Why Common Core Doesn’t Matter (and Why It Does)

I tried taking a break on the blog from writing about Common Core, but the issue keeps popping up.  I tried avoiding writing about Common Core because in most ways it just doesn’t matter.  Let me try to describe why I think this annoying but persistent issue doesn’t matter (and after that I’ll suggest why it still does matter ):

1) Common Core doesn’t matter because standards mostly don’t matter.  Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution illustrated this point simply and convincingly in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education.  Loveless examines variation in the alleged quality of existing state standards to see if higher quality standards are related to academic performance on the NAEP.  They aren’t.  In fact, the correlation between the Fordham Institute’s rating of state standards and NAEP performance is -.06.  Somehow that fact never seems to come up when Fordham is invoked in defense of the quality of Common Core.  Loveless also demonstrates that there is no relationship between “performance standards” (the rigor of cut scores on state tests) and NAEP performance.  Loveless concludes:

Don’t let the ferocity of the oncoming debate fool you. The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.

Standards mostly don’t matter because they are just a bunch of vague words in a document.  What teachers actually do when they close their classroom door is in no way controlled by those words.  Changing the words in a standards document is very unlikely to dramatically change what teachers do.  As Loveless puts it:

Education leaders often talk about standards as if they are a system of weights and measures—the word “benchmarks” is used promiscuously as a synonym for standards. But the term is misleading by inferring that there is a real, known standard of measurement. Standards in education are best understood as aspirational, and like a strict diet or prudent plan to save money for the future, they represent good intentions that are not often realized….

The intended curriculum is embodied by standards; it is what governments want students to learn. The differences articulated by state governments in this regard are frequently trivial. Bill Gates is right that multiplication is the same in Alabama and New York, but he would have a difficult time showing how those two states—or any other two states—treat multiplication of whole numbers in significantly different ways in their standards documents…. The implemented curriculum is what teachers teach. Whether that  differs from state to state is largely unknown; what is more telling is that it may differ dramatically from classroom to classroom in the same school. Two fourth-grade teachers in classrooms next door to each other may teach multiplication in vastly different ways and with different degrees of effectiveness. State policies rarely touch such differences.

Common Core standards, like other standards reforms, are unlikely to have much of an effect on this enormous variation in what teachers actually teach, how they teach it, and how effective they are.  That variation in actual practice is what causes variation in performance, not a bunch of vague words in a document.

2) The Common Core folks hope to address the ineffectiveness of standards by linking those standards to newly designed assessments and then attaching consequences for individual teachers to those standards-based assessments.  But the level of centralized control over teaching practice to make this work is a political impossibility.  The PLDD crowd  may have gotten almost all states to embrace Common Core standards by dangling federal money and regulatory relief in front  of them in the midst of a financial crisis since, again, those standards are just a bunch of vague words in a document.  But getting states to adopt the newly designed assessments is proving more difficult.  And attaching any meaningful consequences for individual teachers to the results of those new assessments is proving virtually impossible.

The success of Common Core depends on building a centralized machine of assessment and consequences linked to the national standards.  There is no significant political constituency supporting this effort to make sure it is adopted and sustained over time.  Teachers and their unions hate it.  Advantaged parents (the ones with political power) also hate it as they see the the schools and teachers they love lose their autonomy and become cogs in a centralized machine unresponsive to the particular needs and interests of those advantaged parents.  Other than the PLDD crowd in their alphabet soup of reform organizations, who will advocate for and sustain meaningful performance pay for teachers where performance is defined as compliance with centralized mandates?  No one.  And that’s why Common Core will be a political loser.


If Common Core is largely unimportant because it is just a bunch of vague words that can never impose the centralized political control to make those words meaningful, why is it still important?

1) Common Core is important because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies.  It will probably take about a decade for the failure of Common Core to become obvious to its most important backers.  Until that time Common Core is consuming the lion’s-share of reform oxygen and resources.

