I teach high school English in Pennsylvania, a state that originally adopted the Common Core State Standards, then rescinded that adoption, and then implemented a new, replacement set of standards that looks remarkably similar to the common core. That—along with my experiences as a teacher-blogger who has closely followed the standards—has often made me wonder if we even know what exactly we’re referring to when we talk about the “common core.” There are so many different conceptual manifestations that it’s hard to keep track. Let me offer a few examples:
The common core of resource materials and textbooks. Many new teaching materials have cropped up in the past couple of years, all designed to boost sales in a newly ripped-open market. Others appear to be examples of slapping “Common-Core Ready” or “Aligned” stickers on old materials that were gathering dust in warehouses. Websites collect all sorts of materials from all manner of sources under the common-core banner. To call the full range of teaching materials representing the core uneven is like calling “The Walking Dead” a little icky.
The common core of mandated curricula. Sometimes, new curriculum requirements come with the new textbooks; publishers will sell schools a full “program” and send a rep to tell them exactly how to use it. Curricular control is often more centralized, with districts or states giving teachers specific directives and modules. In cases where administrators tell teachers they must follow ready-made curriculum packages or pacing guides, the common core can become downright restrictive, reducing teachers to “content-delivery specialists.” That would seem to go far beyond what the famous not-a-curriculum standards actually prescribe.
The common core of paperwork. Teachers regularly gather in meetings for “unpacking” the standards and “aligning” curriculum. Then they fill out some paperwork so the “people in charge” can have documentation that the common core is actually happening in schools. This version of the common core, of questionable veracity, is gathering dust on the shelves in many school and district offices.
The common core of “readiness.” With four words— “college and career ready” —the advocates of the common core have defined the standards (and schools’ missions) as being mainly about vocational training. Being ready to earn a living is certainly no small thing, but neither does it present a very broad vision of what schools—or academic standards—should be.
The common core of educational recycling. Many of the instructional “innovations” associated with the common core, from close reading to critical thinking to problem-solving, existed long before the standards were a gleam in David Coleman’s eye. Giving the common core credit for such ideas is like giving the Obama administration credit for having three separate branches of government—and yet that has become an off-hand way of describing what’s important in the standards.
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The common core of wishful thinking. So many grand statements are made about the common core that it’s hard not to have doubts about the whole enterprise. The standards are said to be far better and more rigorous than previous state standards, though doubts persist. They are said to be more in line with the expectations set by high-achieving countries—another contention that’s been questioned. Numerous pundits and standards insiders have maintained that the standards (again, not a curriculum) will result in far-reaching national curricular improvements (particularly, of course, along the lines they have long recommended or are now in the process of developing).
Many teachers, meanwhile, have sat through professional-development sessions given by consultants who seem to find pedagogical burning bushes in the standards that nobody else seems to see. Sometimes it seems as if the common core is simply a big, blank projection screen for what people want to see.
The common core of the standardized tests. This common core, perhaps the most influential of all, bears only a partial resemblance to the written standards. I doubt, for example, that speaking skills and in-depth analysis of complex full texts will ever be on the common-core-aligned tests, since it is impossible to put them into a standardized form that scales nationally. So in districts that are test-centric, many educators will pay attention to only some of the actual standards. And since there’s no single national test, there are several different versions of this common core as well.
Sometimes it seems as if the common core is simply a big, blank projection screen for what people want to see.”
The full mob of these stunted, twisted common cores arrives at the classroom door, and in the end, good teachers do what they have always done—collect their own data, make their own observations, and choose what is best for their students. That remains a crucial process, because none of the above-mentioned versions of the common core is particularly student-centered. In each case, the common core, not students’ individual needs, is supposed to be teachers’ guiding light.
I have read articles and blog posts by teachers who hint at another common core, a transformative core that positively changed their instruction. I don’t believe in this core, either. In each case, these teachers are either doing what they would have done anyway and calling it the common core, or they are naturally developing as educators and giving the common core all the credit. They’re simply doing what good teachers always do—following their professional conscience and their own discretion.
As far as I can see, if the common core’s goal was to bring a consistent, high-quality instructional framework to schools, it has failed. With all its different iterations and justifications, it has just made things more convoluted.
Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Which ‘Common Core’ Are We Talking About?