Common Core

There’s clearly not much that Louis C.K. likes about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and he’s hardly alone in his disdain for these academic objectives in mathematics and language arts. In fact, Louis C.K. is tapping into a growing movement against standardizing academic expectations for American students.

Lest you think this is a liberals-only cause, note the anti-Common Core right-wingers who are riding the bandwagon. Passengers include ultra-conservative Glenn Beck (“This is the progressive movement coming in for the kill” with its “ultra-liberal ideology”), Eagle Forum President and anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly (“Obama Core is a comprehensive plan to dumb down schoolchildren”) and the Koch brothers (with billions of dollars to invest in the anti-standards movement). 

So let’s drill down to some common ground on the Common Core with four facts.

1. CCSS participation is determined by the state.

The CCSS were enacted by states, not the federal government (although President Obama did offer incentives to adopt it). The Standards were developed by teachers, school administrators and educational experts to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life, regardless of where they live. In New Jersey, the state legislature adopted the Common Core in 2009 during the Corzine Administration, although it was not fully implemented until last year. The emphasis throughout the CCSS is on critical thinking instead of rote memorization. For some states, especially in the south, these standards are a big jump. Not so much in NJ: In 1996 the state adopted the relatively rigorous Core Curriculum Content Standards. 

2. New standardized tests will replace ASK and HSPA tests.              

New Jersey implemented statewide testing in 1976, and NJ’s ASK (for third–eighth graders) and HSPA (for 11th graders) tests are aligned with our current state standards. In order to measure student proficiency in the Common Core, two organizations, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Better, have developed aligned tests. New Jersey is part of the PARCC consortium, and as of the 2014–2015 school year, PARCC assessments will replace ASK and HSPA. 

3. CCSS provides a standard, not a curriculum. 

The CCSS don’t limit what teachers can teach or how they teach. According to the CCSS, “Teachers know best about what works in the classroom. That is why these standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.” CCSS is a set of shared objectives and expectations for students, regardless of where they live or their socio-economic circumstances.

4. CCSS will eventually be used to evaluate teachers. 

Over the past two decades, there’s been a growing realization that the U.S. does a poor job training teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness and awarding job security. A growing group of states, including New Jersey, have plans to link teacher evaluations to student longitudinal growth, or how much a student actually learns from year to year. Many states will use the tests aligned with CCSS as an instrument to evaluate teachers as well as students. Per state law in New Jersey, a small part of teacher evaluations will eventually be linked to student test scores on PARCC. 

But let’s face it: No one likes tests. Parents—even celebrity parents—fear their children will be exposed to the unhealthy pressure of “high stakes” assessments. Conservatives like Glenn Beck and Phyllis Schlafly insist that the adoption of common academic standards is an intrusion of the federal government into states’ rights (much as they also malign efforts at gun control, same-sex marriage rights or immigration reform).

This surge of resentment and ill-formed nostalgia for “the good old days” reached new heights this summer. America’s two national teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), were once outspoken proponents for the Common Core, but now both are backing away from their support. It’s not so much the standards themselves (although there’s growing opposition to those too) but instead hesitation related to CCSS’s primary instrument of accountability, the student assessments, which will require students to demonstrate a greater depth of knowledge and better critical thinking skills than they’ve done before.

When the CCSS first came out, educational leaders welcomed this ambitious and internationally benchmarked set of common objectives for students. Now, as they often do, politics and misconceptions threaten to send us back to what AFT President Randi Weingarten at one point called “the too-common superficial sprint” that comprises American education. In the end, children will pay the price.


Laura Waters is an NJ school board member and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.