Everywhere you look these days, people are getting angry over something called the “Common Core.” A Baltimore parent protesting against it was removed from a recent community forum and arrested for pushing an officer. A YouTube video compares the Common Core to Nazi propaganda. According to PBS NewsHour correspondent John Merrow, “the Common Core has become—depending on one’s perspective—either an unstoppable bandwagon or a runaway freight train.”
But what is the Common Core? A recent Gallup poll found that more than 60 percent of the public has no idea. When asked about Common Core in this video, respondents answered that it might be a set of universal beliefs (like the Ten Commandments), an exercise plan, or perhaps a new diet.
Officially named the "Common Core State Standards Initiative,” Common Core is a massive effort to transform K–12 education in America by creating tough new standards for what kids should know and be able to do at each grade level—and tough tests to go along with them.
Quietly initiated five years ago by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the first stage was to develop and then implement rigorous new standards in English and math, with an emphasis on critical thinking, reading complex materials (nonfiction especially), and learning core math concepts rather than rote memorization. Common Core does not dictate what books or topics a school can cover—teachers still design their own courses and pick their own reading lists—but rather sets specific expectations for what students should be able to do. For seventh-grade English, for instance, students should be able to compare and contrast a written passage with an audio or video version of the same material, analyzing how the different formats affect the impact of the words.
Governors and state education chiefs commissioned David Coleman—aka “the most influential education figure you’ve never heard of”—to lead the development of these new academic standards, which are already being used in several states. Coleman, who now heads the College Board, which designs the SATs, created controversy in 2012 when he described what he saw as the overuse of low-quality literature and personal writing in American classrooms. “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood,” he quipped in a speech that offended some progressive educators. But that didn’t stop 45 states and the District of Columbia from signing on to Common Core. (The holdouts: Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota.)
The second stage, begun three years ago and slated to go “live” on a grand scale this spring, is to administer newly designed tests to measure whether students are actually learning at a higher level when faced with these new academic standards. Forty-one states plus D.C. are signed on to field-test these new assessments.
So why the outrage? According to its supporters, Common Core’s central goal is to make American schools more challenging and productive for students by setting high, uniform expectations across states—without any federal micromanagement. But according to its conservative detractors, it’s “Obamacore”—another massive overreach by the Obama administration into state and local decision-making.
Where do they get that idea? State participation and the development of the standards and assessments have all been encouraged with funding from the Obama administration’s signature 2009 Race to the Top initiative. So while it’s not a federal program, it certainly has strong federal support, enough to make it a controversial program that some Republican politicians have felt the need to back away from.
Then there’s the criticism from the left. Liberal opponents describe Common Core as a crude mandate that’s going to push arts and science even further out of schools, limit the teaching of literature and creative writing in classrooms, and end up being used to rate schools and teachers unfairly.
Or, as former George H.W. Bush Assistant Education Secretary Checker Finn likes to say: “Conservatives hate anything with the word ‘national’ in it, and liberals hate anything with the word ‘test.’ ”