In 2010 the North Carolina State Board of Education unanimously adopted national Common Core Standards (CCS) in English and mathematics. The standards — spearheaded by two independent organizations, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — were developed to better prepare students for college or careers and make American students more competitive with those in other countries.
Good intentions notwithstanding, a closer look at CCS reveals students, parents, educators and policymakers have much to be concerned about. Four significant problems warrant the attention of conservatives and anyone who cares about education in America. In Part One, we’ll focus on the first: There’s little or no solid evidence that a “one size fits all” curriculum is right for America.
Common Core Standards have been sold as a tool to raise academic standards and improve education for all students across America. However, an untested assumption underlies CCS: all students should learn the same things and have the same education. In a nation that recognizes all children are different and learn differently, such notions violate the dignity of individuals and the freedoms on which this nation was built.
Up until forty years ago, this nation had the best system of education – both K-12 and colleges and universities – in the world. One of the traits that made American education great was its diversity. Elementary and secondary school students can choose among private, parochial, public, technical charter, virtual and home schools. College students can choose from an array of 2-year associate or technical colleges. Students wanting to attend a four-year institution have options ranging from small private liberal arts colleges to large public research universities. The diversity in institutional type, curriculum, and governance has been a hallmark strength of American education. That diversity has helped to produce the best system of education in the world. Since when is our diversity a bad thing?
Yet that’s exactly what Common Core Standards are all about. The CCS drive is sold on the idea that national standards will improve education for all. That’s only true if the new standards are proven better than existing standards. The standards are marketed as a combination of the best practices and “internationally benchmarked.” Really? The standards have never been tested and utilize unproven methods of instruction. In some cases (e.g., Massachusetts and Virginia) the standards may be inferior to existing state standards. In the case of Massachusetts, in order to adopt CCS the state had to scuttle academic standards that were widely regarding as the best in the country. It is true that in many states Common Core Standards were equal to or inferior to state standards. How is forcing a state to adopt inferior standards good public policy?
If our goal is to improve student achievement and be internationally competitive, does anyone really think the development of a “one-size-fits-all” national curriculum is the way to get there? Of course we all favor high academic standards. However, such an argument assumes higher standards are the key to raising student achievement. There is no consistent evidence to suggest that a national curriculum leads to high academic achievement. CCS may help in some places but there are serious doubts that merely raising standards will improve student achievement for all. France and Denmark have centralized national curricula and do not show high achievement on international tests. Meanwhile, Canada and Australia employ many regional curricula yet show better results on tests than many other affluent single-curriculum nations. The CCS initiative creates new standards for all students; however, it fails to make a compelling argument why all students should be treated the same.
Saying CCS are better doesn’t necessarily mean they are. If you think such criticism reflects a minority viewpoint, read the names of 300-plus educators, prominent public figures and parents who signed a statement warning that a national curriculum would stifle innovation.
Math and English Changes
In addition to philosophical concerns, math and English standards have attracted their own critics. In math, much of the criticism is focused on pedagogy. Under Common Core, students will be asked to explain the “why” of a problem before merely performing the calculation. The changes result in needlessly complicating the teaching of basic math to students who are unlikely to have the context to properly understand such queries. The changes have serious consequences. First, it means standards will be taught by teachers who are still grappling to understand the curriculum and not familiar with ways or resources to successfully teach various subjects. Second, the changes also mean children will not learn traditional methods of adding and subtracting until the fourth grade. Multiplication skills will likely be delayed until fifth or sixth grade. Because of the backloading, students who might normally have the opportunity to take calculus while in high school won’t have the time to do so because the number of prerequisite courses is started too late. Do these changes improve a student’s math skills and really represent a better curriculum?
The standards for English also present problems. Professor Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas criticized the English Common Core standards as “empty skill sets that weaken the basis of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.” The most significant change for English CCS is a requirement that 50 percent or more of class readings in grades six through 12 be from “informational” or nonfiction texts. Advocates say the change in reading material will better prepare students to be college ready. But the changes will mean the curriculum will no longer include many of the classic works of literature. Professor Stotsky says the move will limit a student’s exposure to great literature and limit the opportunity to think critically and communicate, skills that are vitally necessary for success in college and also for success later in life. Professor Stotsky also points out that there is no research to suggest that college readiness is promoted by informational or nonfiction reading in English high school classes.
So contrary to what you hear from advocates, Common Core Standards are based on unproven notions and questionable assumptions. The task of educating our children is too important to employ untested, cookie-cutter methods developed by companies and organizations that have financial interests in textbooks, technology and assessment but are not accountable to parents or taxpayers.
In Part Two of this article, we will look at the other costs and problems this change will inflict on schools, teachers, parents and students.
For an expanded discussion of these topics see: Controlling Education from the Top: Why Common Core is Bad for America. A Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project White Paper by Emmett McGroaty and Jane Robbins, May 2012.
 Closing the Door on Innovation: Why One National Curriculum is Bad for America. Available at: http://www.k12innovation.com/Manifesto/_V2_Home.html
 Common Core Standards, Devastating Impact on Literary Study and Analytical Thinking, Sandra Stotsky, Heritage Issue Brief, Heritage Foundation, December 2012