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Common Core Not-So Craziness

by Michael Q. McShane - August 01, 2013

In many areas, discussion of the Common Core standards has degraded into the talk of conspiracy theorists. This troubling development has overshadowed the very real concerns with implementing the standards that advocates need to address. This article, after dispatching the conspiracy wing-nuttery, outlines several lingering questions regarding the Common Core with the hopes of sparking a more productive discussion of this enormous undertaking.

I know an education issue has gone off the deep end when my sister texts me about it.  She is a second grade teacher in the Kansas City suburbs and apparently some teachers and parents in her district had questions regarding the Common Core standards, a set of shared curriculum frameworks to which 45 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to align their instruction. These questions were vociferous enough that the Superintendent saw it fit to circulate a letter addressing some of them.  She was interested in my take.

As a person who has written and spoken about the Common Core (McShane, 2013; McShane, 2013, July 3; McShane, 2013, July 15), co-hosted a conference on the topic with some of the leading thinkers on the issue, and is co-editing an academic volume on the topic as we speak (Hess and McShane, forthcoming), I can state the following with relative certainty (and yes, these are based in real questions that the Superintendent addressed):


No, the Common Core is not part of a secret government operation to monitor Americans.


No, students will not be reading a “manual on same sex marriage” (p.s. I’m not sure if that even exists)


No, the Common Core is not linked to Scientology.  

It appears that stories around the Common Core have gone into the realm of conspiracy wing-nuts (note to wing nuts, please don’t email me about this). This is a shame, because it has given short shrift to serious political and practical concerns around the Common Core initiative.

I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I’m agnostic on the idea of the Common Core standards, but I will say that I don’t feel like I’ve heard a satisfying answer to any of the following three questions:


How can we ensure that the standards will remain high quality, especially when the political incentives are aligned to try to water them down?


Exactly what carrots and sticks does the federal government plan to tie to adoption and implementation of the standards?  Simply points in future competitive grants?  Necessary criteria for NCLB (or any other) waivers?  Requirements for Title I dollars?  


Who is in charge?  We know that the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers worked to develop these standards and get them adopted, but what are leaders doing now to keep the movement going? These organizations don’t really have leverage over states to keep them in line, so who does, and who will use it?

These very real concerns are getting lost in a big ole pile of cray cray.

To go one step beyond, though, these broad policy questions pale in comparison to the practical issues that Common Core advocates continually wave their hands at and act like they’ll all work out.  Again, not saying that there are not answers to these questions, but I find it hard to get on team Common Core until I hear convincing responses to the following questions:


How will new test scores be integrated into accountability systems?  So far, I’ve seen the argument divided into the “Joshua Starr Moratorium” (Starr 2013, February 7) camp and the “no moratorium even though we don’t have a coherent plan to integrate the scores” (Amundson 2013, February 22) camp, but (given that I don’t think either of those are particularly compelling) are there more plans being developed?


Do states and districts have the technological infrastructure to move to computerized testing within acceptable testing windows for accountability exams?  If not, can they by 2014-15?


What do these standards mean for more autonomous schools, like charters and magnets?  How much will they have to narrow what they do to get in alignment with the standards and the assessments that go with them?


What do we do about the tens of thousands of resources that are being published branded as “common core aligned” even before assessments come online?  What kind of quality control mechanisms are available for teachers and school leaders to make sure that what they are using is appropriate?


How much faith are we putting in professional development to get the 3 million plus teachers in America to align their instruction to the Common Core?  How much should we?


How much faith are we putting into traditional schools of education to upend their pedagogical instruction to prepare teachers to teach the new Common Core material? How much should we?


How many states are ready to deal with the political fallout from a dip in scores as the standard moves from “proficient” to “college and career ready?”  Or perhaps, which scenario seems more likely when the lower scores come out from schools traditionally deemed high quality: (a) “whoa, we need to be doing a lot better!” or (b) “these tests must be junk?”  

Until those issues are resolved, feel free to color me skeptical.  Not “I’ve read Michelle Malkin” (Malkin, 2013) skeptical; more “I’ve read Pressman and Wildavsky” (Pressman and Wildavksy, 1984) skeptical.  Hopefully, advocates will stop picking off the low hanging fruit and get concerned with implementation, because if any of that goes south, the Common Core is in trouble.


Amundson, K. (2013, February 22). The trouble with Starr’s testing moratorium. The Washington Post. Available at:  http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-22/opinions/37238028_1_white-students-black-students-student-achievement

Hess, F. and McShane, M. Q. (forthcoming). Common core meets education reform: What it all means for politics, policy, and the future of schooling. New York: Teachers College Press.

Malkin, M. (2013, April 10). Rotten to the core: Conservatives spearhead drive at RNC meeting to stop the Common Core” michellemalkin.com.  Available at:  http://michellemalkin.com/2013/04/10/rotten-to-the-core-conservatives-spearhead-drive-at-rnc-meeting-to-stop-common-core/

McShane, M. Q. (2013). The lay of the land. Paper prepared for the Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda Conference, Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute, March. Available at:  http://www.aei.org/papers/education/the-lay-of-the-land/

McShane, M. Q. (2013, July 3). Common Core complications. US News and World Report. Available at: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/economic-intelligence/2013/07/03/five-complications-of-common-core-education-standards

McShane, M. Q. (2013, July 15). 5 Things every parent needs to know about the Common Core. The American. Available at: http://www.american.com/archive/2013/july/5-things-every-parent-needs-to-know-about-the-common-core

Pressman, J. L. and Wildavsky, A. (1984). Implementation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Starr, J. (2013, February 7). Schools need a timeout on standardized tests” The Washington Post. Available at: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-07/opinions/36973006_1_standardized-tests-teacher-evaluation-systems-school-systems

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 01, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17202, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:54:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael McShane
    American Enterprise Institute
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    MICHAEL Q. MCSHANE is a Research Fellow in Education Policy Studies at The American Enterprise Institute.
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