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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 03/10/2010

The problem(s) with the Common Core standards

By Valerie Strauss

There is not a thing wrong with wanting young people in every state of the country to know how to do the same important skills and understand the same key concepts.

If knowing the Pythagorean theorem is important for kids in Florida, it should be important for kids in Hawaii, too.

That is the reasoning behind the Common Core Standards, which as my colleague Nick Anderson, wrote today, are being released today in a blueprint for what all students should learn in English and math, in each grade, from kindergarten through high school.

The national standards are meant to replace the individual state standards now in place, some of which are said by educators to be essentially useless to guide instruction because they are too vague, poorly written and/or incomplete.

Many educators and parents oppose national standards, fearing that this will lead to a national curriculum and national assessment test that would take away local control of education as well affect how teachers operate in the classroom.

But even assuming that you don’t share those views and believe that national standards make sense, there are legitimate concerns about this Common Core effort and the notion that it is reasonable to ask every kid in every grade to know certain things.

The fact that it took well less than a year to write these very important standards doesn’t necessarily mean they are inadequate, but it makes me wonder.

The fact that few if any classroom teachers were involved in the drafting of the standards--(none were asked to help draft theNo Child Left Behind law)--doesn’t necessarily make them inadequate, but it makes me wonder.

The fact that much of the drafting process was done in secrecy doesn’t necessarily make them inadequate, but it makes me wonder.

What I especially worry about is a stepping up of what we have already seen happen with curriculum in the NCLB era. The “push down” effect has essentially pushed into lower grades the things kids are supposed to be able to do and know.

Once, schools gave youngsters a chance to learn how to read according to their own development. Now, a child who still can’t read by the end of first grade is in deep trouble from which it can be hard to emerge.

With the proposed standards, what happens to these children in fourth grade when they are expected to explain major differences between poetry and prose, and to refer to such elements as stanza, verse, rhythm and meter when working or speaking about a poem?

What about eighth-graders who fell behind in fifth grade math and, try as they might, don’t understand how to use linear equations to solve for an unknown and explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem on properties of a right triangle, as the proposed standard demands?

I know people who didn’t really start to enjoy reading into late in elementary school and even middle school, but later became voracious readers because a teacher was able to reach them and spark an interest. I know people (myself included) who didn’t understand Algebra until 10th grade.

Telling teachers that they must teach certain things to each child in a specific grade ignores this notion of individual development.

Another concern about the new standards is that they are only for math and English. The emphasis on those subjects in No Child Left Behind's assessment scheme led to a dangerous narrowing of curriculum in public schools; the arts disappeared in many systems, science and history and physical education took a back seat too.

As education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in her new book "Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education:"

"Our schools will not improve if we continue to focus only on reading and mathematics while ignoring the other studies that are essential elements of a good education... Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure... Not everything that matters can be quantified."

There is a common notion in American education reform circles that we are falling behind other countries with high-achieving school systems in large part because we don’t have national standards.

But in her new book, “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future,” Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who served as Barack Obama’s chief education adviser duringn the presidential transition, makes clear that this isn’t the case.

She explains how Finland--now widely hailed by U.S. policymakers--turned around its school system. But, contrary to popular belief, it didn’t do it by establishing a highly centralized national system with detailed national standards.

It “shifted to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards,” she wrote. All assessments are school-based, designed by teachers, rather than standardized.

For promoters of national standards, it is important to remember that standards alone may be useful, and even necessary, in education, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote here recently.

But they are not enough. Both Willingham, a University of Virginia professor, and Darling-Hammond make clear that no set of standards has much meaning without equitable resources to ensure that teachers are trained well enough to reach kids who live in all circumstances.

If the organizations that were so gung-ho to produce the national standards don’t see that their job has just begun, and that the next, even larger, effort is to secure equitable resources for schools, then the document being released today will have little meaning.

