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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These shared standards are effectively a corrective to their predecessors, emphasizing depth of mastery of fewer topics over breadth. They focus on students’ ability to analyze and apply knowledge, rather than recall it. And they are designed so that, in theory, a student who masters them by the end of high school will be able to succeed in college or an entry-level job without remediation.

One of the standards’ most influential writers, David Coleman, sees in that end goal a recommitment to the equity push that gave fruit to academic standards in the first place.

“Particularly for low-income kids, remediation is a trap they don’t escape,” says Coleman, now the president of the College Board, which oversees the SAT college-entrance exam.


The shifts in student expectations are on display throughout the school in the Rockaways. Consider the bulletin boards in the middle school hallway, where sixth graders recently completed a unit on Homer’s Odyssey.

An end-of-unit essay under the auspices of the New York state standards might have asked for a student’s response: When did you do something heroic? What is it like to wait a long time for something you want? Thought provoking, surely, but not dependent on analyzing the myth.

At Scholars’ Academy, the essay topic requires a deep analysis of Odysseus’ character: “Is Odysseus truly a hero, and why? What evidence can students cite from the myth? After all, he puts his men’s safety ahead of his own. On the other hand, Odysseus takes an awful lot of extended diversions.”

The results are replete with delightful, cheeky headlines: “Odysseus: Hero or Zero?”  Some are good enough to be the beginning of a high school thesis.

The concept of deep probing of content underpins the Common Core math standards, too. The standards still expect students to calculate the quadratic equation, but they will also be expected to master the underpinning concepts and patterns that structure mathematics.

Take fractions, a topic math educators routinely cite as a problem area for American youths. Everyone who’s been through middle school in the United States remembers learning fractions about slices of a pizza pie, and that works when there is just one pizza to worry about.


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