Indiana is set to dump the Common Core standards, after a proposal passed the Senate Wednesday by a 35-13 vote. The proposal now goes to Republican Gov. Mike Pence for approval. This move, writes NWI Times reporter Dan Carden, was motivated by “fears the federal government seeks to control local schools.”

Many conservatives are concerned the federal government might use Common Core to enforce a specific set of educational principles or guidelines on teachers and children. This is perhaps the most pervasive concern regarding the standards.

Question: Is the Common Core initiative truly state-led?

The standards’ history is a bit opaque in places, but there are some basic facts about the standards’ development that can be traced. Common Core was kickstarted by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, according to US News reporter Allie Bidwell. While serving as the 2006-07 chair of the National Governors Association, Napolitano wrote an initiative focused on improving math and science education.  This initiative inspired her to take on a larger project: creating “an internationally competitive education system.” She assembled a task force of commissioners, governors, corporate executives and education experts, and they collectively released a report in 2008 called “Benchmarking for Success.”

The report is primarily focused on “building a globally competitive education system,” and offered five steps to help achieve that goal. The first step called for new standards:

Action 1: Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core [emphasis added] of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.

The report also included a section titled “The Federal Role,” calling on the federal government to play an “enabling role grounded in a new vision for the historic state-federal partnership in education—one that is less restrictive and mandate-driven and more encouraging of innovation.” They specifically asked that the government “offer new funding or allow existing funds to be used to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five action steps described above…” One could argue that this is exactly what Race to the Top did.

The NGA, CCSSO, and nonprofit group Achieve all spearheaded the creation of the Common Core State Standards. Some believe that, when initially introduced, states and critics adopted the standards enthusiastically. But as Carden put it in his Indiana piece, “After Democratic President Barack Obama endorsed the standards, Tea Party groups and other Republicans began to view Common Core as a federal takeover of their local schools.”

Did the federal government involvement start even earlier in the process? Former science teacher Kay Bivens thinks so—in a Lake Wylie Pilot article, she points to the federal funding that both the NGA and CCSSO receive, and draws rather sinister conclusions: “As a nonprofit, NGA meetings and paperwork are not subject to public scrutiny. But its 2011-2012 financial records show it received $4.9 million from the federal government.” Additionally, the CCSSO “shared U.S. federal grants of $330 million in stimulus funds with the NGA in 2010. Like the NGA, this nonprofit’s status allowed it to hold Common Core-related meetings leaving it open to criticism about secrecy.” Of course, none of this funding means the federal government directed Common Core’s creation—but Bivens writes, “it doesn’t take a detective to question the direct federal government connection with the two companies preparing tests to assess Common Core.”

On the other hand, Truth in American Education writer Shane Vander Hart thinks the standards were “special-interest written and funded” at their genesis, due to the heavy involvement of such groups as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Boeing Company, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the GE Foundation, IBM Corporation, and others. He believes the federal government really began playing a role when Race to the Top pushed other states to adopt Common Core: the 2009 stimulus package of $4.35 billion came with ties attached, and called specifically for new standards (though it didn’t specify which).

Thus, the question of whether the Common Core initiative was state-led is rather tricky, and depends largely on one’s definition of what a state-led effort should look like—and whether federal monetary incentive ought to have been included in the effort.

Question: Could the implementation of Common Core lead to the adoption of a nationwide curriculum?

According to the Common Core’s website, this is a myth. They write on their FAQ page, that it is “not a curriculum,” but rather “a clear set of shared goals and expectations … Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and others will decide how the standards are to be met.” Practically, however, the standards may have a nationalizing effect on curricula, for a few reasons:

  • Aligning with Common Core is profitable. Teachers in 45 states are having to reconsider and repurchase curricula materials. That’s a lot of textbooks, and a lot of money that publishers and developers can tap into.
  • A “Common Core – aligned” curriculum will appeal to teachers who want to ensure their students are prepared for upcoming tests. Material that clearly parallels with the standards is something of a necessary safety net.
  • The ACT and SAT are both adapting to align with Common Core.

Indeed, Atlantic reporter Lindsey Tepe wrote Monday that Common Core has driven recent changes to the SAT format: whereas the SAT used to cater to 50 various education standards and assessments, “the work of high schools themselves is now converging,” as 45 states and the District of Columbia all work toward the same standards. This Education Week document brilliantly depicts the new similarities between the SAT and Common Core. Since all college-bound students—whether public, private, or home schooled—usually take either the SAT or ACT, preparations for these tests will be at least somewhat Common Core-influenced.

The standards do not tout specific content matter (although they do have “recommended readings”). Thus, they may not affect the content of curricula intensely. But the standard’s rigor (or lack thereof) may drive curricular difficulty levels. They may effect the ratio of “informational text” to literary readings in English classes, and perhaps inform some of the math formulas used in textbooks. They may bear somewhat on the structure and formatting of curricular material.

However, it is important to note that a superior curriculum—one that pairs careful rigor with an emphasis on student comprehension and involvement—cannot really be harmed by Common Core. If students have excellent training, the SAT should not be difficult for them, regardless of their curriculum’s informational to literary text ratio, or the type of mathematical formula taught to them in first grade. Initiative still lies with the teacher and student—to delve further into education, and explore its deepest goods.

Notice the focus of the 2008 “Benchmarking for Success” report: its demand for more rigorous standards didn’t stem from a desire for students to excel intellectually or spiritually, or to discover deep meaning or drive from the treasures of knowledge. Rather, the initiative was started as a means for the U.S. to become more commercially competitive on the international level. This isn’t meant to be cynical—rather, it adds clarity to the undergirding goals of Common Core creators. The standards were developed to “maintain America’ competitive edge into the future.”

Of course it’s important that children receive good jobs when they grow up. But according to the NGA and CCSSO definition, education is a “lever for ensuring competitiveness and prosperity in the age of globalization,” amidst a “race … among nations to create knowledge-fueled innovation economies”—a race in which the U.S., purportedly, is “falling behind.”

When we make education a “lever” to money and power, we have devalued its very core. The push of globalization may necessitate a more rigorous American economy, but such rigor is a byproduct of educational excellence—not its primary motivating factor. The inner flourishing and eudaimonia of students should be our first concern. Global competitiveness ought to come after.

Previous posts on Common Core: Fact and Fiction—

– Fact and Fiction at CPAC Common Core Panel
– Common Core and Data Mining: Fact and Fiction, Part II
– Common Core and Informational Texts: Fact and Fiction, Part III
Common Core and Teachers: Fact and Fiction, Part IV
– Teaching Math Under Common Core: Fact and Fiction, Part V