College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Common Core: Setting the Record Straight

By Richard Laine & Chris Minnich — June 18, 2013 6 min read
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This country was not built by people with low expectations. It was built by great leaders in communities and states who stepped up, sometimes individually and sometimes together, to achieve great things. It was built by responding to the challenges at hand and creating solutions for future generations. Today’s most crucial challenge is enhancing the quality of our public education system and addressing how well—or not—schools are preparing our young people for their futures.

Tomorrow’s workforce will need a better education, both in day-to-day classroom rigor and in acquisition of a college degree or relevant workforce certificate. In fact, Georgetown University researcher Anthony P. Carnevale projects that by the end of this decade, nearly 65 percent of the jobs in the U.S. economy will require some postsecondary education. And few of the jobs that require only a high school diploma will provide a salary sufficient for a young person to gain access to the middle class and the American dream.

Here is what the data tell us: Only 34 percent of 4th graders in reading and 35 percent of 8th graders in math scored proficient or advanced on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, in 2011. Internationally, 15-year-olds from the United States ranked 14th in reading and 25th in math on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, assessment in 2009. The challenge is clear. Too few American students are being educated to the quality they will need to be successful in work and life.

Governors, parents, teachers, principals, and other state and business leaders from across the country have recognized the problem and responded. In 2007, governors and state education leaders began discussing the idea of working together to develop a set of rigorous academic standards to ensure that all students graduate from high school well prepared for life. As a result, in 2009, governors, state superintendents, state boards of education, teachers, parents, and business leaders took the historic step of planning for a shared set of rigorous and easy-to-understand state academic standards in English/language arts and mathematics for grades K-12. The new standards, which were released in 2010, clearly define what students need to know, and how well they need to know these things at each grade level, to be able to graduate from high school ready for success in college or a career-training program.

In recent months, however, a number of myths have started circulating in the policy community and the media about these standards. As representatives of the two organizations that facilitated the development of the Common Core State Standards—the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—we believe it is important to address some of the questions that have been raised about the common core.

The common-core standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations."

First, state leaders—not the federal government—drove the creation of the common-core standards, which were developed by governors and chief state school officers and their representatives in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, K-12 and higher education experts, and business representatives. The NGA and the CCSSO encouraged, received, and acted upon feedback on drafts of the standards from individuals and national organizations representing, but not limited to, teachers, principals, postsecondary educators (including those at community colleges), civil rights groups, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

Not only was the development process inclusive of representatives from across the states, it produced a high-quality product. According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s 2010 review of the standards and each individual state’s standards, only two states and the District of Columbia had standards that were “clearly superior” to the common core’s for English/language arts, and no state offered math standards that were “clearly superior” to the common core.

The common-core standards are:

  • Aligned with college and workforce-training expectations;
  • Rigorous in content and include the application of knowledge through higher-order skills;
  • Built on strengths and lessons taken from state standards;
  • Informed by standards in top-performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in the global economy and society; and
  • Evidence-based, clear, and aligned across a child’s K-12 education.

The common-core standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills that will help students succeed in college or a workforce-training program. The standards do not tell principals how to run their schools, and they do not tell teachers how to teach. Local teachers, principals, and district administrators ultimately decide how the standards are to be met and the curriculum to be used. States and/or local districts will continue to have the responsibility to adopt curricula and choose textbooks.

Further, contrary to some critics’ claims, the federal government was not involved in the development of the standards. This has always been, and continues to be, a state-led and state-driven initiative. Even more importantly, upon completion of the standards, it was state leaders, using their individual state processes of review and consideration, that voluntarily adopted the standards. The standards have now been adopted by nearly all states, the District of Columbia, and all of the U.S. Department of Defense schools that serve the children of U.S. servicemen and women around the world.

States are implementing the standards in whichever way best suits their unique populations of students and educational and political contexts. The critical components of implementation, such as curricula and assessment development and educator training and development, are the sole responsibility of the states and their districts. The standards enable states, if they choose, to collaborate to make the most efficient use of time and resources and to pool their collective expertise to create the best tools and resources to help local educators improve the effectiveness of their teaching and their students’ learning.


Currently, states are at various stages of implementation, including improving teachers’ and leaders’ effectiveness through changes to their standards, preparation programs, licensure, evaluation systems, and professional development; leading transitions in state assessments and accountability policy; and reallocating resources to fund the implementation work.

There is no argument that our nation’s ultimate goal should continue to be academic excellence for all students. The quality of our education system affects everything from each student’s success to the economic future of our nation. There is still much work to be done to make sure that the promise of our new standards yields real success for our students. With students, parents, teachers, and principals on the same page and working together toward shared goals, we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from high school well prepared to succeed and build a strong future for themselves, their communities, and the nation.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Common Core: Setting the Record Straight


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