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 10, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  National Standards  | Tags:  Common Core standards, national standards  
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Your concern about the unwise pushing down of the curriculum onto the backs of younger and younger children is shared by thousands of early childhood health and education professionals, Valerie. See their statement of concern, which calls for the withdrawal of the K-3 "common core standards" now being proposed, at

Posted by: EdInNewYork | March 10, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

I honestly don't understand why classroom teachers were left out of this process.

Hopefully the common core will become a starting point for a genuine discussion of how to improve public education in the U.S.

Posted by: sanderling5 | March 10, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

While I disagree with having the curricula defined at a detailed level at the National level, I do agree that there should be a core standard for high school. Anyone who was raised as a military dependent can tell you horror stories of moving from one State to another and either being behind, because they moved from an educationally backward State to a more educationally progressive one (for instance from Oklahoma to Indiana) or being bored out of their mind when the reverse happened. I experienced this every time my father was transferred. When I raised my own children in the same situation, I knew enough to ensure a core set of skills and knowledge were provided to them -- even when I had to teach them myself. [In some places it is different from County to County. For instance, in WV, one County may operate on a 9 week grading schedule and another on a 12. One may require 3 credits of English and another 2.] For those moving from the less rigid to the more rigid when they are in their Senior year, this can be a real problem. I don't think there is any harm in demanding that every school system require the same components in an education. I think this should be at the High School level (9th - 12th grade). Everyone else will then know what skills must be taught in K-8 to prepare these students for high school.

On a side note, my daughter became the primary caretaker of two young girls a year ago. One was just starting school and the other was in 5th grade. I was amazed at the 5th grader's lack of basic 3R skills. I learned that they no longer teach rote memory of basic arithmetic, but instead teach gimmicks (rounding, comparison, 3D charts, etc.) to "help" the kids perform simple functions. They move to a calculator when they begin learning geometry and Algebra. As a consequence, when they need to do something a bit more complicated, they have no foundation. This makes the mind lazy and leads to poor learning habits. Kids are always looking for the gimmick to help them, rather than actually learning. This approach carries through to other behavioral habits as well. We no longer teach kids to think! All the standards in the world can't fix this.

Posted by: vmi98mom | March 10, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Teachers aren't consulted because they wouldn't offer a "silver bullet" approach to fixing our education woes that administrators and politicians seek. Teachers know there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

I actually applaud a move toward a common set of expectations (I won't use the word "standards" - that's for states to decide since "education" isn't to be found in our Consitution). I've seen what passes for curriculum in some states and can attest there are miles to go.

At the same time, in my state, some of our curriculum is too voluminous. Here also, teachers were not consulted in its development, nor is there any feedback mechanism in place to allow teachers to offer modification where appropriate.

Posted by: SoGATeacher | March 10, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

The standards were not created in less than a year. The states already had their own standards. In addition, organizations like the College Board had very good standards. Most of these standards were developed with teachers playing a prominent and very active role. The national standards are much more a result of negotiations than of development.

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | March 10, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

"There is not a thing wrong with wanting young people in every state of the country to know how to do the same important skills and understand the same key concepts."

You lost me after this wise sentence.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 10, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I am all for increasing the rigor in schools...we ARE way behind the international standards.

BUT, like the NCLB fiasco, national standards will fail to recognize that all children are not biologically and intellectually equal. This is not something that can be forced upon kids. Some kids are dumb, some kids are amazingly's in the DNA, and it can't be controlled in the classroom.

Obama wants every kid to go to college. While a noble goal, it's extremely short-sighted, as some kids just aren't cut out to be college students...and we do need auto mechanics and assembly line workers - jobs that do not require a college education.

Posted by: boosterprez | March 10, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Your concern about individualized instruction is one of the main reasons for the growth of homeschooling. Education in America used to be based on homeschooling, semi-private tutoring, or one-room schoolhouses. Kids were taught and promoted based upon their level of understanding -- in each subject. Our schools have developed into factories attempting to turn out a uniform product utilizing incredibly diverse raw material (our children). Teaching is more professional than ever, yet the outcome continues to be unacceptable for many students. Why? I submit that the foundational paradigm of progression through grades is wrong. Nobody should be in "5th grade." Nobody should be taking "5th grade English." Students should instead progress through a curriculum, guided by skilled teachers.

