mary McConnell

      Actually, I don’t think most common core supporters have either a left- or a right-wing agenda. If anything, I tend to give common core supporters more benefit of the doubt, since I think most of them, such as the folks at the Fordham Institute, are trying to raise the alarmingly low bar we set for our kids. I’ve mentioned before that I like many elements of the common core language arts standards, especially the emphasis on interpreting expository texts, evaluating arguments, and writing analytical essays. What disturbs me are reports that school districts are instructing English teachers to jettison demanding literary texts in favor of less demanding and, yes, sometimes polemical non-fiction texts. But why should English teachers bear the only, or even the main, brunt of teaching to these standards anyway? I think my own subjects – history, government, economics – lend themselves especially well to working on these skills. I like to think I’m doing this in my online classrooms. I certainly hope that my colleagues in English aren’t jettisoning their Shakespeare collections!

      The issue of imposing secular standards on religious schools is rather different. Certainly I would be strongly opposed to any standards that required me to present the Catholic, or LDS, or my own Presbyterian church as a force for unmitigated evil! But I taught the Protestant Reformation to AP European History students in a Catholic school, and no one suggested that I should defend the selling of church offices or portray Martin Luther as an unreconstructed villain. (If anything, my colleagues in the theology department were probably more disturbed by some of these earlier church leaders than I was!)

      But Carolyn is absolutely right: this debate threatens to distract us from the very serious problems in our schools. Utah’s common core opponents like to cite how these new standards are inferior to Massachusetts’ standards, and they’re almost certainly right? But are we satisfied with our own standards? Are we satisfied with our own students’ performance? And what about the disturbing gap between the “average” student and poor and minority students?

  6. gary horning (bidme

    my understanding of common core is like all things coming from Washington a way of finding out everything about your family and using them in ways you probably wont like. Like the obamacare bill its out and yet no one knows how to implement it as was stated by ms Sibelius like the infamous words of Pelosi vote for it then read it. Can we please wake up and the majority start doing something besides sit around and listen to the liberals drone on with the stories that are truly made up. I cant believe we have become such a group of doing nothing people. VOTE and change those people who keep taking your rights and making you rely on big gov

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