The Common Core Debate: National Standards Can’t Save Education — But Here’s What Can

Americans are unhappy with K-12 education in the United States, and for good reason. Despite spending more on education than any other developed country in the world, American 15-year-olds rank 31st in math literacy and 23rd in science literacy. Unless we intend to become a third-world country, we need ideas. And fast.

But the latest idea — the Common Core State Standards Initiative — which has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, has stirred considerable debate and rousing opposition. Even though Common Core was launched in 2009 and has received ample media coverage, including serving as the brunt of jokes by well-known comedians, 61 percent of respondents to a recent Gallup poll reported that they knew little to nothing about it. 1

At Summit, we place a high value on education and the work of parents and godly educators devoted to developing children’s hearts and minds. We cannot afford to be complacent in the debate over whether the top-down, uniform standards proposed by Common Core benefit or hurt our nation’s youth.

What Is Common Core?

The Common Core Standards Initiative is a state-led program spawned when a group of governors expressed a desire to create uniform milestones to establish what students need to know to be college-and-career ready. Authored by a group of educational experts, Common Core is not intended to serve as a national curriculum. That would be illegal according to the General Education Provisions Act. 2 Instead, Common Core is meant to act as a guideline, a minimum set of standards in mathematics and English language arts that assures parents that children in their state are receiving just as good of an education as children in other states.

The concern advocates say drives Common Core, that American high school graduates are not college ready, is true. Sixty percent of students entering four-year colleges are required to take remedial courses in English or mathematics, while a whopping 75 percent of students entering two-year colleges need remedial instruction in one or both of those subjects. 3 These remedial courses cost students, families, taxpayers, and colleges billions of dollars. And it goes without saying that if students are not ready for college, they are probably not ready for the workplace, either.

Thus, most states have adopted Common Core in an attempt to improve U.S. educational performance, prepare students for college and the workplace, and provide standard measures for academic success. Advocates find these goals, and their means of approaching them, completely uncontroversial. Opposition to Common Core is characterized as a case of ideology trumping common sense. But growing opposition from high levels indicates that Americans are becoming concerned that Common Core adds a layer of bureaucracy that will take power away from those who know students best and may actually make America’s educational problems worse.

What’s Wrong With Common Core?

There have been plenty of practical problems surrounding the implementation of Common Core. Many educators complain that math standards are poorly sequenced and math questions are poorly worded, for example. But for the sake of this article, we are focusing instead on what we believe to be a larger problem — the philosophy behind Common Core, which we believe is severely misguided for at least five reasons:

1. Common Core empowers national leadership instead of parents and teachers.

Teachers and parents know children best, not office workers in a far-away cubicle or ivory-tower office. The “architect” of Common Core — David Coleman, a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar — has never even taught in a secondary or elementary classroom. Yet he and his associates have been given tremendous control over academic content, standards, and testing.

Furthermore, when a teacher’s success is measured by her adherence to Common Core, she is made accountable primarily to the administrators of those standards and not to parents, community leaders, and taxpayers. In this way, power is wrested from the local community and placed into the hands of a select number of supervisors, who require teachers to achieve specific goals in a specific manner without taking into account how individual students learn best.

Brittany Corona, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, recently told Summit that Common Core will inevitably lead to a shift in decision-making power: “Under current state standards, if parents have questions about what is being taught in their child’s classroom, they can address their child’s principal, the district office, or the local school board. When content matter is centralized nationally, the state has surrendered its educational decision-making authority, and parents can no longer address their concerns to local leadership.”

2. Common Core promotes uniformity instead of customization.

Education-policy analyst Diane Ravitch writes, “Behind the Common Core standards lies a blind faith in standardization of tests and curriculum, and, perhaps, of children as well.” 4 Common Core is based on a secular assumption that uniformity, not customization based on unique learning needs, serves children best.

There is also a distinct possibility that uniformity of instruction methods will result in uniformity of academic content as well. Conservative columnist George Will notes, “[W]hat begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines, and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials. Washington already is encouraging the alignment of the GED, SAT, and ACT tests with the Common Core. 5 By a feedback loop, these tests will beget more curriculum conformity. All of this will take a toll on parental empowerment, and none of this will escape the politicization of learning like that already rampant in higher education.” 6

While standardized instruction and content may sound like a good idea on the surface, a growing number of respected leaders are concerned that it entrenches the power of people whose intent is to use the education system to indoctrinate children into certain politically-correct beliefs.

For example, there is already a national effort to coordinate teaching on climate change. In 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised that the Department of Education would take a leadership role in “educating the next generation of green citizens and preparing them to contribute to the workforce through green jobs.” “Educators have a central role in this,” Secretary Duncan remarked. “They teach students about how the climate is changing. They explain the science behind climate change and how we can change our daily practices to help save the planet.” 7 Are we ready to give a handful of experts the power not only to establish achievement standards but also to insert their worldview into textbooks across the country?

