How the Common Core Went Wrong

Frederick M. Hess

Fall 2014

Even before the Common Core State Standards initiative was officially unveiled in June 2010, dozens of states had already pledged to adopt the standards. By the end of 2010, 39 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the new education standards for reading and math with little fuss or controversy. The initiative was cheered on by an impressive array of supporters: President Obama, prominent Republicans like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, the heads of national teachers' unions, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable. Supporters billed the Common Core as a state-led, technical, apolitical exercise that would modernize and rationalize American education. In fact, even as most Americans remained unaware that the Common Core existed, Arne Duncan, the Obama administration's secretary of education, declared that "the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education."

Yet in 2014, the picture looks very different. Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have abandoned the Common Core, and legislation to do the same has been introduced across the country. Influential Republican legislators have made repealing the Common Core a top priority in battleground states like North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, and Wisconsin. The Common Core has become a poisonous brand; one recent national poll found that including the phrase "Common Core" reduced support for the idea of common reading and math standards by nearly one-fourth.

Tea Party conservatives and militant, anti-testing union activists have forged an unlikely alliance to oppose the Common Core. Conservative firebrands like Glenn Beck, Phyllis Schlafly, and Michelle Malkin have denounced it as "ObamaCore" and as a leftist plot, while liberal education expert Diane Ravitch and Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis have called it anti-teacher. The standards have even been ridiculed by media personalities like Jon Stewart, Louis C. K., and Stephen Colbert. The critics are on to something, but their frenzied attacks on individual Common Core worksheets and their talk of cabals and conspiracies can obscure the more serious problems with the enterprise.

The trouble with the Common Core is not that it was the handiwork of anti-American ideologues or anti-teacher dogmatists, but that it was the work of well-meaning, self-impressed technocrats who fudged difficult questions, used federal coercion to compel rapid national adoption, and assumed that things would work out. When critics of the Common Core hyperbolically accuse the program's architects of harboring a hidden agenda, they obscure this reality and leave moderate observers inclined to trust the relatively calm, rational, and polished voices of those defending the Common Core. In reality, the disingenuous manner in which the enterprise has been pursued has ensured tepid buy-in. This, coupled with the entirely foreseeable politicization of the issue, has created a mess for America's students.


The call for "higher" standards has been a central tenet of school reform for three decades. In 1983, the blue-ribbon commission report "A Nation at Risk" urged that "schools, colleges, and universities adopt more rigorous and measurable standards." In 1989, President George H. W. Bush hosted a national governors' summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which the governors embraced a series of dramatic goals, including national standards. In 1994, the National Endowment for the Humanities and UCLA drafted voluntary National History Standards. Such efforts were stymied by resistance to extending Washington's reach. (Famously, in 1995 the National History Standards were rejected 99 to 1 by the United States Senate.)

In 1996, the National Governors Association and several prominent CEOs founded Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit devoted to promoting higher state standards. The National Alliance of Business, Business Roundtable, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce all joined the effort to "set tough academic standards that apply to every student in every school." Each of these efforts, however, failed amidst opposition to the expansion of Washington's role in education.

In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act marked a dramatic win for standards-based reform — but at the price of abandoning the push for "national" standards. NCLB required states to adopt standards in reading and math, administer annual tests geared to those standards, use tests to determine which students were proficient, and analyze the outcomes to determine which schools and systems were making "adequate yearly progress" — including the absurd requirement that 100% of students be proficient by 2014. Schools and systems that didn't perform adequately were subject to federally mandated sanctions. The crucial compromise was that states could set their own standards and tests. In fact, NCLB specifically prohibited national testing or a federally controlled curriculum.

What followed was not difficult to anticipate. The possibility of sanctions gave more than a few state leaders reason to adopt easy tests and lower the scores required for proficiency. A "race to the bottom" was soon underway, prompting an effort to combat the gamesmanship.

In December 2008, Achieve, Inc., the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association issued "Benchmarking for Success," a report that urged states to develop and adopt common standards; called for federal incentives to promote that effort; and advocated aligning textbooks, curricula, and tests to those standards. If all states played by the same rules, there would be no race to the bottom. Encouraged by bipartisan interest in the initiative, the CCSSO and NGA launched the Common Core effort.

