Common Core for schools: Boon? Horror? You tell me

A math class in Texas -- one of the few states not to adopt Common Core
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

You would have thought that after 45 states leaped forward to adopt the Common Core curriculum standards for their schools, the only issue going forward would be how to make this big change happen in the smoothest and most successful way.

Instead, the standards, which call for covering less academic territory but covering it more deeply, and challenging students to think about the concepts and processes rather than just follow directions, are the subject of backlashes throughout the nation.

I’ve been reading about the standards over the last week, and interviewing educators, mathematicians, politicians and parents in an effort to separate the three main issues:


-- The politics: Tea party conservatives object to the measures as an intrusion of the federal government into state affairs -- and they probably don’t want to give the Obama administration a win on this. The administration didn’t impose the new standards but it did twist some arms by saying that states’ chances of getting some freedom from the No Child Left Behind law would be better if they adopted high standards -- and everyone knew this was the quietly approved way to get that.

-- The implementation: The most recent attacks have been from the left, including many teachers unions, with problematic introduction of the new curriculum. New York state has been the perfect example. Teachers with inadequate training were responsible for getting an early start on the new instruction; at the same time, they were being held responsible for the results.

Parents reacted angrily when the first test scores came in looking pretty miserable, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t make things any better with his arrogant and derogatory response that “white suburban moms” were upset because “all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”

The Obama administration also hasn’t helped with its insistence that states continue to administer high-stakes standards tests even though the new curricula are being tried out for the first time.

-- The actual standards. For all the backlash and stories about onetime supporters now turning against the Common Core, once I actually speak to people offering the criticism, it turns out their objections have more to do with the two issues above than with the standards themselves. Teachers I’ve interviewed seem to be delighted with the standards.

There have been concerns that the standards do not call for teaching cursive writing (though California and many other states will continue to teach cursive) and that they call for more nonfiction reading by students (though elementary school teachers I’ve spoken with say their students are delighted by nonfiction).

Also controversial is replacing the traditional algebra-geometry-algebra 2 series of courses in high school with math standards that call for teaching the same things but in a different order and in a different way.

The new series is highly praised by a national association of math teachers, which says it makes more sense and is aligned with how the highest-performing nations teach this material. But in any case, states and districts are given leeway to choose whichever system they prefer; Los Angeles Unified is sticking with the traditional series of courses.

In any case, as important as it is to get any new standards and curriculum off on the right foot, it seems as though the portion of Common Core that should be getting the most discussion is what and how students will be learning in 45 states -- if all of those end up sticking with it.

California has overall been a big fan of the standards, and teachers I’ve interviewed are enthusiastic about them. They see the standards as giving them a chance to work with students more creatively, to have the time to teach them each subject deeply without racing through a pile of units that have to be covered by the big standards tests in the spring.

The state also has, rightly to my way of thinking, balked at administering high-stakes accountability tests for a couple of years, giving teachers the breathing room to learn and adjust to the new curriculum, and that has helped keep teacher enthusiasm high.

Are you familiar with the standards? What do you think of them? I’m interested in hearing from the broadest base of opinion before writing more about them. Comment here, share this around, and if you’d like to have more of an offline discussion, please email me at


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