A Few Thoughts on the Common Core

A changing world demands new standards of educational success.

Kelly Bell


The Common Core State Standards Initiative, a partnership between the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), developed a set of common standards to improve the US education system and address education inequality. The goal is to ensure that all students, regardless of the state and city they live in, receive a quality education.

But there’s been an overwhelming backlash. The initially bipartisan, state-led initiative has been dubbed a “federal takeover of education.” Governors who led the push for the reform have fallen silent on the issue, following extreme anti-Common Core sentiment from powerful groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, and the Cato Institute. Implicit (and explicit) in the rhetoric is an attempt to spur levels of contempt comparable to those for Obamacare (for the record, President Obama and the federal government’s involvement is minimal).

I won’t bother covering points that have been thoroughly addressed elsewhere. A number of authors have already debunked common myths about the Common Core, and the Initiative’s own website has a very thorough write-up. However, there are a few points I am compelled to address.

The Common Core standards encourage methods of teaching that are significantly different than the ones parents of school-aged children received in school. This has led to outrage as many lament a discarding of fundamentals. The Common Core standards are different because the world is different than it was 30 years ago. When was the last time you did long division by hand? Computers do the vast majority of our calculations today. Recognizing this, the Common Core has shifted priorities from having students memorize step-by-step calculations to making sure students are able to make sense of problems, reason abstractly, use appropriate tools and structure, and recognize multiple ways to solve the same problem. This has led to pushback from parents who are unable to help with their children’s homework because they don’t recognize the methods being used. Many school districts are addressing this by hosting workshops for parents to learn the common core along with their children. Another point of contention has been the lack of a cursive requirement in the Common Core standards. When was the last time you wrote a business memo by hand? Why would we waste precious classroom time on an already obsolete form of communication, when that time could be spent on much more relevant skills?

In addition to bringing education up-to-date, the Common Core seeks to enhance consistency across the US education system. By allowing states to opt-in to a common set of evidence-based standards, we can reduce the school-to-school and district-to-district disparities that limit students’ learning and opportunities. As with any attempt to standardize education, there is always a risk that over-standardization will hinder learning. Educators, policymakers, and parents worry that standardization will limit teacher creativity and encourage one-size-fits-all teaching that leaves certain students behind. However, the Common Core is designed to reduce “teaching to the test” and provide more flexibility to teachers. The Common Core reduces the number of required topics teachers must cover, allowing them to devote additional class time to each standard and implement creative teaching methods to help all students master the standard. The standards have generally been embraced by teachers, who appreciate the focus on creative thinking and the ability to individualize lessons to meet students’ needs.

All said, it’s worth noting that there will always be critics to education reform, because there are critics to education in general. In 2012, the Texas GOP platform officially denounced teaching critical thinking skills to students: “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs… which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” (emphasis added) Sadly, there is a portion of our population that simply opposes children learning. Those voices are also speaking out against the critical thinking emphasis in the Common Core. When evaluating an argument against the Common Core, it’s important to note whether the author is criticizing specific aspects of the reforms, or simply lamenting the existence of an educational system at all.

In the end, I believe that the Common Core is an exciting advancement in education. There are still issues to work out, including getting parents and teachers fully versed in the new standards, and working through testing issues that may arise. Despite good news from Kentucky, we will have to pay close attention to student outcomes across the country over the next few years before we can draw conclusions on whether the new standards are working. Education is complicated and the world is constantly changing; any standard we set must reflect that. The Common Core is sure to need regular revisions and updates. These changes should be regarded as progress, not failure. A hallmark of a successful education system is the ability to adapt to technological advances and incorporate new methods appropriately.