Like the standards some states have had for decades and all states have had since NCLB, the Common Core is a checklist for what K-12 students should know in English Language Arts and math. The mantra of the Common Core effort was "fewer, clearer, higher" — meaning that the standards would include less minutiae, be more explicit about what students should learn, and set more demanding expectations. The authors of the Common Core took care to spell out the functional skills that students were expected to learn in each grade. For instance, the Common Core ELA standards require that third graders be able to "[r]ead grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings." Eighth graders are expected to "[c]ompare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style." The math standards require first graders to be able to "[o]rganize, represent, and interpret data with up to three categories; ask and answer questions about the total number of data points, how many in each category, and how many more or less are in one category than in another." Students in high-school algebra are expected to "[s]olve simple rational and radical equations in one variable, and give examples showing how extraneous solutions may arise."

Common Core advocates billed the standards as "internationally benchmarked," "evidence-based," "college- and career-ready," and "rigorous." The truth was something less than advertised. The claims were not so much false as grossly overstated. For instance, "internationally benchmarked" actually meant no more than that the committees that wrote the Common Core standards looked at the standards in countries that score well on international tests. Advocates don't even claim that the Common Core mimicked these standards, just that they consulted them. Marina Ratner of the University of California, Berkeley, has argued, "The Common Core fails any comparison with the standards of high-achieving countries."

The "evidence-based" claim implies that decisions about why students must learn this and not that in a given grade are backed by scientific research. In fact, what advocates mean is that the authors of the standards looked at research and surveys asking professors and hiring managers what they thought high-school graduates should know and which courses college-bound students usually take. But the impact of this research is hard to discern. Vanderbilt education professor Lynn Fuchs has put it well, noting there is no "empirical basis" for the Common Core: "We don't know yet whether it makes sense to have this particular set of standards."

When advocates claim the Common Core ensures that students are "college- and career-ready," it is again worth reading the fine print. Achieve, Inc., one of the progenitors of the standards, explains that they are designed to make sure that students can pass "entry-level, credit-bearing postsecondary coursework" in "community college, university, technical/vocational program[s], apprenticeship[s], or significant on-the-job training." This is something less than the recipe for excellence that advocates tend to suggest. And while advocates declare that the Common Core is more rigorous than previous state standards, this is a difficult claim to referee. More often than not, the case rests on the subjective judgment of four evaluators hired by the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2010, who opined that the new standards were better than about three-quarters of existing state standards. Not an unreasonable judgment, but hardly compelling proof of rigor. The standards appeared perfectly passable, but claims about their remarkable virtue were gross exaggerations.

In any event, the standards were not adopted by states after deliberate evaluation or public consideration of their merits. Rather, incentives from the Obama administration encouraged states to hurriedly embrace the Common Core. In 2009, with funding from the nearly $800 billion federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration created a $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" program in which states could compete for federal funding by promising to fulfill certain requirements. As legislated by Congress, the funds that fueled Race to the Top were intended to help states "enhance the quality of [their] academic assessments" and "take steps to improve [their] academic content standards." In the hands of the Obama Department of Education, that became a requirement that states competing for Race to the Top dollars pledge to adopt "college- and career-ready" standards. The Education Department made it clear that the surest way to meet that requirement was to adopt the Common Core and to promise to use one of the federally funded, Common Core-aligned tests.

The Obama administration went on to propose pressing states to use the Common Core in its blueprint for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and to do so when it decided to issue waivers from NCLB's fast-approaching (if ludicrous) 100% proficiency requirement. By the end of 2010, 39 states had adopted the Common Core, and by the end of 2011, 44 states had. Advocates cheered the administration's push for the Common Core, insisting there was no time to worry about the niceties of federalism. As school-reform firebrand Michelle Rhee put it, "I've heard some recent rumblings from folks who say we don't like it when the federal government is telling us what to do....You know what you should not like? The fact that China is kicking our butts right now."

