By Sally Absher

Until this year, most people had never heard of “Common Core.” Touted as uniform, higher academic standards in English/Language Arts (ELA) and math across all the states, who could be opposed? Yet Common Core State Standards have recently been at the center of controversy not only in Tennessee, but across the nation.

In order to fully understand Common Core, one must put it in the broader context of Race to the Top (RTTT), and the continuing Education Reform movement that began at least as far back as the late 1960s. This is the first of a five-part series that examines the five components of RTTT, including Common Core standards, national student assessments, performance-based teacher evaluations, a state-wide longitudinal database, and the move to privatize “failing” public schools and increase the number of Charter Schools.

In 2002, President Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law. NCLB promoted standards-based education reform based on the premise that establishing high standards and measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The bill had bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

NCLB required all public schools receiving federal (Title 1) funding to administer a state-wide standardized test annually to all students. NCLB expanded the federal role in public education through annual testing, annual academic progress, report cards, teacher qualifications, and funding changes.

According to NCLB, by 2014 every child was supposed to test on grade level in reading and math. But by 2009, NCLB was increasingly unpopular, and it was clear that the goals would not be met by 2014. States were looking for a way out of NCLB, while still maintaining their Title 1 federal funding.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan introduced RTTT in 2009. RTTT was a $4.35 billion U.S. Department of Education contest created to “spur innovation and reforms in state and local district K-12 education.” It was funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Because RTTT was funded by ARRA, it completely bypassed congressional approval. In the midst of the recession, revenue starved states were enticed to apply by the promise of grant money and NCLB waivers.

RTTT awards were based on how well the application satisfied certain educational policies. These included Common Core standards, common assessments, performance-based evaluations for teachers and principals, building data systems, and lifting caps on charter schools and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

The TN General Assembly voted to apply to RTTT in January 2010, but legislators were not involved in preparing the application nor had they seen the Common Core Standards – in fact, the first draft of Common Core was not prepared until March of 2010, and the final version approved in June 2010. Tennessee received over $500M in RTTT grant money.

Common Core is promoted “to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”  But do the standards actually meet these goals?

The Common Core standards were created by two private trade associations: the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). These associations contracted with Achieve, Inc. to write the standards. They were financed largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pearson Publishing Company, the Walton Family Foundation, and others.

Achieve, Inc. is a bipartisan organization founded in 1996 to raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability. Governor Bill Haslam serves on the board of the NGA, and Achieve Inc.

The standards were largely developed by a committee of five individuals, including David Coleman and Jason Zimba. Few educators were involved until the final stage of the process, when a 30-person validation committee was chosen to review and sign off on the standards for ELA and math. However, not all members of the committee signed off.

Sandra Stotsky, credited with developing the highly acclaimed former standards for the state of Massachusetts (rated number one in the country) refused to sign off on the ELA standards. She said, “Common Core’s ‘college-readiness’ standards for ELA and reading are simply empty skill sets… college-readiness may be at about the grade 7 level.”

Compared with Massachusetts’ standards, Common Core’s English standards reduce by 60% the amount of classic literature, poetry, and drama students will read, placing emphasis on “informational text” instead.

Stanford University’s Dr. James Milgram, the only mathematician on the validation committee, refused to sign off on the final math standards: “The special interest sources were focused on making the math standards as non-challenging as possible… The Core Mathematics Standards are written to reflect very low expectations”

Ze’ev Wurman, who served on the commission that evaluated the suitability of Common Core’s standards for California, said, “Common Core replaces the traditional foundations of Euclidean geometry with an experimental approach. This approach has never been successfully used in any sizable system; in fact, it failed even in the school for gifted and talented students in Moscow, where it was originally invented. Yet Common Core effectively imposes this experimental approach on the entire country, without any piloting.”

Both Dr. Milgram and Ze’ev Wurman conclude that rather than Common Core math standards making U.S. students more competitive, they will move from being one year behind students from the best performing state and international programs, to two or more years behind. Key components of Algebra II and Geometry, essential for higher mathematics courses including Calculus, have been removed from the Common Core standards.

As admitted by one of the creators of Common Core, Dr. Jason Zimba, “Common Core defines ‘college-readiness’ as ready for a non-selective community college, not a four-year university.” Original claims of the standards being “internationally benchmarked” have been removed from promotional material, as no basis for this claim could ever be established. And clearly, Common Core standards were not state-led.

Few people argue the need for high academic standards. The question remains, why not adopt the academic standards from Massachusetts or California, which had highly rated, tested, proven standards? Common Core was imposed on the entire country, without any field testing or piloting. The standards were designed to fail almost from the beginning.

Because the goal was to prepare high school graduates for admission to a non-selective community college, the developers simply worked backwards from what students needed to know in grade 12, to Kindergarten. No early-childhood development or early childhood education experts were involved in the creation of the standards for grades K-3.

When the draft standards were released in March of 2010, a group of over 400 such subject matter experts signed the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative, saying, “We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children now being written by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The draft standards made public in January conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.”

“…We therefore call on the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to suspend their current drafting of standards for children in kindergarten through grade three.”

“We further call for the creation of a consortium of early childhood researchers, developmental psychologists, pediatricians, cognitive scientists, master teachers, and school leaders to develop comprehensive guidelines for effective early care and teaching that recognize the right of every child to a healthy start in life and a developmentally appropriate education.”

However, no changes were made to the standards in response to these concerns. There is over-emphasis on “critical thinking,” and “abstract reasoning” for which the 6 or 7-year-old brain is simply not cognitively developed. With emphasis on math and ELA, there is little room for play and hands-on learning, which is how young children learn best.

Abstract reasoning is emphasized over learning math facts because that is “rote” or “boring,” yet mastery of these facts at an early age builds confidence and higher math skills in later grades. The U.S. does a better job of training our athletes than educating our children. Sure it’s rote, and boring, but baseball pitchers throw thousands of balls, and track stars run thousands of laps. Michael Phelps didn’t become an Olympic medalist by coming to consensus with his teammates.

Research has shown that children who are behind in proficiency by the third grade have a very difficult time catching up. One almost wonders if the intent of the primary grade standards is to “level the playing field” by confusing and frustrating all children, and their parents, equally. We’ve all seen examples of inappropriate Common Core lessons; in fact there is an entire Facebook Page dedicated to this phenomenon.

Instead of simply saying 14 – 8 = 6, a child must explain that 14 – 4 = 10, and 8 + 2 =10, and 4 + 2 = 6 and so 14 – 8 = 6. What? I can guarantee that this is not how they teach math in China!

And they don’t teach math this way in most of our elite private and prep schools, either. The children of Bill and Melinda Gates – Jennifer, Rory and Phoebe – have attended Lakeside School, Seattle’s most elite, private school. President Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, attend Sidwell Friends School in the D.C. area. And one of TN Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s girls attends Harpeth Hall in Nashville, an elite private school. No Common Core at these schools!


Instead of raising the standards and the achievement of all children, Common Core seems destined to further create an education system of “haves” and “have nots.” It continues a four decade trend of deliberately dumbing down our public educational system, and refuses to address the very real and most significant cause of low proficiency among urban kids known as the “achievement gap” – poverty.


In the coming weeks, The Focus will examine how performance based assessments, teacher evaluations, a state-wide data system that allows your child’s data to be shared with anyone without your knowledge or permission, and the move to privatize education are all destroying the very democratic model of public education in America.