scantron sheet over a map of the United StatesCommon Core. Those two words have sparked fierce debates in the secondary school community. Common Core supporters say that the standards set by the curriculum are essential for measuring student achievement. Critics argue that the implementation of the standards have resulted in problems with inflexible curricula and ineffective assessment. One thing is certain: It’s not dull in the Common Core world. 

Consider these recent developments: Opponents of Common Core in New York are calling for a testing boycott in 2016; several states, including North Carolina and Mississippi, are considering revisions to Common Core—some minor and some substantial; and West Virginia has repealed Common Core standards. While criticism continues, proponents point out that, while not perfect, Common Core’s goals remain laudable. 

We convened a distinguished group of thought leaders to discuss this issue, including Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, former principal at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, NY, and 2013 New York State High School Principal of the Year; Scott Montgomery, ACT vice president of policy, advocacy, and government relations; and Joshua Starr, CEO at PDK International. The roundtable, conducted in December 2015, was moderated by Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein.

Levin-Epstein: What was the impetus behind Common Core? 

Starr: I think Common Core was trying to address several things. One was the desire to benchmark against international standards. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) had started to loom larger, and there’s the issue of American competitiveness. So one argument was the need to look more at what’s happening internationally so we can be competitive. Another reason for Common Core was a general push toward higher standards for college readiness. A third reason was the desire to make state-to-state comparisons. Initially, I think either 45 or 46 states signed up for Common Core, with the idea that we would be able to make these comparisons among states to understand what the differences were. That being said, it seems to me that every 10 years or so, we take a look at standards and revise them accordingly. 

Burris: I agree with Josh regarding the need for revision. Interestingly enough, there never was any benchmarking to international standards, despite PISA worries. The impetus was to create national standards and national tests so there could be equivalent comparisons across states. Those tests are: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). It was intended to create national standards examined by national tests, despite protests to the contrary from [ED Secretary] Arne Duncan.

Montgomery: Having sat in the room when Common Core was conceived, my perspective is a bit different, but similar to Josh’s. The state education chiefs and the governors came at Common Core from different perspectives—the chiefs wanted standards that would provide all students with the same rigorous level of learning, and the governors wanted to ensure that from an economic perspective, students were prepared for college, but especially careers. In the end, we knew standards were the way to start a new reform, and while the concept of the consortia was not on the table during the initial design and development of Common Core, we realized that standards had “tentacles,” and eventually the rest of the system would have to follow suit, including curriculum, professional development, and assessments.

Levin-Epstein: How would you rate the success of Common Core?

Montgomery: I think that depends on how you define Common Core. If you’re talking about just the standards, then I think the standards have been judged by most experts to be exactly what we intended—more rigorous and focused—and designed to ensure that students have a solid foundation for postsecondary success (college and career readiness). If, however, you’re talking about everything else that’s been attached to the Common Core—the assessment consortia, curriculum, etc.—then I think you’d probably have to say it’s been a little disappointing. Unfortunately, the Common Core—just the standards—has gotten swept up in a political environment that conflated the term with every possible wrong people see in public education. When I see news stories about students—and parents—being frustrated by “Common Core math,” I laugh—that’s not the Common Core. The Common Core doesn’t prescribe curriculum—and what most people lash out about as Common Core is likely something very similar to Singapore math that has been around long before the development of the Common Core.

Burris: Common Core is dying a slow death of a thousand cuts. Just recently in New York the governor’s task force came out with its Common Core report that called for an overhaul, with the Common Core being replaced by New York State standards. Now, how different they’re going to be, we don’t know. The task force expressed concern over the early childhood standards, and the effect of the standards on special-needs kids and English-language learners. Oklahoma went back to its pre-Common Core standards and is creating standards that they say are superior to the Common Core. Massachusetts is now walking away from the idea of PARCC and sticking with its own state tests.

The Common Core is falling apart. At the end of the day, maybe state standards will be different, but considering that we now have the Every Student Succeeds Act, and that’s going to continue three to eight testings every year, my guess is that, over time, states are going to start dramatically changing their standards and their tests because they don’t want to have to deal with the same onerous consequences that they did with No Child Left Behind.