Despite this track record, the administration and its allies dismissed fears of federal encroachment as unfounded. Speaking about the standards, Education Secretary Duncan told the American Society of News Editors in 2013, "The federal government didn't write them, didn't approve them and doesn't mandate them. And we never will. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading." Advocates have echoed the administration line, lamenting that critics have "politicized" an apolitical enterprise. This complaint would be more convincing if Democrats hadn't already eagerly taken credit for the standards, with the 2012 Democratic National Platform applauding Obama for the widespread adoption of the Common Core and the president crediting himself in his 2011 and 2013 State of the Union remarks for the same thing. The studied disingenuousness of devotees would fuel backlash among skeptics who saw steady federal encroachment and believed the Common Core was sold under false pretenses.

The ambiguities surrounding the Common Core helped the standards gain momentum, and the resulting hurried adoption left little time to sort things out. No one quite understood what Common Core was or what its impact would be, allowing it to be all things to all people. This meant supporters could credit it with diverse and sometimes contradictory virtues. For instance, proponents of "21st-century skills" were pleased that the Common Core valued having students explain their math work even when they couldn't determine the right answer, while others lauded the standards' heightened focus on arithmetic. Union leaders hailed the Common Core as a welcome opportunity for teachers nationwide to throw off the "stifling" strictures of old state standards and focus on more "authentic" learning, while reformers cheered the promise of more difficult tests that would push teachers to ensure student mastery of tested skills.

Despite the Common Core's rapid, widespread adoption, it received surprisingly little attention in the mainstream media. A LexisNexis search shows that, between 2009 and 2011, as more than 40 states with more than 40 million students signed on, all American news outlets combined featured fewer than 4,500 mentions of the Common Core. In 2011 alone, by comparison, school vouchers — which affected fewer than 200,000 students — received more than 5,500 mentions. That media silence was due in large part to a calculated strategy among Common Core supporters: Advocates took pains to stay under the radar, avoid public debate, tightly coordinate their messaging, ridicule skeptics rather than respond to them, and ride the wave of support provided by the Obama administration in those years.

The ease of the Common Core's early success was at once astonishing and unsurprising. It was astonishing because previous efforts to promote national educational standards had ended terribly, and after those experiences, any talk of national standards was generally dismissed as a pipe dream. But it was also unsurprising because the Common Core standards didn't seem to offer much cause for opposition. The standards were simply a list of recommendations for what K-12 students should learn in reading and math. Earlier setbacks had taught proponents to stay away from history or social studies, to avoid identifying which books or authors students should read, and to cling to the safe ground of "skill-based" standards. Amidst a housing crash, a bitter recession, and ferocious fights over health care and the proper size of government, quiet changes to reading and math standards were easy to overlook.

But the wins produced by a stealth strategy that bypassed a distracted public turned out to be unsustainable. Once the public started to pay attention, and the advocates' carefully crafted talking points were exposed to the harsh reality of implementation, support for the Common Core began to unravel.


Straight-talking advocates have long conceded that new standards do not necessarily mean that anything will change. In 2010, Chester Finn, Jr., and Mike Petrilli, then-president and vice president, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and ardent champions of the Common Core, conceded that "[s]tandards often end up like wallpaper. They sit there on a state website, available for download, but mostly they're ignored." It is useful to regard standards as one regards a corporate mission statement. That mission statement almost inevitably touts, say, a commitment to providing strategic solutions and being a great place to work. Those pleasing words, however, may bear little resemblance to reality.

The real power of standards lies in their ability to change what is tested, and thus to change how curricula and textbooks are written, how teachers teach, and how students learn. As Finn and Petrilli put it, the standards are ignored, and "[e]ducators instead obsess about what's on the high-stakes test." This is why advocates are so impassioned and why critics are justified in fretting about the implications of the Common Core. When coupled with tests, accountability systems, and teacher evaluation, the Common Core becomes the invisible but omnipresent foundation of American education.

