The Common Core Part I

Robert Lynch, Operations DirectorCurriculum

At some point between June and August each year, there are a number of families (belonging to Graduating Class 1) who graduate from ScuttleBugs and prepare to begin Kindergarten in September. Parents put a lot of thought and planning into choosing a Kindergarten for their child so it is important to have a good knowledge of the K-12 standards in the Public Education system in California and across the nation. The Common Core Standards Initiative known more widely as “Common Core” was introduced into the nation’s public schools almost a decade ago however many people still have a very poor or rudimentary understanding of what it is and how it has affected the nation’s school systems. It has also become quite controversial attracting a large contingent of strong advocates as well as harsh critics. This blog will take a very close look at common core in 3 parts with part 1 examining how it came about - part 2 looking at what it is exactly and part 3 focusing on how it has been implemented in California.

A Brief History of “Common Core”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative widely referred to as “Common Core” began innocuously enough. It was an initiative that grew out of the remnants of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) educational reform law passed in 2001 that linked key federal funding for schools across the country to new mandatory standardized testing in basic skills. To qualify for federal funding, states had to give these assessment tests to all students at various grade levels. The NCLB law was passed by Congress as a federal initiative with very strong bipartisan support in a vote of 381-41. The act did not set national standards of achievement – each state was left to devise their own. The federal role rested on placing emphasis on annualized testing, report cards and teacher qualifications. 

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Within a few short years, criticism of the law from the right, left AND center became so strong that another bipartisan congress peeled away all the federal features of the NCLB Act and turned its remnants over to the states. The result was a lack of uniformity in standards from state to state. “If you were from Maryland, you didn’t have to learn Trigonometry, but your neighbors in Virginia did. Maybe they have less triangles” quipped Bill Gates. And perhaps most troubling of all, this made it virtually impossible to tell how our children were actually performing. Educational reformers feared American students were falling behind their counterparts in China, India, South Korea, Singapore and in other parts of the globe. Their goal was to ensure that each and every student completes elementary and high school with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and in their careers regardless of where they live. We need to get our students ready for 21st century careers went a common phrase of the time. Against this backdrop emerged a growing call for further educational reform.

Development of Common Care

The standards are largely the creation of two men – David Coleman and Jason Zimba. Coleman graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale in 1991 and went on to study English Literature at Oxford and Classical Philosophy at Cambridge. Zimba graduated with a B.A. in Mathematics and Astrophysics from Williams College and went on to study mathematics at Oxford. Both were Rhodes scholars and met in the class of 1993. They became good friends and later business partners. Coleman became a consultant at McKinsey and Co. spearheading analysis of how school districts could improve performance. Zimba completed his doctorate in mathematical physics at Berkeley in 2001 and became a professor at Bennington College.

In 2000, the pair reunited to found the Grow Network, a consulting company that analyzed test scores for states and large school districts. There was no shortage of data generated from the NCLB testing and the organization helped states such as California, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Mexico and New Jersey make sense of the data and draw inferences. Their client list also included New York City and Chicago public school districts.   

In a report to the Carnegie Corporation in 2008, the policy entrepreneurs seized the moment to create national educational standards, writing that the standards must be made “significantly fewer in number, significantly clearer in their meaning and significantly higher in terms of the expectations for mastery of what is covered.” In reading, for example, they said schools should deemphasize literature and rely more on “informational texts”—speeches, magazine articles and government reports. Learning should be more centered on what is going on today to prepare students for the future and not make learning so overwhelming that it is “spread a mile wide and an inch deep”. Fixing education meant doing less not more.  They also concluded that math lacked real world applications and wanted more focus on learning concepts rather than mere memorization.

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Coleman and Zimba were not alone in seeking a fix. Their recommendations attracted widespread support from two national organizations based in Washington, D.C. One was the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) whose members are comprised of education commissioners heading elementary and secondary departments across the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. Another was The National Governors Association (NGA) whose members are the governors of the 50 states and five territories.  Both organizations are non-profit and non partisan with members from across the political spectrum.

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In 2009, the CCSSO and the NGA’s Center for Best Practices in partnership with Achieve launched an initiative to write Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics for elementary through to high school (K-12).  A set of standards would be developed to outline exactly what a student should know at the end of each grade in the elementary and high school public education system.

Coleman and Zimba would become lead writers of the Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics standards, respectively. They, in turn, assembled writing teams, working groups, and feedback groups to refine the standards. The standards outlined what a student must be able to do at the end of each grade but it was left up to schools to develop the curriculum to get them there.

The development of common core standards coincided with the Great recession of 2008-2009 which left cash strapped states in no position to fund a sweeping education initiative. To meet this challenge, David Coleman and a top CCSO official flew to Seattle to present the initiative to Bill Gates who had already spent millions of dollars on public education.

Gates was quick to embrace the common core initiative and quickly began to infuse grants to the CCSSO, NGA and other think tanks to get the process moving politically. He channeled more than 200 million toward the implementation of common core to groups across the political spectrum. For example, the American Chamber of Commerce received 1.38 million to lobby in support of common core. This caught the attention of President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan both of whom liked the idea of common core.

The U.S. Department of Education was now on board and outlined a plan to aid in the implementation. The department had an existing 4.35 billion-dollar program called Race to the Top that awarded education funds to individual states. Under the plan, states that adopted the new common core standards were eligible to compete for these funds with extra credit given to states that tracked the development of individual students from kindergarten straight through to high school.

In 2010, The New York based Carnegie Corporation’s Institute for Advanced study released their Opportunity Equation commending the development of common core as a crucial step for equity and excellence in education.

Implementation of Common Core

The initiative was announced on June 1, 2009 and the standards were released on June 2, 2010 with a vast majority of states adopting the standards in the subsequent months. 46 states initially adopted the common core standards with Alaska, Texas, Nebraska and Virginia not signing on. A further four states initially adopted common core but since decided to repeal or replace it. These include Indiana, Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina. There are currently 42 states following common core with Minnesota adopting only the English standards but not the math.

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National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). 2012. The Common Core

State Standards: Caution and Opportunity for Early Childhood Education. Washington,

DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Snow, Kyle. “Variation in Children’s Experience of Kindergarten and The Common Core.” Common Core Issue Brief. November 2012. Washington, D.C. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). 2015. Developmentally Appropriate Practice and the Common Core State Standards: Framing the Issues. Research brief. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

See Garland 2014; Lyndsay Layton, 2014, “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Common Core Revolution,” Washington Post, June 7.