A Quasi Happy Birthday to the Common Core

By Catherine Gewertz — June 02, 2015 2 min read
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Maybe someone, somewhere, is putting five candles on a little cake for the Common Core State Standards to honor its birthday.

But maybe not.

It’s been a tumultuous ride since the final version of the standards was released in a carefully orchestrated, packed-with-praise event in Suwanee, Ga., on June 2, 2010.

Reaction to the common core seems to have progressed through distinct stages, not unlike the five stages of grief identified by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. While Kubler-Ross said that losing a loved one can spark denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the common core has created two parallel channels of reaction: one among its cheerleaders, and another among its critics.

For the cheerleaders, the stages seemed to be jubilation, realization, humility, exhaustion, and cautious optimism. That is to say: Many teachers and policymakers were happy to have what they considered a superior set of academic expectations, with the potential of working across states to create good teaching materials, strategies and tests. When they realized how much of a shift in teaching the standards require, the heavy lift of professional development looked daunting, indeed.

Some districts just put their heads in the sand and hoped the whole thing would pass, leaving teachers exhausted as they scrambled on their own for training and materials. Further down the line, as more districts got in the game and focused deeply on the standards, more teachers started to feel, guardedly, that they understood what was expected of them, and that they were getting more of the support they need to make the most of the new standards.

For the critics, it went more like this: outrage, criticism, politicization, mobilization, and stagnation. The rallying cry of federal overreach went up from the beginning, since the federal government had used its bully pulpit and its Race to the Top funds to encourage states to adopt the standards. The vocal minority who actually focused on the standards’ content, instead of their political origin, attacked them for emphasizing nonfiction at the expense of literature, and setting math expectations too low. A very vocal hyper-minority also got hot under the collar about the absence of cursive writing requirements in the common core.

Once state lawmakers got wind of what their state boards’ adoptions meant, common core became a football in many statehouses across the country. There was lots of heat and smoke, many bills were introduced, and many proclamations were made featuring the federal-overreach argument. But in only a few states was the common core actually yanked out of the books and replaced with other standards. And in a couple of those cases, the new standards looked a whole lot like the old standards. The push to unravel the common core left the landscape looking quite a lot like it did in late 2011, when all but four states (Alaska, Virginia, Texas and Nebraska) had adopted the standards. Here’s how it looks now:

In the world of the common core, every year is a dog year (you know: seven years for every one of our human years), with enough agony and excitement to exhaust anyone. For my part, I’ll get a cake and light the candles today: maybe 35 is most appropriate to mark those dog years. Happy birthday, common core. It’s been... tiring.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.