In truth, common standards and tests have a lot to recommend them. They can make it much easier to compare the performance of schools, students, and educators (at least in tested subjects). They make it much easier to compare the effects of different instructional interventions or training approaches. They allow the people who create learning materials and provide professional training to design with a consistent standard in mind. Common standards make it much easier for teacher-preparation providers, charter schools, and digital providers like the Khan Academy or Florida Virtual School to operate in multiple states and compete on quality without having to accommodate the quirks that characterize 50 sets of standards. They also make things easier for families that move across state lines by ensuring that students receive more consistent instruction nationwide.

Standardized measures have been used outside of education with great success. For example, it's not necessarily "better" to require all plumbing systems to use pipes that measure 5/8 inches rather than 9/16 inches. But having standardized gauges and sizes means that all pipe makers will supply uniform pipes and that all plumbers will have the tools they need to repair them. Common standards for computer code, railroad gauges, and cell-phone signals have benefited those industries, which helps explain why Bill Gates and other business leaders with technology backgrounds have been especially supportive of the Common Core.

The benefits of common standards, however, depend mightily on the "how" of implementation. Unfortunately, the hurried campaign to make the Common Core a quasi-national enterprise has undermined the venture's promise in profound and debilitating ways.

First, the Common Core is neither necessary nor sufficient for fixing the problem it was designed to solve. The critical rationale for the Common Core was concern that states had gamed and manipulated testing under NCLB. But a more modest solution was already available. Every state has long participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students in reading and math (and sometimes in other subjects) in grades four, eight, and twelve under carefully controlled conditions and provides a rock-solid means for comparing performance. In fact, NAEP results were already being used to flag states that appeared to be gaming their NCLB tests. Common Core advocates, however, thought that relying on NAEP was an unsatisfactory, makeshift solution. Instead, they embraced the Common Core standards.

Solving the "race to the bottom" problem would have required the Common Core tests to replicate NAEP's careful protocols. However, perhaps recognizing that states might not have signed on if they were subject to transparent coercion, Common Core advocates were remarkably laid back about what states would actually be required to do when it came to policing test conditions, accepting mandatory passing scores, or establishing strong oversight boards. Thus, advocates failed to build in controls to prevent states from manipulating outcomes. States can administer the Common Core-aligned tests much later in the school year than is recommended (thus inflating measures of student learning), ignore guidelines on testing conditions, and set their own proficiency scores. The only "safeguard" against any of this is state officials' inclination to do the right thing — which is precisely what it was before the Common Core. Meanwhile, many Common Core states have decided not to use the program's new tests at all; as a result, barely 40% of students are currently slated to be tested with one of the two new Common Core tests, and at least 19 different tests will be used nationwide next spring. Given the critical role of the tests for maintaining standards, this undermines the purpose of the Common Core — and in a fashion that seems unlikely to lead to purposeful experimentation or rethinking. Within a few years, testing may be only slightly less fragmented than before the Common Core, and many established tests will have been jettisoned for slapped-together replacements.

Second, the standards are set to be implemented quite poorly in many states and thousands of school districts. The decision to quietly but swiftly convince dozens of states to adopt the Common Core ensured that many did so but with little commitment. As a result, many Common Core states just aren't that into the Common Core. This virtually ensures lackluster implementation in most states, especially given the rushed, impractical timeline dictated by the spending requirements in federal law and the arbitrary wishes of the Obama administration. States committed to implementing new tests, technology, and materials at a pace that made little practical sense. For instance, the new tests were supposed to be computer-administered, but no state is on track to have sufficient technology in place by 2015 to test all students that way. This means that some students will be tested with paper tests while others will use a medley of technological devices. Whether these results will prove comparable is a question that test developers could not begin to answer in the summer of 2014 — even after pilot testing and with the tests set for a full-scale launch in early 2015.

Third, the Common Core push has done all sorts of damage to other priorities of the broad coalition for school reform. The Obama administration's insistence that the new tests be used to evaluate teachers and schools in 2015 means that new tests of uncertain quality will form the backbone of brand-new evaluation systems that will dictate high-stakes decisions about teachers' job security. An added gem is that Common Core advocates excitedly announced that the new tests will be harder to pass, giving even open-minded teachers reason to fear that the combination of new tests, stricter scoring, and new high-stakes evaluations was designed to put them in the crosshairs. It's hard to envision a strategy more likely to sabotage support for both the tests and teacher evaluation. Along the way, the Common Core has driven a wedge between education-reform allies. In recent years, left-leaning groups like Democrats for Education Reform worked closely with Republican governors on issues like charter schooling, teacher evaluation, digital learning, and much else. Such partnerships are increasingly unlikely as anti-Common Core sentiment pulls Republican officials toward their base and away from compromise on education.