Posted by: dmm1 | March 10, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I disagree with Ms. Strauss's opinion that because children learn at differing developmental rates, there should be some sort of allowance on their testing thereof. No. That is pandering to the minority at the majority's expense.

The purpose of standardized testing is precisely that; enable the educators to slot the learning curve. Students everywhere should be able to (equally) dissect a sentence, solve math problems, and discuss historical events. No accommodation is warranted for a student in the south vs. a student in the east. The term "on grade level" exists for a purpose. A failing student deserves help but should not have a separate target curve. The statement "Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure..." is inversely wrong; students and schools BOTH must have performance measures to justify their progress. Tests are a fact of life (job performance reviews, quality control, minimum expectations, the legal system, etc.) and everyone should learn the boundries and expectations they will face in life.

Stop coddling the students. Ask them to perform -- they will.

Posted by: redrocket | March 10, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Valerie, if you read the standards themselves I suspect you'll be impressed. See Checker Finn's analysis here:

Posted by: michael_petrilli | March 10, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I have recently read several of ED Hirshe's books and he makes a great case for common standards. Maybe the most important point is that standards help children who switch school often, usually the poorest student's amoungst us. I agree that Social Studies and Science standards are essential, though that process will most likely take longer and be more controversial. I also think you are wrong about the push down. Too often what is affecting older students in poor systems is that they have had no introduction to these more complex concepts as a younger child. Middle and upper class childre often are exposed in a more informal manner very early and it is part of that performance gap.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 10, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I love it. They are saying that the US is falling behind because it does not have a national standard. Well, where was that national standard when the US was leading the world? Let the teachers teach and let the politicians.... bah. Do whatever they do.

Posted by: MDL7 | March 10, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Rather than focusing on more standards for teachers to worry about, lets stop cutting education budgets, pay teachers a decent salary, hire administrators that support teachers, and create a culture where parents take an active role in ensuring their child is on track.

Posted by: exdcman | March 10, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

So here's what I don't get...the Obama administration just this week released its new National Education Technology Plan. (See this link:

Two points: a) it's gotten zero coverage, even though it paints what really is a "transformation" in education and articulates a vision that is both sensible and based in the current realities. And b) even while trumpeting "personalized learning" in the tech plan, the administration now also supports the common core standards.

It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the right hand and the left hand are once again not in the same room. There are thousands of educators who are literally living a different learning life online who as of yet have little or no voice in the conversation. The NTEP is an inspired step, but once again, no one seems to notice.

Posted by: WillRichardson | March 10, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I have this fantasy: that any of our current lawmakers can walk into a classroom of 8th graders, explain the Pythagorean theorem and how it helped them
get to where they are today.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 10, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

When I was a student at a local university years ago, the administration announced that students pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in some fields would no longer be required to present credit in math to graduate. I suspect my whoops and those of my fellow English majors were heard miles away, and we lined up to take astronomy, which would replace math in our curricula.

My inability to master linear equations (and probably calculus and trig, too) has not interfered with my successful pursuit of a masters and Ph.D., nor has it hindered me in my twenty-three years of teaching.

Still, in the elementary school where my wife teaches, it's considered important for the fifth graders to master algebra. . . The curriculum is so tightly bound to detailed standards that there is no longer room for a teacher to improvise and take advantage of a teachable moment. There's no time for enrichment. If we can get parents to identify their special needs child (who will do well on the state tests) as Hispanic rather than Other (which is probably the most accurate designation), his score will raise the special needs Hispanic average. And we really need to get a fairly advanced student identified for speech services that he may not really need because his score will help the special needs aggregates.

This has something to do with education, at least in the mind of a superintendent who believes that all the children are above average. Good test scores look really nice and really comparable. But is education any better? I think we could say it's worse.