2) Common Core is inducing reformers to ignore and even denigrate choice-based reforms because they have to deny one of the central arguments for choice — that there is a legitimate diversity of views on how and what our children should be taught that choice can help address.  If Common Core folks have any support left for choice it is to allow parents to choose the school that can best implement the centrally determined education content.  You can choose which McDonalds franchise you frequent so that they can compete to make the best Big Mac for you, but you are out of luck if you prefer pizza.

3) Common Core enthusiasts support granting dramatically more power to the federal government over education to improve the odds that their centralized machine can be built and implemented.  Even after that fails, the precedence for greater federal involvement will remain, further eroding our decentralized system of education that has long produced benefits through Tiebout choice.

4) Common Core is providing license to all sorts of crazy and contradictory local policies.  Districts are cutting literature, pushing back Algebra, increasing constructivist approaches, reducing constructivist approaches… all in the name of Common Core.  When parents and local voters complain, the schools  dodge accountability by claiming (perhaps falsely) that Common Core made them do it.  A big danger of trying to build a centralized system of controlling schools is that local education leaders will blame the central authority for whatever unpopular thing they choose to do.  It’s like the local Commissar blaming shortages on the central authority rather than his own pilfering.  It shifts the blame.

5) Common Core is bringing out the worst in many of its advocates — people who are not naturally inclined to be hypocrites, sycophants, and dissemblers, but who cannot resist becoming so because of the lure of power, money, and the need to remain relevant.  If you need examples of this, well, you probably haven’t been reading this blog.

30 Responses to Why Common Core Doesn’t Matter (and Why It Does)

  1. Mike says:

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Good explanation of this issue.

  2. Dave Saba says:

    Wow – I mostly agree with Jay Green – Common Core is just words on a page unless they cause something to happen in the classroom.

    I agree with the first part but not the last five statements made as if they were irrefutable facts. What we see in many states are not distractions but a positive reaction is the use of Common Core to finally train teachers to deliver more rigorous content – something sorely lacking in schools. Not all states are doing this but you are never going to see all states do anything. Tennessee has trained math and English teachers, trained higher ed teams and is training curriculum teams with an eye on creating college readiness.

    As for being an HSaD (pronounced Hasad) – now that this has been stated as fact, I will endeavor to prevent my further disassembling into a hypocritical sycophant.

  3. Barry says:

    If Common Core were to fall of its own weight, state education agencies would have to lay off their curriculum directors which is probably for the best. Most haven’t a clue that no kid ever got educated by a standard or a state plan. Children become educated by great teachers with great curricula that truly engage students and make them want more. So how come state education agencies aren’t trying out new curricula and school designs and evaluating them rigorously? That would seem to yield more productive change than developing long lists of standards that are just words on a page.

  4. For those that believe Common Core is so great, why are the older great teachers leaving education, and why are many younger great teachers choosing to homeschool their own children?

    Common Core does nothing but promote teaching to tests. It does not promote real learning or understanding. It does not promote critical thinking or problem solving.

    If Common Core were about training higher standards, why are college professors not signing off of the Common Core Standards? Why are they opposing all that Common Core is?

    I was trained to teach in 1994-1996 when I earned my MEd. I was able to use my knowledge less and less as a teacher over the years, so I now homeschool my own child. I realized that I wouldn’t want my own child in my classroom and left teaching, because I was babysitting and not educating. The money I wasted on my education is sickening to me.

  5. Just a mom says:

    Thank you for saying what needed to be said – and should have been obvious from the start – about Common Core. Would you consider shifting the focus of your blog somewhat to highlight successful reform efforts around the country? Perhaps showcasing one school every week. There are so many parents, teachers and administrators doing the right thing by kids outside the orbit of Common Core.

  6. “When parents and local voters complain, the schools dodge accountability by claiming (perhaps falsely) that Common Core made them do it.”

    Perfect and true. Exactly my experience thus far in our NYS district.

  7. Ann In L.A. says:

    Can you deliver rigorous content in a non-rigorous way?

    If this increases fuzzy constructivist approaches in the lowest grades, I don’ t see how it can square that circle. To teach math in any rigorous way, you have to actually teach it, and not have every single student trying to reconstruct it from scratch on their own. You have to give students enough problems to get it to sink in, correct their mistakes and have them try again. Then, you have to build on those concepts and algorithms all the way to algebra and calculus. Reading and spelling is the same: with phonics, spelling rules, grammar rules, etc.

