Special Report

What to Make of the Debate Over Common Core

Across 45 states and the District of Columbia, teachers are working off the same set of standards. What makes that so controversial?

The Common Core State Standards is a new initiative that outlines literacy and mathematics expectations for K-12 schools across the country. (iStock)

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“We were practically spoon-feeding students how to read and interpret text,” says Kohn’s colleague, eighth-grade English teacher Carrie James. “Now, we are trying to get them to be more autonomous.”

Math expectations are higher, too. It used to take two to three days to learn about how to find the slope of line in math classes here, says high school math teacher Kerri Naples. Now teachers spend at least two weeks on the concept.


For decades, each of the nation’s 14,000 school districts made their own determinations, largely free of oversight. Not until the 1990s did state legislators and education officials, concerned about widely divergent student performance, begin to develop their own, statewide sets of reading and math standards—broad statements outlining what students should know—meant to guide curriculum development and teacher training.

Yet many of the state standards suffered from serious shortcomings. There were dozens upon dozens of them, more than any teacher could possibly cover. They were vague and repetitive.

As standards proliferated, so did tests examining students’ knowledge of their requirements. But the tests focused instruction on neatly digestible, easily assessed facts, sometimes at the expense of more cognitively demanding aspects of learning.

Things might have continued that way, but by 2009, two other factors began to bring the issue of content standards back to the policy table. First concerns about U.S. students’ middling performance on international assessments came to the forefront in the debate over education policy, with specific emphasis placed on the lean, focused standards in place in top-performing countries.

Second, the recession highlighted the cost and inefficiencies latent in the traditional state-lead model. Faced with 50 different sets of standards, school districts suffered from an inability to import lesson plans and textbooks across state lines.

In a seminal March 2009 meeting, the nation’s governors agreed to the principle of shared standards.

Sixteen months later, with the financial backing of several prominent philanthropies, the Common Core standards were born. Though crafted by a small group of academics tapped by groups representing the nation’s governors and state schools chiefs, educators from every state gave feedback on the drafts before they were finalized.


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