Fourth, it looks like the Common Core is a back-door way for the federal government to exert tremendous influence over education. NCLB prohibits federal departments or agencies from mandating, directing, or controlling "a State, local educational agency, or school's specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction." But that law proved to be a frail safeguard. Secretary Duncan funded new testing consortia in the hope, he said, that their tests would drive instruction and that they would work on "developing curriculum frameworks" and "instructional modules." Coupled with the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, its disregard for the constraints negotiated into NCLB, its expansive and troubling use of NCLB waivers, its aggressive efforts to dictate school discipline and to attack state-based voucher programs, and much else, there is cause to question how much restraint federal officials will show going forward. For instance, advocates have not created a strategy to update the standards or vet materials, prompting quiet conversations among Common Core proponents (including those at the Department of Education) about whether it wouldn't just make sense for the Department to fill the vacuum. At this point, the Common Core looks to be a standing invitation to further federal involvement in schooling.


The ambiguity that suffuses the Common Core was not an accident: The enterprise's early success was fueled by the conviction that it was simultaneously a technical, apolitical exercise not requiring public scrutiny and that it was the engine that would transform American schooling. Because the Common Core had no practical import at first and because it received little media scrutiny, advocates were able to peddle both claims successfully.

But the ambiguity that advocates once skillfully exploited has become their burden, and it helps explain why the backlash has been so vociferous. Uncertainty about what the Common Core will actually do in the classroom makes it possible for even disinterested observers to fear the worst when confronted with silly worksheets, lessons, or sample test questions. It is difficult for boosters to prove that incomprehensible "new math" problems are anomalies or that a skills-based focus in English won't lead to less literature. Critics have raised many objections, some of which are extreme and unfounded. The Common Core is not a federal takeover of education, but, as noted above, that concern is far from baseless. Other concerns are similarly borne of ambiguity and disingenuousness: What critics rightly intuit is that the Common Core very well could have profound, pernicious effects on classrooms in several ways.

First, Common Core advocates have been battered with bad press over poorly designed class assignments. Advocates say it's misguided to blame Common Core for dumb math lessons or worksheets because the Common Core is simply a set of standards and not a curriculum. Reports of ridiculous worksheets or infuriating homework assignments may well be unfortunate instances of teachers getting it wrong, but if an organization adopts an otherwise wonderful mission statement that lots of employees proceed to interpret "incorrectly," it is not unreasonable to raise questions about the whole exercise. In point of fact, the Common Core is very much a blank canvas, and given the faddish pedagogies endemic to American education, critics are hardly being unreasonable when they worry that the Common Core may invite new-age goofiness into the classroom. Some advocates (like College Board president David Coleman) insist the Common Core is about arithmetic, phonics, and a content-rich curriculum, but plenty of others claim that the Common Core is really about faddish notions like "21st-century skills." The decision to streamline and modernize standards in the name of "fewer" meant stripping out requirements that just may have helped keep some of the sillier trends in check. It hardly seems misguided to question whether the champions of rigor are likely to beat back the forces of faddism.

Second, and on a related note, advocates are fond of ridiculing critics for failing to heed the supposedly crisp distinction between curriculum and standards. Yet this delineation appears more a matter of convenience than conviction. For one thing, it seems at odds with other pro-Common Core talking points, like the governor of Delaware's Washington Post op-ed crediting the Common Core with enabling wonderful classroom lessons. Common Core advocates routinely insist they have no desire to dictate curriculum or how teachers teach and then, in the same breath, go on to explain that the standards will help drive instruction. In any event, the distinction would be more compelling if many of those making it had not signed onto a manifesto from the Albert Shanker Institute, released in March 2011 and signed by more than 100 enthusiasts, calling for "common curriculum content" to "give shape and substance" to the Common Core. Similarly, some advocates tout the central role accorded to "close reading," a practice in which students are taught to set aside historical context and personal feelings in order to analyze a passage. Whatever its merits, it's misleading to suggest that close reading isn't an instructional technique and that it doesn't shape curriculum.