  8. Ann in L.A. says:

    The textbook issue is also real. If you can sell a common-core-ready textbook to 45 states, or a textbook with different standards to the smaller base of independent-schools and the 5 states left over, which will you do?

  9. I agree, Jay … and we seldom agree. I shudder at the money that will be wasted on ed-ucrats who will spend eons in meetings doing notihng that solves the problems in the classroom. I’m 58. I probably won’t be around when the fools finally decide this one fails too. It kills me, because had Romney won …. but we lost, we lost, we lost.

  10. Common Core is not “another one” that “educrats” have “designed” to “ignore choice-based reforms.” I don’t know anything aobut Mr. Greene, or where he got his information. Perhaps he has read through all of the Common Core standards and totally understands their implications. I do not know for sure. However, I do know for a fact, as a trained educator in the state of California with experience in Maryland, Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida, as well over a period of approximately 35 years that the Common Core Standards as written and presented to trained education professionals during the past several months, are merely a framework for the scope and sequence of the foundation for lifelong learning which all students need in kindergarten through 12th grade in the USA. Much of the hoopla from past standards assements has been removed from Common Core. It is designed to spiral from kindergarten through 12th grade in order to prepare students for life after 12th grade, whether that may be college or work. Several other statements in the artlcle above were rather braod generalizations as well, which should be supported by research before they are taken as how things really are. Everyone is certainly free to hold his or her own opinion, particularly related to politics. Opinions, however, are just that.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Unexamined is the assumption that there is one and only one “framework for the scope and sequence of the foundation for lifelong learning” that is the best choice for “all students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the USA.” And that we know what the one best framework is. And that handing a national organization the power to impose it on all children will not create a power center that special interests will bend all their effort toward capturing. And that there are no benefits to Tiebout choice. Etc, etc, etc.

  11. CNeth says:

    Wow! Pessimistic! I’ve not read your blog (just ran across this on my husband’s twitter feed) but I do teach common core math daily and have been piloting 3 different math series in effort to find the best fit for materials that will accomplish the two major goals of common core: the standards and the mathematical practices. Sounds like you have missed the key difference: we’re teaching skills but we are also teaching how to learn transferable methods they can use to adapt to new situations in effort to be life-long learners. I am watching my class think deeper, take greater risks and work more collaboratively using all three company’s CCSS math offerings, including the Singapore style Math in Focus, Envision, and Go Math contrasting all to Everyday Math that we us now. Goals are clear and focused, greater depth, less broad. Great technology and parent communication. My kiddos know the goal and we monitor progress frequently to see if we have met it and, more importantly, have kept it and can use it later in the year. My district will purchase new materials for the 2014 school year. Teachers from all grade levels are reviewing content to make sound decisions on which one will best meet the rigor and relevance our collective community desires. All is not gloom and doom in the world of common core, we have been a top performing school for several years and plan to continue. We do it together: as a staff, as a district, as a classroom, as a neighborhood. Glad my coworkers don’t have an “expect it to fail attitude.” Where does that lead you in life?

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’ll tell you how it’s worked out for Jay in the ten years I’ve known him. Most of the things he expects to fail do, and most of the things he expects to succeed do as well. And that’s worked out pretty well for him.

  12. rpondiscio says:

