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The Rest of the Story on Common Core: Part 2

May 28, 2013

While the Common Core State Standards Initiative has been debated on its merits for over three years in some circles, only recently has the issue begun “trending”  in the general news media.

Back in River City’s coverage began on March 27, 2013, with Cordova Middle School teacher Darrell Hugueley’s  heartfelt post about teaching and testing and how better standards can make a real difference in the quality of education our children receive. On May 5th, we published Part I of this follow-up series, in which we examine both sides of the debate.

Can Common Core  Live Up to Its Advocates’ Soaring Expectations?

Mainstream media coverage of Common Core has been almost universally positive, focusing on the initiative’s broad support from governors, educators and the  business sector.  The  New York Times  hails Common Core as “clearly the most important education reform in the country’s history.” As implementation has progressed  across the states, however, push-back has become steadier, stronger, and more widespread.

As of this writing,  legislators in 16 of the 45 states originally opting in to Common Core have filed suit to put brakes on the program. In other states, including Tennessee, grassroots movements are actively lobbying against its continued implementation.

When an educational reform movement initiated by the  National Governor’s Association  is swiftly and enthusiastically adopted by 45 states,  with assurances that student achievement will surge, you don’t expect this level of buyer’s remorse.

So what’s behind the mounting concerns?

According to many critics, Common Core has turned out to be one of those Nancy Pelosi deals: you had to approve it first to find out what was in it.

pelosi quote

Objections to Common Core

The primary objections fall into four categories.

1. The standards themselves

2. Cost v. benefits

3. Preparedness

4.  Federal intervention 

How Good Are the Standards?

As is true with any one-size-fits-all approach, the Common Core standards look better to some than to others.  In Tennessee, a perpetually low-performing state, most educators and state education officials have hailed Common Core as a major step forward in education reform.

But some authoritative critics say the standards contain major flaws that make across-the-board application unsuitable. They say the new standards:

  • Are mediocre compared to what high-ranking states already have in place.
  • Will leave students even less prepared for “authentic” college-level work.
  • Substitute untested and unproven theories and methodologies for traditional approaches known to be effective.
  • Delay teaching some essential math skills that will put U.S. students even farther behind our foreign competitors.

Two of Common Core’s expert evaluators (arguably, the most qualified content experts involved in the validation process) –  professors Sandra Stotsky and Jim Milgrim  – not only refused to sign off on the standards, but now rank among Common Core’s most outspoken critics.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D., is Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas, where she held the 21st Century Chair of Teacher Quality. She is a former Senior Associate Commissioner of  Massachusetts’ Department of Education, where she headed the adoption of the K-12 state standards many consider to be the best in the country.  Dr. Stotsky served on the Common Core Validation Committee for English Language Arts (ELA).

R. James Milgrim, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at Stanford University, was reportedly the only  professional mathematician and content expert on the Common Core Validation committee. Dr. Milgrim has extensive experience in writing rigorous state standards for mathematics (including California, Georgia and Michigan). He has spent years evaluating math standards used across the U.S. and in countries that rank highest in education worldwide.

 In general, Drs. Stotsky and Milgrim believe the Common Core standards to be 1) deficient in specific areas, 2) inferior to existing standards in some states, and 3) potentially damaging to students’ ability to perform meaningful college level work. Both also  believe the standards are contrary to the stated goals of improving the USA’s standing among world competitors.

Dr. Stotsky speaks about her concerns in this  brief video:

(Email followers click here.)

Dr. Stotsky summarized her strong objections to Common Core in testimony before the Texas State House of Representatives. Her points included the following:

Common Core’s “college readiness” standards for English language arts and reading do not aim for a level of achievement that signifies readiness for authentic college-level work. They point to no more than readiness for a high school diploma (and possibly not even that, depending on where the cut score on tests based on these standards is set). Despite claims to the contrary, they are not internationally benchmarked.

States adopting Common Core’s standards will damage the academic integrity of both their post-secondary institutions and their high schools precisely because Common Core’s standards do not strengthen the high school curriculum and cannot reduce the current amount of post-secondary remedial coursework in a legitimate way. Their standards may lead to reduced enrollment in advanced high school courses and to weakened post-secondary coursework because Common Core’s “college readiness” ELA/R standards are designed to enable a large number of high school students to be declared “college ready” and to enroll in post-secondary institutions that will have to place them in credit-bearing courses. These institutions will then likely be under pressure from the USDE to retain these students in order to increase college graduation rates.