Posted by: jlhare1 | March 10, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I also hope you will report on Alliance for Childhood's response to common core standards that push down and accenuate discrete academic skill development once again at the expense of the joy of learning and the enrichment of young children's imagination, creativity and scientific and mathematical curiosity. Key research on our rising drop out rates points to the "fadeout" issue for kids who can't keep pace with a "pushed-down" curriculum. Check out "Tools of the Mind"!

Posted by: atherton1 | March 10, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

As Alfie Kohn has pointed out ("Beware of the standards, not just the tests,") standards and tests go together: Tests serve as "the enforcement mechanism of the standards." Not surprisingly, included with the announcement of new "rigorous" standards is the news that we will also be getting new tests:
"The federal government recently opened bidding for $350 million to work on new national tests that would be given to students in states that adopt the national standards." ("New national math, English standards drafted," Associated Press, March 10).
"And adoption of the new standards would set off a vast new effort to rewrite textbooks and standardized tests." ("Panel Releases Proposal to Set U.S. Standards for Education," New York Times, March 10).
This means billions of dollars will be spent on test construction, validation, revision, etc. at a time when school are already very short of funds, when in many schools school bathrooms often lack toilet paper, science classes have no lab equipment, school libraries (those that are left) have few books, school years are being shortened, and teachers are losing their jobs.
Education secretary Arne Duncan apparently thinks that measuring is more important than providing the means for growth.

Posted by: skrashen | March 10, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

I am glad you posted Diane Ravitch's statement that

"Our schools will not improve if we continue to focus only on reading and mathematics while ignoring the other studies that are essential elements of a good education... Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure... Not everything that matters can be quantified."

I would like to see the National Council of the Teachers of Foreign Languages adopted nationally and tested.

In practice, only testing some subjects will take away from other subjects and as the English Major commenter above points out, not everyone needs to know the same things, therefore don't make one or two subjects more important than all the rest.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 10, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Right on, dmm1! I have few problems with insisting that every 5th-grader be able to read at a 5th-grade level--which would happen if doing 5th-grade work were the qualifying standard for the 5th grade. The difficulty comes when we insist that all students who turn 10 within a certain time period are 5th graders and then blaming them for not doing 5th-grade work.

I always thought it was interesting that the colleges will pretty much admit anybody who can do the work, from 10-year-old geniuses to the 98-year-old woman who got a bachelor's from William and Mary several years ago, but if you are in elementary or high school, you attend a certain grade when they tell you to, you get one, maybe two shots at learning the material, and it's your fault if you don't.

At the same time, since graduating from high school 42 years ago, I can't think of a single time when I have encountered any need for geometry or algebra, or balancing chemical equations. (Yes, I have needed to know not to mix certain household chemicals, but nothing that practical was taught in my chemistry class--if it wasn't on the SATs or needed for the next level, we didn't study it.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 10, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

At the same time, since graduating from high school 42 years ago, I can't think of a single time when I have encountered any need for geometry or algebra, or balancing chemical equations. (Yes, I have needed to know not to mix certain household chemicals, but nothing that practical was taught in my chemistry class--if it wasn't on the SATs or needed for the next level, we didn't study it.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 10, 2010 10:10 PM
If you own a home and do some of your own work basic algebra and geometry come into play a decent amount.

Posted by: Cryos | March 11, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

First, beyond replacing a light-switch plate or putting on shelf paper, most people don't do much basic work in the way of home repair any more. If there is any used for algebra and geometry around the home, none of the problems we did ever illustrated that. I do remember one teacher telling us parabola was important in aligning headlights, but auto repair beyond putting air, gas, and windshield washer fluid in, hasn't been a do-it-yourself proposition since my father was young. (Besides, when I was in school, girls didn't learn to do any of their "basic work" of home repair--we were restricted to cooking and cleaning. And, once my parents found out the shop teacher had instructed my left-handed brother to reach across a table saw to operate it from the other side, he had their full permission to do as little as possible in shop.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 11, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

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