    Like you, Jay, I’ve largely taken a break from writing about CCSS. I feel like it’s all been said. I’m a supporter, as you know. But a clear-eyed one. I have no illusions about standards as a driver of change, and as a teacher, I never once took out the NYS standards to say “What shall I teach today?” (If you do so, you don’t understand what standards are. It would be like an architect reaching for the building codes for inspiration, or a chef thumbing USDA regs to decide what to make for dinner). But this line jumped out at me in your piece: “Common Core is important because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies.” I agree, and that’s why I like them. My long held belief is that “reform strategies” are a distraction from what should be the main thrust of reform: what teachers teach, and what children learn. With the exception of CCSS, reform has nothing to say about what gets taught; its concerns are structural–charters, choice, data, testing, and what have you. Nothing wrong with those things. They’re all important, but insufficient. So a large reason why I continue to support CCSS is because it has at last focused at least some attention on what our children actually do in school all day, which matters a great deal. The standards are arguably weak tea. But if they’ve prompted at least some teachers and trainers of teachers to reorient themselves around curriculum, language development, vocabulary growth and other elements of what a sound education ought to look like, then we will have learned something important and the effort will have been worthwhile. And if it inspires more people in the reform movement to concern themselves with changing classroom practice rather than merely measuring it, that’s all to the good as well.

    • Greg Forster says:

      It always baffles me when people say structural reform “has nothing to say about what gets taught.” Let’s take choice as an example. You think choice doesn’t affect what kids get taught? Granted, choice delivers other benefits, but one of the most important points of choice is to put parents in charge of what gets taught. That’s the whole reason CC advocates are moving people away from choice (Jay’s point #2).

      • rpondiscio says:

        Er…yes, that’s exactly what I think. Choice does not affect what kids get taught. (I gave a talk about precisely this for Jay’s department a couple of years ago; let me know if you want a copy). In theory, choice should result in a flowering of different curricular choices. In practice, I don’t think there’s evidence it has done so. It’s mostly create what I called a “second flavor of bad.” Don’t mistake me. I’m pro-choice, pro-charter, etc. But it has not resulted in very much curricular innovation. Also, as a practical matter, a significant number of children have little to no alternatives to their public school (yes, choice might help create a market, but that’s a long-term play). I see no harm in the short-term in asking schools to raise their game.

      • Barry says:

        Our high schools are a perfect example of minimal change despite the introduction of charters: 90 percent still attend the factory model school where students change subjects, teachers and work groups every 45-90 minutes in response to a bell. State law mandates the usual disciplinary silos – English, math, science, social studies, PE, etc. Only a few states permit competency-based credentialing in lieu of credits based on attendance and passing the course. While proficiency rates in reading and math have barely budged over 30 years despite more than twice the investment per student, all that the vast majority of high schools can point to in the way of innovation is block scheduling, double-dosing, and now variants of online and blended learning. Yet high schools still have one teacher for one class. Team and interdisciplinary teaching is rare. Department chairs in the classical subjects still determine what gets taught and by whom. Teachers are comfortable closing the classroom door and repeating similar lessons 5-6 times a day, rarely consulting with teachers of other subjects about the students they mutually teach. And although the factory model has never benefited more than half the students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, government still invests most of its scarce R&D dollars (for high schools) in trying to make it better.

        Strangely, there are excellent models around such as career academies or pathway programs, career-tech centers joined at the hip with local employers, Big Picture Schools and alternative schools within districts that feature smaller classes and work-based learning. But these are for somebody else’s kids or youth who don’t take to traditional settings. It would seem the challenge before school boards, states and the federal government is to try out and thoroughly evaluate many more alternatives to the factory model high school and not invest a penny more trying to perfect it. Throwing more dollars at professional development for those in factory model schools is largely a waste, as the research suggests. So long as this model pervades, greater investments in better standards, assessments, compensation schemes and the like will have little impact. Surely, these are needed, but only if we can compare different models in order to find out what works for whom in different settings.

        Following are articles about an emerging team-oriented model developed with both federal and state support that could serve as a template for leaving the factory model behind:


  13. stlgretchen says:

    What is lacking in this discussion from the pro-CCSS group is that the standards/assessments are controlled by private trade organizations propped up by quickly disappearing stimulus money and now will be need to be paid for by additional state/district funding, which simply exist. The CCSS is changing the political structure and few people are challenging the fact that public education is now in the hands of private corporations. The idea that a local school board has authority to drive/deliver education for their students is antiquated.

    When we believe and accept the premise school boards cannot appropriately provide services for their residents, we might as well sign our students over to a centralized authority to tell them how to learn and what to think. Teachers say they love to have autonomy, and why they support mandates requiring more testing and accountability tied so high to student test scores is puzzling. Why we signed onto standards and assessments before they were even written is incredible. This process has been tainted from the beginning.