Dr. Milgrim, in turn, has called the final standards:

. . . in large measure a political document that, in spite of a number of real strengths, is written at a very low level and does not adequately reflect our current understanding of why the math programs in the high achieving countries give dramatically better results.

Dr. Milgrim has specifically denounced the math standards as less effective than those mandated by the best-performing U.S. states.

In July 2010 Dr. Milgram testified before Texas legislators:

[Common Core’s] standards illustrate many serious flaws. Among these difficulties are that a large number of  arithmetic and operations . . . standards are one, two, or even more years behind the corresponding standards for many if not all of the high achieving countries.

He explained how the process of writing the standards led to an unacceptable result:

The Validation Committee oversaw the development of the new National Core Standards. . . as is often the case, there was input from many other sources – including State Departments of Education – that had to be incorporated into the standards.

A number of these sources were mainly focused on things like making the standards as non-challenging as possible. Others were focused on making sure their favorite topics were present, and handled in the way they liked.

As a result, there are a number of extremely serious failings in Core Standards that make it premature for any state with serious hopes for improving the quality of the mathematical education of their children to adopt them. This remains true in spite of the fact that more than 35 states have already adopted them.

math cartoon

Dr. Stotsky partnered with   Ze’ev Wurman  (a Silicon Valley software guru, former Bush Department of Education official and Common Core reviewer) to conduct comprehensive  research on Common Core for two conservative public policy think tanks: the  Pioneer Institute (Massachusetts) and  the Pacific Research Institute (San Francisco). They  analyzed the K-12  standards in math and English language arts (ELA) against  state standards in both California and Massachusetts. Both states’ existing standards are recognized as  “gold standard”  in both math and ELA.

The last of three Stotsky/Wurman white papers, Common Core Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade,”  was published in 2010 after the release of the final Common Core standards.  It detailed evidence why Common Core standards do not represent a significant improvement over Massachusetts’ and California’s state standards. Drs. Stotsky and Wurman specifically caution against  the “academic consequences” of adopting Common Core’s grade-level and “college and career readiness standards.”

Critique of Common Core ELA Standards

Dr. Stotsky criticizes the ELA standards as “empty skill sets . . . [that] weaken the basis of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.”

Common Core’s literature and reading standards in grades 9-12 do not prepare students for college and career better than those in California and Massachusetts. While Common Core includes standards requiring reading of a Shakespeare play and seminal works in American literature in grades 11-12, its grade-level standards do not ensure adequate preparation through the grades for studying these works or sufficient literary and cultural knowledge for authentic college- level work. One searches in vain for literary and cultural content through the grades that would lead to these standards.

In conclusion, by adopting Common Core’s standards for their own, California and Massachusetts significantly weaken the intellectual demands on students in the areas of language and literature. They also weaken the base of literary and cultural knowledge needed for actual college-level work now implied by each state’s current or draft standards.

The most controversial aspect of Common Core’s ELA standards is the emphasis on nonfiction and informational texts. By the end of high school, the standards require that 70% of students’  reading across all subject areas  be “literary nonfiction” or “informational texts.”  (This tenet derives from research indicating that since 1962, high school texts have steadily declined in difficulty and complexity, leaving many students unprepared for assigned college reading, which  has increased in difficulty and complexity over the same period.)

shcool crossingThe practicability of implementing this “college and career readiness standard” has stirred concerns among educators. A footnote in the ELA standards states that English teachers should not be held solely responsible for ensuring the  70/30 reading mix. The standards’  authors, however,  have acknowledged that most ELA programs will need to increase the amount of informational text/literary nonfiction “substantially.”  According to a Glenn Beck source, English teachers in a metro Atlanta district are being told their curricula should reflect 55% nonfiction reading.

The definition of nonfiction in the standards ranges from   Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to “Recommended Levels of Insulation,” regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy.

A second Glenn Beck source says that an  Atlanta math teacher chose to contribute to the literacy standard for nonfiction/informational text by stripping two weeks away from the class’s regular curriculum to have students read and write about mathematicians.

