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Why Does the Common Core Make People So Mad?

January 14, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

The Common Core State Standards have been pitched as everything from the Great Savior to the Great Demon of U.S. public education. This has been confusing for many people, including me, since the actual content of the standards doesn’t seem particularly off-putting. There’s room for informed debate on pedagogy, developmentally appropriate objectives, and other inside baseball, but the political aspect of it is a bit perplexing.

My current hypothesis: It isn’t the standards themselves that are driving the controversy, so much as it is everything else about their creation and implementation. Here are a few examples of what the Common Core has come to represent.

Top-Down Reform

Much of the skepticism to current reform hot topics like choice and “accountability” systems comes from concern about a relatively small number of privileged elites driving big changes without checking in with the people on the ground. The design of the Common Core standards followed a similar pattern.

Back in 2009, when the two groups charged with writing the standards were convened, neither group (one for math, one for English/Language Arts) had a classroom teacher involved. There were, among others, a few university professors, some consultants, and a lot of people from testing outfits (the College Board and the ACT) and Achieve, a nonprofit organization whose major work is mostly about the Common Core.

Teachers were involved with the review of the drafted standards, at both the state and national levels. In Minnesota, teachers were involved in adding to the standards, making sure that, for example, the experiences of American Indians in Minnesota were part of the ELA standards. At the national level, the input was sometimes treated more perfunctorily.

In addition to being designed largely by distant elites, the standards picked up backing from the federal government when participation in the Common Core was rewarded in the Race to the Top program and the No Child Left Behind waiver process. This is where the Tea Party crowd gets spun into a tizzy, as “national standards” sound like excessive federal overreach. The reality is more that the federal government jumped on the existing bandwagon of elites, but that sort of distinction doesn’t go too far in Tea Party land.

Finally, people paying closer attention could pick up other signs of elites at the top shuffling themselves around to advance their chosen agendas. David Coleman, one of the major architects of the Common Core, became head of the College Board, the test maker behind the SAT and AP test series. When the College Board used this year’s SAT results as a reason to rework their test to better align with the Common Core, few were surprised. There may not be anything particularly sinister about all this, but it does confirm the image of the elite reformer bringing massive changes down from on high.

Testing Overload

New standards mean new tests, which is bound to provoke resistance in a system that, for many, already feels over-tested. What’s more, the Common Core aligned assessments are expected to lead to a drop in scores (even with the artificial selection of the cutoff for “proficiency”). Many people are already sensitive to the use of test scores as a tool for labeling public schools failures, demanding their closure, and demeaning the people who work for them. For folks like that, a new set of tests predicted to generate lower test scores isn’t good news.


Then there are the arguments by Common Core supporters like Bill Gates, who see the standards as an opportunity for new education-oriented businesses. In the short-term, the big publishers like Pearson are best positioned to capitalize on the change. Over time, however, the hope is that the little guys -- previously limited by fragmented state-by-state standards -- will be able to more easily scale up their products to the whole country. If you object to profit-seekers viewing public schools as cash cows rather than places of learning, this will rub you the wrong way.

Big Promises Backed by Mediocre Implementation

Another theme that has recurred throughout much of modern education reform is the policy-to-practice problem. This is the disconnect between high-level policy making and classroom-level change. In many states, the rollout of the Common Core has been a minor disaster, with teachers being given inadequate time, training, or support in redesigning their curriculum, instruction, and assessments to better meet the new standards (and their accompanying tests). This is a source of frustration for many on the ground, and it undermines the near-term usefulness of the standards.

This has been primarily a political analysis, since I think most of the hype both for and against the Common Core is overblown. I think we’re experiencing a moderate amount of short-term disruption that’s uncomfortable (mostly unnecessarily) for a lot of people in exchange for minimal long-term changes in how or what we teach. I’m open to being proven wrong, but the trends the Common Core symbolizes are, I think, much more potent than the specifics of the standards themselves.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Isral DeBruin says:

    January 14, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Great thoughts here, Michael. As always, I appreciate your even-handed and measured analysis. Thanks!

    Two things…

    In regard to Testing Overload: Testing and testing overload are very real concerns. However, one aspect of this sub-debate which I believe is frustratingly overlooked, is the potential for the CCSS and related tests to actually represent a dramatic DECREASE in total testing for students. Here in Milwaukee, students take our state test (called the WKCE) once each year, and also NWEA’s MAP test three times per year. The MAP was implemented primarily to compensate for the major deficiencies in the WKCE. So when Wisconsin implements the Smarter Balanced Assessment next year, it will replace the WKCE and, I believe, will also supplant the MAP for a net decrease in total testing. Does this anecdote seem like an outlier, or do you think it will be common for SBAC and PARCC to replace multiple tests?