    Here’s written testimony from Mark Garrison in SB210 and HB616 hearings and what I believe is the ultimate issue of CCSS. It’s not the “quality”. It’s the “legality”.

    “Most telling is that the Common Core State Standards, standards that now govern curriculum, instruction and assessment across the country, are jointly “owned” by the NGA Center for Best Practices and the CCSSO! Both federal and state legislatures, not to mention local school boards, are complete removed from having a say.”


    So tell me again why teachers and taxpayers should revel in a centralized system of education?

  14. Paul Hoss says:

    I’m a supporter of CC for two reasons: (1) It has created an opportunity for students from 45 states and DC to have access to (hopefully) a rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children, and (2) Schools finally have a common plan as to what to teach and when to teach it.

    This second item should also note, prior to standards first mandated under NCLB, there was no plan anywhere in our schools as to what to teach or when to teach it. A September, 2005 New York Times editorial noted, our schools were being run by “default” by textbook publishing companies and the thousands of local school boards nationwide because the educational establishment had no plan in place – anywhere. As for the thousands of local school districts nationwide, many of them had no plan either. Talk about pell mell chaos.

    This goes a long way toward explaining why every October, every elementary teacher nationwide had their own little unit on Columbus, and every November they all had their own little unit on the First Thanksgiving. Wonderful. The problem(s); redundancy and a complete ignoring of myriad other social studies units never covered.

    Since NCLB we’ve had state standards and an attempt at credible plans as to what to teach and when to teach it. Now under CCSS, one plan nationwide; this has to be viewed as a significant improvement over fifty states going in fifty different directions, some good, others atrocious.

  15. Joy Pullmann says:

    Funny that your big objections are exactly where my mind has been morphing on the topic lately. The waste of time thing to me is huge, maybe because I’m so type A. All these people are running as fast as they can on their interconnected Common Core treadmill rather than, you know, teaching a child something worthwhile or trying to get more teachers to do that.

    I agree partly with Robert Pondiscio that structural reforms do not immediately create the necessary curricular reforms. I am repeatedly disappointed by the public school pap private schools also purvey, with a slap of “values” on the side. As a small-government person, though, I’m still trying to think through what can and should be done about this. Greg, are you thinking structural reforms lead to this? What about ditching teacher colleges faster, and related efforts?

  16. Ann in L.A. says:

    CNeth’s school district is buying new curricula to match up with the Common Core, as are thousands of other districts across the country. The curriculum companies have been slamming out books to accommodate the standards. An enormous amount of money is being spent switching over to this new curriculum.

    The question arises, is this the most cost-effective use for that money? In some districts, the answer may be yes, but in others–like the earlier push to reduce class size–the answer may clearly be no; however, the push to implement is giving them no choice.

    This is the central problem with the CC. Whether it is good or bad, it is taking away other options right now. Personally, I have more faith in the people on the ground in each state, district, school, and classroom than I do in the people pushing for the CC. I’d rather have them deciding on the financial priorities of their schools than the DOE in Washington or the Gates Foundation.

  17. EricAlan says:

    Reblogged this on Afield in Iowa and commented:
    An interesting take on the issue of CCSS. You can count on Jay Greene to be thought-provoking.

  18. […] Many states with high standards have low achievement, and vice versa. So why this horrific waste of time? Is it for the national student databases of test scores, hobbies, family income, voting […]

  19. […] Why Common Core Doesn’t Matter (and Why it Does), by Jay Greene […]

  20. […] Many states with high standards have low achievement, and vice versa. So why this horrific waste of time? Is it for the national student databases of test scores, hobbies, family income, voting status, […]

  21. […] Common Core.  I don’t for reasons I’ve explained on numerous occasions in the past, but most recently here.  Reasonable people can disagree, so I am not particularly perturbed by DFER’s position. […]

  22. […] Many states with high standards have low achievement, and vice versa. So why this horrific waste of time? Is it for the national student databases of test scores, hobbies, family income, voting […]

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