Dr. Stotsky holds that teachers in  subjects such as science and history lack the training to teach literacy, and that English teachers likewise lack training in teaching the informational texts and historical documents required by the standards. She also holds that, despite what may be intended, English teachers will likely be evaluated on students’ reading ability in other subjects.

Critique of Common Core Math Standards

In his research with Dr. Stotsky, Dr. Wurman compared Common Core math standards to the recommendations of the U.S. Department of Education’s  National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMAP) and the existing state standards in California and Massachusetts. (NMAP was established in 2006 to recommend ways “to foster greater knowledge of and improved performance in mathematics among American students” based on the best available scientific evidence.)

Dr. Wurman found that Common Core standards postponed the mastery of elementary math skills  by one or more grades when compared to California and/or Massachusetts standards. In some cases, Common Core standards failed to meet the NMAP guidelines.

Common Core’s delayed goals  include student proficiency  in 1) addition and subtraction, 2) multiplication,  and 3) long division ( the delay of which is noted as particularly problematic in the development of higher level math skills); 4) memorization of addition facts, 5) memorization of multiplication tables, 6) understanding of decimal fractions and 7)negative numbers; and  8) certain basic geometry concepts. Dr. Wurman also found Common Core to be deficient and/or weak in preparing students for algebra and statistics.

In grade levels 9-12, Dr. Wurman found disturbing evidence that college readiness would be reduced, not improved, as Common Core claims. The criterion most four-year U.S. colleges use for determining college readiness (eligibility for admission) is completion of a standard high school Algebra II course. Inexplicably, some of this essential content is missing from the Common Core standards, even in higher level mathematics coursework.

Dr. Wurman also objects to a new conceptual framework incorporated into the  Common Core standards for teaching geometry. He states:

This approach has not been widely used elsewhere, has been considered ineffective where it was tried out, and is at best an experiment.

Boston Herald editorial reversed the paper’s earlier position on Common Core, quoting Dr. Wurman as saying: “The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science.” The editorial fretted:

Wurman could find only one equation in all 280 pages of the proposal. A careful reading of the 29 pages of the physical sciences section, where equations would be most important, found none at all.

This is baffling. Mathematics, to which the authors devoted much praise, is the language of science. Wurman’s conclusion, which we share: The document “simply teaches our students science appreciation.”

The Common Core math standards have incurred strong opposition from other sources, including parents as well as math educators.

The popular conservative pundit Michelle Malkin was shocked by the fuzzy math and dumbed-down standards in her 7th grade daughter’s freshly inked  Algebra I book. She blogged and tweeted “My Child’s Common Core-aligned Algebra book Is Crap,” then launched a series of withering articles about Common Core’s dark side. Her website and Twitter account have attracted a multitude of anecdotal postings about frustrated and failing children from concerned teachers and angry parents.

Math teacher and former EPA official Barry Garelick wrote in The Atlantic:

It’s an odd pedagogical agenda, based on a belief that conceptual understanding must come before practical skills can be mastered. As this thinking goes, students must be able to explain the “why” of a procedure. Otherwise, solving a math problem becomes a “mere calculation” and the student is viewed as not having true understanding.

Ze’ev Wurman summed up his thoughts on  Common Core standards problems in a 2012 interview for Education Next:

 I believe the Common Core marks the cessation of educational standards improvement in the United States. No state has any reason left to aspire for first-rate standards, as all states will be judged by the same mediocre national benchmark enforced by the federal government. Moreover, there are organizations that have reasons to work for lower and less-demanding standards, specifically teachers unions and professional teacher organizations. While they may not admit it, they have a vested interest in lowering the accountability bar for their members. With Common Core, they have a single target to aim for, rather than 50 distributed ones. So give it some time and, as sunset follows sunrise, we will see even those mediocre standards being made less demanding. This will be done in the name of “critical thinking” and “21st-century” skills, and in faraway Washington D.C., well beyond the reach of parents and most states and employers.

Thus endeth today’s lesson on what digging down deep into Google can reveal about “the rest of the story.” 

These are tough words on a tough topic.  Be sure to comment if you disagree, either below or on Back in River City’s Facebook page. Our next article in this series will consider the costs and benefits of implementing Common Core standards.