    In regard to Profit Seeking: I took a look at the Daily Kos article you linked to with the Bill Gates speech, and watched the embedded video. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic and naive, but I felt like that post was a pretty tortured interpretation of what Gates was saying. What I heard was a discussion of how a uniform market of customers (which I heard as referring to the curriculum purchasers, not the students, contrary to the interpretation of the Kos writer) has great potential to facilitate better learning resources for students. I really didn’t hear him saying, “Gee, think of all the education-oriented business opportunities that will result from CCSS.”
    As with other facets of education, I’m sure there are people out there looking to exploit the CCSS implementation for personal gain, but that’s not what I heard Gates referring to here. I continue to scratch my head about peoples’ claims that Gates himself (and other philanthropists/foundations) stands to gain through CCSS or other reforms he advocates for. It’s not like he owns an ed tech company or invests in Pearson, right? Am I missing something?

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      January 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Hello, Isral!

      On testing overload, I think it’s entirely possible that the new assessments will allow for a reduction in overall testing, especially if their data is quickly and easily available to schools for use mid-year. I also expect there to be variations in this from state to state, as well as from district to district. This could well be an area where CCSS critics’ concerns are out of proportion to the actual risk, at least as far as the amount of testing goes. The other component of the testing criticism—that these scores are going to be lower, and therefore used to argue for unproductive closures or replacements—isn’t so much predicated on the amount of testing as it is on the political uses of testing. (Here I differentiate between the use of low test scores for political/rhetorical agenda-pushing and the use of test scores for more informed policy.)

      I’m definitely not endorsing the full analysis of the Kos writer, and I agree that Gates is too often pilloried for having motives he doesn’t have. I continue to believe that he’s primarily a technocrat, not an ideologue, and he’s clearly not in this for personal benefit. I think it’s too easy to conflate (a) the people who are already rich and using foundations to advance the policy debate, (b) large corporations like Pearson that have a business stake in certain parts of education policy, (c) entrepreneurs, including former teachers, who have genuinely good ideas for education goods and services that truly help students, and (d) people who are looking to make a quick buck off public dollars in the schools. All of these groups share two things: an interest in education/schools and a past or present profit motive. However, they are clearly different in their other motives, their means, and their effect on our schools. We would do well not to paint them all with the same brush.

      With that said, I’m trying to distinguish between the advantages of “a uniform market of customers [curriculum purchasers]” and “the education-oriented business opportunities that will result from CCSS.” They seem like slightly different ways of framing the same concept—that a more uniform set of standards makes it easier for businesses to get learning resources in front of most students. To the extent those resources are effective and fairly priced, that’s a good thing. To the extent those resources are ineffective and/or overpriced for their value, it’s not so good.  (Of course, schools can choose not to repurchase from vendors that have burned them before, but the supply of dodgy vendors won’t be fixed, either.) We’ll have to see how it plays out, because I’m not sure right now that we can predict what the balance will be. Is the concern overblown? Quite possibly. It’s not ridiculous to emphasize the need for caution in ensuring our market of ed resource suppliers is actually serving students’ interests, though.

      • Isral DeBruin says:

        January 14, 2014 at 1:40 pm

        Thanks for your reply, Michael.

        I agree that any SBAC/PARCC replacement of tests will definitely hinge on how useful the resulting data is, and how quickly it becomes available. While I know both of those things represent very complex backend logistics, I’m hopeful, given that both were major drivers of these new assessments to begin with. (And, for us in WI, it’s hard to imagine anything that wouldn’t be a step forward from the WKCE.)

        I am definitely with you on concern over how test data will be employed. While I think it’s legitimate to use low scores as a rallying point for positive change (assuming they’re logically benchmarked), I also recognize how easily that can be twisted and exploited for ideological shifts that have nothing to do with the best interests of students and teachers.

        Thanks for your clarification regarding the Gates speech video. There is a lot of subtlety, here, and I think you succeeded in parsing it out. It seems to me that some of the polemicists in this debate enjoy intentionally conflating the groups you mentioned. It makes for great click-bait and slips comfortably into their narratives. That, of course, bothers me.

        There’s nothing inherently devious about a profit motive (not that I think you disagree). After all, no matter how much we all like our jobs, we’re all glad to be paid for them. It becomes an issue when profit is the sole motive; and it becomes a significant concern when that sole motive leads people to make decisions that actually harm students, teachers, or schools.

        Unsurprisingly, I also enjoyed the nuanced explanation in the final paragraph of your above response. You’re absolutely right. My hope is that with less required customization on the part of resource publishers, costs will go down and choices will go up. (Not to mention: smaller markets won’t be stuck choosing between the “California Version” and the “Texas Version.”) I sincerely hope this “uniform market” will cause the great resources to get noticed, become popular, and rise to the top while the poor ones lose viability. However, I’ll admit I’ve already been alarmed, though, by how many textbook publishers rushed to slap “Common Core Aligned!” onto resources which are anything but.

        Anyway, thanks for the dialogue!