3. Common Core stifles creativity instead of promoting it.

When former Florida Governor Jeb Bush advocated the acceptance of Common Core, he said the standards would “allow for more innovation in the classroom [and] less regulation.” 8 But, in practice, Common Core has done precisely the opposite. Although advocates say Common Core gives teachers flexibility by allowing them to be creative as long as they meet certain milestones, the practical reality is different. In states where the standards have been implemented, student learning has already been disrupted by excessive devotion of time and resources to test preparation.

4. Common Core depends on the implementation of standards that do not guarantee improved educational performance.

Tougher standards may sound like a good idea, but they come at a high cost and are no guarantee of success. States with rigorous standards do not necessarily outperform states with lower standards, and many of the countries that outpace the United States in math and science, like Canada, do not have national standards. Jennifer Marshall, Director of Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, writes, “More careful attention is needed to understand the role that national standards play in other countries before asserting that national standards would add the same value in the United States.” 9

5. Common Core misses the point of education.

The standards that are being implemented in schools across the country have been established specifically to make students college-and-career ready. But in an effort to accomplish that goal, schools are encouraged to assign fewer literary works and more nonfiction as students reach high school. It is not clear that informational texts produce better workers, but it is quite clear to many educators that cutting out classical literature leads to a deterioration of cultural knowledge.

Professor Anthony Esolen, professor at Providence College, has said that Common Core harbors “contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form. … [Educators] are not producing functionaries, factory-like. [Educators] are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women.” 10

If the goal of education is to help children grow into mature adults, capable of seeking truth, promoting goodness, and exercising self-mastery, then legislators ought to re-examine whether Common Core is a good idea. Taking away local control in order to create uniformity while sapping the creativity of teachers and shifting the focus away from the great books is no recipe for success, and could actually make the problem worse.

What Education Is For — and How to Improve It

A valuable education will help students develop their reasoning capacities so that they can perceive truth and live according to it. The study of mathematics and science should foster an appreciation of order and beauty — of God and God’s laws — while the thorough examination of great literature should lead to the contemplation of eternal truths regarding life, death, goodness, evil, and human nature.

Obviously, students ought to be ready to make a living. But they also need to know how to make a life. The investigation of history, science, English, and poetry is not merely a workplace pursuit — it is a way of helping students understand the truth about human nature and excel as human beings, not just as workers.

If the goal of primary and secondary education is to instill students with a passion for learning, a love of nature and nature’s laws, and a desire for truth, then Common Core will inevitably disappoint. So what do we recommend instead?

Transparency. When schools are transparent, offering easy access to the quality of instruction and the effectiveness of their programs, parents are able to determine whether that school is the best fit for their child. Instead of placing control of academic content and testing in the hands of bureaucrats, we should empower those closest to the students — parents and teachers. And if teachers can’t get the job done, they should be held accountable by their community.

Writing on the positive effects of school accountability, David Figlio and Susanna Loeb, professors at Northwestern University and Stanford University, note, “The broader economics literature on the role of information on product quality shows how strong information disclosure can be in influencing markets, and it is realistic to expect that a major source of consequences of school accountability would be community and local pressure provoked by increased accessibility of information.” 11

Choice. When parents are given the ability to choose to which school they send their child, schools become accountable to parents. In such a case, parents judge the quality of the education their child is receiving.

“The beauty of school choice,” Brittany Corona writes, “is that it places the child’s first and most important educator — the parent — in the driver’s seat, enabling parents to match learning options with their child’s needs.” School choice, which is made possible through vouchers, tuition tax credits, special-needs scholarships, and educational savings accounts, forces schools to compete with each other and develop innovative methods by which to better educate — and keep — students.

The combination of these two factors will unleash the creative faculties of teachers, make schools answerable to parents rather than the enforcers of Common Core, and give parents more input into their children’s education.

Teaching a Child in the Way He Should Go

For many years, Christians who have been dissatisfied with the public education system have opted for alternatives, including Christian schools, classical schools, and homeschools. Christ-centered education goes beyond inculcating basic skills to something important to every society: cultivating virtue. In such schools, teachers are free to “train up a child in the way he should go,” as the Bible instructs us to (Proverbs 22:6).

Dr. D. Bruce Lockerbie, Chairman of PAIDEIA, Inc., tells Summit: “Parents have several options in educating their own children. Whether in a formal school setting or at home, the best choice is an education marked by an intentional biblical worldview derived from a close reading of the text of the Bible in order to find what Frank E. Gaebelein called ‘the unity of all truth under God.’”

When students are given a complete picture of truth — informed by the biblical worldview — they are enabled to apply that eternal truth to their lives, which allows them to properly balance reason and passion and pursue truly worthy goods. In other words, students are enabled to live the right way — as God intended them to live.