If you’ve read this whole 2500-word article and still can’t get enough about Common Core, here are additional links to helpful sources (see also links within this post):

Should California Have Second Thoughts on Common Core? 

Common Core State Standards Initiative – Complete


 three r books

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2013 8:08 pm

    Wow, you’ve really done a lot of informative research here. As I read through the barrage of opposition to this change, I keep seeing how the CCSS for Math supposedly fall short of some standards already in place in certain states. You don’t mention if they fall short of the Tennessee standards. Having been trained only in the Language Arts Standards I can’t speak to that, but I am fairly confident in the rigor of the CCSS for Language Arts. They are an improvement over the current state performance indicators, and I say that as a practitioner.
    I also see a recurring argument about the increase in non-fiction texts required by the CCSS. To which I say, “So what?” it is indeed a badly needed change in the classroom. Besides. does anyone really think English teachers are going to stop teaching poetry and Shakespeare? I’m not! But with the CCSS there is a going to be much welcome and much needed change in instructional practice for Tennessee teachers, That can only result, I feel, after a period of adjustment, in higher achievement for kids.
    On the other hand, any educational reform effort will only be as good as its implementation. That requires buy-in from the top down to the bottom and effective management. No other way will we see this work. And if you think nurses are bad patients (wink wink), try to teach a teacher something. In spite of all that I expect great things from the Common Core.

    • May 28, 2013 9:16 pm

      Thank you for your thoughts, Darrell.

      You raise an important question about Common Core standards v. Tennessee’s preexisting standards. I would have guessed that our state standards would be lower, since Tennessee ranks 46th in math among the states. Tennessee revised its Tennessee Mathematics Curriculum Framework in 2008, however, to make state standards more rigorous. These were implemented during the 2009-2010 school year. See standards at

      Comparing specific state standards in math to Common Core standards is tedious work, and a task way above my pay grade, for sure. The researchers quoted in our article noted that the Common Core standards are not grouped by course, which makes it difficult to parse them against existing curricula and also creates challenges for textbook authors. A quick scan of the document above does show that Tennessee’s most recent graduation standards for mathematics are more rigorous than Common Core’s “career and college readiness” standards:

      “Effective with the ninth grade class entering high school during school year 2009-2010, all students will pursue a focused program of study that includes four credits in mathematics. The four credits are to include Algebra I and II, Geometry or its equivalent, and another mathematics course beyond Algebra I. Students must be enrolled in a mathematics course each school year. A Bridge Mathematics course is designed for students who have not scored a 19 or higher on the ACT by the beginning of the senior year.”

      (These standards would certainly have changed my life if they had been in place in 1969!) More about diploma standards vs. career/college readiness standards in a future article – this is really where the untold story about Common Core lurks.

      The Fordham Institute did a study in 2010 evaluating all state standards against Common Core standards. Unsurprisingly, Fordham (who was paid by the Gates Foundation and is a team player for the Common Core Initiative and all its many parts) found Common Core to be superior in most cases.Their evaluation for Tennessee can be found at

      In rating Tennessee’s (pre-CC) math standards against Common Core, Fordham apparently used the pre-2008 standards rather than the revised and raised standards already in place at the time of the evaluation. By doing so, it could state clearly (but falsely) that Common Core’s math standards were superior. Not fair!

      As to Tennessee’s ELA standards, Fordham had this to say:

      The Bottom Line

      Tennessee’s standards are generally more straightforward, clear, and specific than the Common Core. They treat both literary and non-literary texts in systematic detail throughout the document, addressing the specific genres, sub-genres, and characteristics of both text types. Tennessee also provides more detailed guidance and clearer expectations regard- ing the general characteristics of good writing expected throughout the grades, and its standards for logic are more thorough and rigorous.

      On the other hand, Common Core includes samples of student writing to clarify grade- and genre-specific writing ex- pectations, as well as a reading list to provide guidance about the quality and complexity of texts that students should be reading each year. In addition, the Common Core includes standards explicitly addressing foundational U.S. documents. Such enhancements would benefit Tennessee’s already-strong standards.

      I agree with you that implementation is the key to success, particularly in the area of introducing more nonfiction into ELA curricula.

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