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In the Nation's Interest

Where Do the Presidential Candidates Stand on the Common Core? Distinguishing K-12 Educational Standards, Curriculum, and Testing

As we head into the 2016 presidential election, the Common Core State Standards are becoming increasingly politicized as (some) candidates maneuver to get a leg up on their competitors.  Meanwhile, it has been five years since the educational standards were released, and the general public’s acceptance of the Common Core is higher than you might think – and may even be growing.

First, here’s a cheat sheet on select candidates’ views on the Common Core.  In the interests of space(!), I’m going to limit my list to those who have ranked relatively highly in recent polls.

Jeb Bush (R): “Common Core means a lot of things to different people, so they could be right based on what’s in front of them. I respect people having a view, but the simple fact is we need higher standards. They need to be state-driven. The federal government should play no role in this, either in the creation of standards, content, or curriculum.”  5/12/15

Hillary Clinton (D): “When I think about the really unfortunate argument that’s been going on around Common Core, it’s very painful, because the Common Core started off as a bi-partisan effort — it was actually nonpartisan. It wasn’t politicized; it was to try to come up with a core of learning that we might expect students to achieve across our country, no matter what kind of school district they were in, no matter how poor their family was, that there wouldn’t be two tiers of education. Everybody would be looking at what was to be learned and doing their best to try to achieve that.” April 2015

Mike Huckabee (R): "We must kill Common Core and restore common sense." campaign website

Rand Paul (R): "I believe we must abolish Common Core and give control back to the states, localities and parents… Our children should not be constricted to a one-size-fits-all format, as implemented by Common Core." campaign website

Marco Rubio (R): “Those standards will eventually be used to force on states policies the federal government wants.” And “I believe in having a 21st century curriculum, but I believe it should be done at the local and state level. And if you create some sort of national standard, even as a suggestion, it will turn into a mandate the federal government will force on our students and our local school boards and you’re going to end up with a national school board.” 4/17/15

Scott Walker (R): “Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core. Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.” 6/9/15

And where do the American people stand in all this?  Well, a recent poll from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that Americans were evenly split in their support (40%) or opposition (39%) to the Common Core standards.  However, when they were given additional context about what the Common Core actually was [1], support climbed, and a majority – albeit a narrow one (50%) – supported the standards.  And in surveys that describe the Common Core without using the name “Common Core,” public support has been even higher.

In the Friedman poll, opposition to the Common Core was slightly stronger among parents of school children (47% opposed) than among the overall sample (40% opposed).  But interestingly, there seems to be a slight increase in support, at least among school parents, from 44% favoring the standards in 2014 to 47% favoring them in 2015.  Is it possible that for those with children in schools, increased exposure to the standards is leading to increased support?

Source: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Many misconceptions and misinformation surround the Common Core.  CED has written about the Common Core and even produced videos and an app about them.  Those are good places to start learning about the Common Core, and I also thought I’d provide a brief primer on the differences between (and relationships among) standards, curriculum, and testing, since the three things seem to have become  conflated and confused in much of the campaign rhetoric.

First, standards.  Standards are written frameworks that describe in a fairly detailed way the minimum level of knowledge and skills that students at different grade levels should master [2].   Under the US federalist system, education is primarily a state and local rather than a federal responsibility.  Thus, unlike many of our global competitors, the US does not have national education standards, nor do we have a national curriculum.  In the US, the responsibility for developing education standards falls to the states, although local districts often supplement and expand upon the state standards.

So if we don’t have national education standards, what does the “common” in the Common Core refer to?  It refers to a set of shared standards that states have voluntarily adopted.  There’s a lot of sense in states having common K12 standards.  For example, it’s easier to have a national text book market (and the larger amounts of research and development funding that implies) if most states are teaching similar material at similar grade levels.  Second, in a highly mobile society, it helps if the same content is being taught at the same grade level in most states.  Otherwise a child moving between states risks repeating the same material twice… or worse, missing some topics entirely, just because California teaches that material in 3rd grade and New York teaches it in 2nd.

Although education standards are related to curriculum and state-level testing (and often confused with them in the current political debate!), they are not the same thing.  Curriculum refers to what is taught (the very specific topics) and how (e.g., via written text, activities, online material). 

Tests barely seem to require definition, because we all are familiar with them.  Yet, tests vary widely in their purposes: from helping a teacher know what a new student already knows and can do (often called formative tests); to providing ongoing feedback to a teacher and student regarding the student’s understanding of material covered in the last day or week; to assessing how well a student has mastered a larger body of knowledge (often called summative tests).  A single test cannot serve all purposes, so good tests are designed to serve their intended use, whether providing ongoing midcourse feedback to teachers and students or supporting broader-scale accountability and reporting.  In all cases, however, tests are most valuable when they are aligned to the curriculum and standards that are in place.  If an education system is working well, its standards will shape the curricula that are being used to meet those standards (although there will likely be a variety of curricula in use).  And the various tests in use will be aligned to either the particular curriculum in place (for mid-term assessments) or to the standards (for summative assessments).  All three components – standards, curriculum, and testing – play necessary but different roles in a well-functioning system.

