The other big debate: What is the Common Core, anyway?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, who is vying for the GOP presidential nomination, speaks during an education summit in New Hampshire last month.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, who is vying for the GOP presidential nomination, speaks during an education summit in New Hampshire last month.

(Jim Cole / Associated Press)
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If education comes up at all during Wednesday night’s GOP debate, we’re likely to hear about the Common Core State Standards. It’s a favorite education topic among GOP contenders. Some of them tend to refer to the learning standards as a federal takeover of locally-run public schools.

But that’s not entirely true. Here’s what the Common Core really is.

The Common Core is a set of learning goals that aims to be more rigorous than what states across the country had already been teaching. As studies show, the bar for students from different states varies dramatically. The Common Core standards specify what a student should know in English and math, and by which grade. The idea is that in an increasingly mobile economy, what you need to know in order to be considered passing math should be consistent across the country.


The standards were created by state schools chiefs gathered together by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit group. The process was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and throughout, the creators -- including David Coleman, who is now president of the College Board -- consulted with the American Federation of Teachers union, and kept open the group’s website for public comment.

While public officials -- including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- were quick to sign on, the process was quiet. The meetings leading to the creation of the Common Core were not controversial, observers have said. In a 2009 meeting in Chicago, governors and their representatives signed on to the initiative.

The creators of the Common Core said they reviewed 10,000 public comments, but there are 40 million students in America’s public schools. The process likely remained uncontroversial for that reason, and even in the fall of 2014, only 38% of Americans indicated that they’d heard of the Common Core, according to a Gallup poll.

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It was only when school districts had to implement the new standards that they became controversial. The standards were more demanding, and new ways of doing math confused parents. Teachers said they weren’t prepared. Last year, in New York, then Education Commissioner John King went on a listening tour to get feedback from parents, but they wound up being more like protests. A math problem purportedly associated with the Common Core went viral when comedian Louis C.K. tweeted it and said that it made his kids cry.

Despite the controversy, California is one of about 42 states that has adopted the Common Core. Just last week, California released new test scores on exams tied to the Common Core. According to the new standards, fewer than half of all students were deemed ready for college.

So why do politicians contend that the Common Core represents a federal takeover of public schools?


It’s a niggly point that comes from the Race to the Top competition, President Obama’s signature education initiative during his first term. Early drafts of Race to the Top required states to sign on to the Common Core, but Common Core proponents intervened, and said that such a strong degree of federal intervention would be detrimental to the effort. Ultimately, U.S. officials changed the language, slightly: The final version of Race to the Top required states to instead adopt “college- and career-ready standards” in order to be eligible for the $350-million stimulus competition.

Ultimately, the federal government never mandated the Common Core. But it did encourage it.

Twitter: @Joy_Resmovits


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