Starr: I would answer the question two ways. I would say that, on one hand, the movement toward common standards has been a great success because it has forced educators to confront what’s being taught, and that is, in my mind, the most important element that you can organize around. What are you expecting kids to know and do every day, and how do you organize systems around that? What do teachers need to know and do to be able to support all of that? I do think that because of Common Core, folks at the district, state, and national level have been talking about that in different ways. The flip side of that is that it has been an absolute disaster, in that it’s been convoluted with Race to the Top policies—and I think people have a really difficult time disassociating Common Core from Race to the Top. Common Core as an idea—meaning the common standards that kids should know how to be able to do across the country—is great. But the Race to the Top policies, the waivers, the teacher evaluations based on test scores, and the bad science that the policies are based on have compromised the larger question of “What do kids need to know how to be able to do in the 21st century?” But at the same time, people are talking about that now, almost in spite of the initial impetus for it. So, I am distressed and disheartened that the current administration did not take advantage of the incredible opportunity it had to reshape and reframe the agenda. And, in fact, now that we have the Every Student Succeeds Act, the retreat to local control could be some of the greatest harm I think we’ve seen to the equity agenda in my lifetime. That’s because of this reaction to what people call the Common Core. But I don’t think what they’re reacting to is actually the Common Core; what they’re reacting to is the incredibly bad implementation based on flawed policy.

Burris: Oh, I think they’re reacting to the Common Core.

Starr: Do you mean the standards themselves, Carol?

Burris: Yes, I think that many have certainly reacted to the standards themselves. In theory, it is a great idea to have common standards across 50 states. But they’d better be the best darn standards anybody could ever imagine. And Common Core isn’t. Do you really want every state in lockstep with standards that are untried, untested, and problematic? While in some cases they may be superior to former state standards, in many cases they are not.

Montgomery: Creating the perfect set of academic standards will never be achieved as long as individuals are involved—perception and preference will always find a way to creep in—so you’re never going to have a perfect set of standards. But in terms of increasing the rigor, there has been almost universal acceptance that the standards were a far cry better in terms of setting a higher, more rigorous bar for students.

Starr: That’s debatable, though.

Burris: It is debatable. There are some people who think Common Core math is an improvement, but there are also some really good educators who question a lot of what is happening in Common Core math. Many English teachers are up in arms over the decreased role of fiction and the overemphasis on close reading. Others complain that it is a poor pathway to calculus. It’s hard to get standards that are as different as the Common Core and expect them to be accepted across the nation. When you compare the Common Core standards to standards of high-performing Finland, they are entirely different. First of all, their standards are in bands. They don’t have first-grade standards, second-grade standards. They have key preK–2 [grade] standards, and then [grades] 3–5, etc. If you take a look at them, there is not the same level of specificity as is present in the Common Core. The Common Core attempts with its instructional shifts to not only talk about what kids should be able to do, but to also direct the pedagogy around those outcomes. Finnish standards are outcomes without directing pedagogy. Although Race to the Top policies on teacher evaluation, testing, and data collection were problematic for Common Core implementation, there are issues that good people have with the standards themselves that go well beyond politics and implementation.

Starr: I would suggest, though, that that’s correct and because of those policies and the implementation problems, there was no opportunity to recalibrate the standards as they went forward. Academic standards change and grow. I think that what the initiative missed in such a major way is the idea [of feedback]. Let’s put out these new standards and then let’s test them. Let’s figure out what it actually means in the lives of schools and kids. Let’s get feedback on it. And they never gave that opportunity to let that happen. Instead, it was, “We’re going to link your evaluations to them, and we’re going to hold you accountable.” All of this stuff didn’t give the practitioners, the people in schools, the people in districts, academics, and others the chance to say, “Wait a second, we should change or modify X, Y, and Z.” That’s the problem.

Montgomery: Josh is right. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though I fear we’ve started to do that in many places. You don’t achieve total reform in five years. The standards were a starting point, and unfortunately we’ve seen implementation problems with curriculum, and we’ve seen test scores often interpreted as “lower” than previous years. But those “lower” scores are just reflections of a different set of expectations. We changed the playing field when states adopted the Common Core. Of course we should expect differences in test scores. We’re holding kids to much higher standards. Unfortunately—and in hindsight—we didn’t align the rest of the system components to the standards, and when we rolled out new tests, new curriculum, and—I’d dare say—when we didn’t adequately prepare teachers for this shift, we doomed what was a promising reform effort. The standards have merit, and it’s disappointing to think we’d give up so quickly on such a major national initiative. 

Levin-Epstein: Is there any evidence that Common Core has raised or lowered standardized test scores?

Montgomery: I think it’s too early to tell. Certainly states have seen decreases in the numbers of students who are “proficient” from previous years. But remember, we’re on a different playing field. You can’t compare scores from previous years’ tests that measure different standards to what’s being reported today—it’s apples and oranges. 

Starr: From my vantage point, there’s no evidence one way or another, because you have to do equating studies on all these different tests; the tests are so different. What’s aligned to Common Core? What’s not? It’s still unclear.