By way of an analogy to business, education standards are like performance goals for an individual or organization: they represent what the individual or organization seeks to achieve over some defined time period.  Within organizations, management typically sets these goals, often with significant input from the employee.  Curriculum corresponds to the particular strategies, tactics, and means that the individual employs during the year to reach his or her performance goals.  Just as one can imagine multiple alternative paths for achieving the same ultimate goal, a variety of different curricula can be used in support of the same standards.

Finally, testing corresponds to the performance measures that management or a supervisor uses at the end of the period to assess the extent to which an individual has reached his or her goals.  In the absence of meaningful performance measures, performance goals tend to end up being merely aspirational… and largely ignored to the extent that they are difficult.  It is hard to imagine astute management or supervisors creating performance goals without associated performance measures.  But by the same token, wise management and supervisors allow experienced staff and employees significant leeway in how to achieve the agreed-upon goals.

Now believe me, having just written my own mid-year “self assessment” for my supervisor, I understand that the annual performance review process is not something that most people look forward to!  But the reality is that it’s important for both employees and schools to receive regular (and hopefully accurate) feedback in some fashion about how well they’re doing, so that they can make mid-course adjustments as necessary.

Through the early 2000s, K12 education standards in the US resembled a set of not very rigorous performance goals (in some states), that had an even less rigorous set of performance measures associated with them.  States developed their own education standards as well as the state tests aligned with those standards.  Starting with the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2001, states were required to test students in English language arts and math annually in grades 3-8 and once during their high school years using tests aligned to the state standards [3].  Schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” towards the goal of having 100% of students proficient on the tests by 2014 faced sanctions.  Given this set of incentives, many states chose non-rigorous standards, non-rigorous state tests, or both [4].

Many leaders in states, education, and business recognized that this  “race to the bottom” was hurting the US in the long run, given that increasing technological change and global competition meant that higher levels of skill and education – not lower ones – are required of our future workers.  In 2009 a coalition of groups led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched an effort to develop a set of rigorous standards for K12 mathematics and English language arts that states could voluntarily adopt and that would be aligned with the knowledge and skills needed for college and work.  These standards became known as the Common Core State Standards.  Ultimately, 45 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core (although 3 states subsequently rescinded their adoption).

CED’s advocacy of college- and career-ready standards grew out of our members’ concern with the skills gap and inadequate high school completion rates, especially among disadvantaged students.  More worrisome still, even among those students who completed high school and entered postsecondary education or training, more than half require remedial coursework, indicating a widespread problem in our K12 education system.  Similarly, as noted earlier, employers regularly report a gap between the skills they need and the skills they find in high school (as well as college) graduates.  These facts suggest a lack of alignment between what was being taught in K12 schools and the competencies and knowledge needed to succeed in the workplace and postsecondary education and training. In our global knowledge economy, this is more important than ever.

So we say to the presidential candidates: don’t demonize the Common Core.  Do not spread misinformation about the standards.  There is plenty out there already.  Invest the time to thoroughly understand what the standards are and are not and the components of an effective education system.  If for whatever reason you do not support the Common Core standards as written, then support states in adopting K12 standards that are at least as rigorous as the Common Core, if not more so.  Our students, our future prosperity, and our nation require no less.


[1] The baseline question was, “Based on what you know, or have heard from others… In general, do you favor or oppose the “Common Core State Standards” in K12 education?”  The question that included “context” was: “The objective of the Common Core State Standards initiative is to establish similar academic standards and comparable tests across all states for students in grades K-12. The standards were initially developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  States and districts have adopted the common standards and tests in association with U.S. Department of Education incentives.  In general, do you favor or oppose the ‘Common Core’?”

[2] Typically a state’s K12 standards can be found on the state’s department of education website.  As an example, Virginia has “Standards of Learning” governing 12 subjects for its K12 schools.  Within those standards, Virginia’s standards for English language arts, just one of the 12 subjects, run 45 pages long.  We have included links to these state website pages in our Business4Readiness mobile app.

[3] States also had to test high school students once before graduation in English language arts and mathematics.  Students had to be tested in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school, for a total of three times.

[4] We know this because we can compare the percentage of students deemed “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in reading or math to the percentage of students deemed proficient in these areas on the state test.  In some states, for example, as many as 86% of 4th graders were deemed proficient in reading on the state test, compared to only 28% who scored “proficient” on the NAEP.  NAEP is a nationally representative assessment of what US students know and can do at various grade levels.  Thus it serves as a useful way to compare how rigorous various state tests are.