Third, critics have raised concerns that the Common Core's focus on close reading and skill-building threatens the teaching of American history, but advocates wave off these concerns. They point out that the standards encourage students to read historical documents like the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. This disclaimer would be more compelling, however, if the Boston Public Schools had not announced this spring that, as part of its Common Core implementation, it was folding its history and social-science departments into a larger "humanities and literacy" department led by an ELA-focused director. Other school districts are contemplating similar steps. The Common Core doesn't require or recommend radically changing or eliminating traditional history departments, but that doesn't mean that we should dismiss these concerns as baseless.

Fourth, some critics have raised concerns about the future of literature in education and worry that it is being displaced in favor of more technical texts. Indeed, the Common Core stipulates that student reading should be 50% literature and 50% "informational texts" in elementary school and that the ratio should be 30-70 by high school. Advocates promise that the Common Core poses no threat to literature, though; they explain that these ratios mean students should be reading more informational works in science and history, and they will still get plenty of literature in English classes. Perhaps they are right, but at the moment that amounts to little more than hopeful speculation.

Meanwhile, the Common Core jettisons the list of literary works that many state standards had historically embraced and favors "selections" over whole books. Some elementary-school teachers have complained that close reading takes a prohibitively long time and smothers student interest in the actual story. Most practically, given that high-stakes tests will emphasize close reading, it's a safe bet that English teachers will feel pressed to spend plenty of time teaching this particular skill rather than focusing on a more traditional approach to teaching literature. It seems far too early to dismiss the possible threat to literature instruction.

Much of the criticism of the Common Core is a product of the same ambiguity that facilitated its early success. "Misinformed" concerns frequently contain more than a dollop of substance, often concerning issues that were never seriously addressed back when the standards were quietly and hurriedly adopted. Advocates have generally greeted even careful, research-based critiques by the likes of Boston's Pioneer Institute with the same disdain they show the fulminations of radio talk-show hosts. But the critics, including some of those talk-show hosts, often come closer to intuiting the messy reality of the Common Core than do the self-confident technocrats who blandly promise that everything will be fine. And as the examples above show, that messy reality could have big implications for the kind of education that our children receive.


The Common Core is not inherently a bad or malicious idea. Pursued on a practical (rather than political) timeline, with appreciation for worrisome ambiguity and the spirit of our federal system, it could have been a worthwhile endeavor. Though such an experimental approach would have rankled the intrepid social engineers in the school-reform brigade, the Common Core's viability could have been tested by the dozen or more states eager to voluntarily leap on board in early 2009. Those states could have adopted the Common Core on their own timeline, designed a common test, and waited to see how textbook companies, teacher-training programs, and curriculum writers responded. If it had delivered promising results, more states would have wanted to join, and they would have had the kind of enthusiasm and commitment required for a sustainable effort. Previous attempts to implement common standards indicate that such an effort could have gained real traction: Back in 2005, before the Common Core effort began, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont developed common academic standards and tests for grades three through eight and high school that showed real promise. Instead, Common Core advocates rushed to push near-universal adoption of their new paper exercise.

The Common Core's flaws are due less to ideological agendas than to hubris and a lack of intestinal fortitude among proponents. Advocates believed that their handiwork was good and right, but they didn't trust the public's judgment or their own ability to sway potential skeptics. So they opted for a stealth adoption, powerfully abetted by the federal government, with whispered reassurances that their ambitious effort really was just technocratic tinkering and wasn't that significant after all. But it turns out, of course, that the implications are much bigger and less certain than initially advertised.

That said, a more modest, more promising version of the Common Core experiment is not necessarily out of reach. There are several measures that could help limit these problems, potentially enabling the Common Core to regain some of its early allure and move forward. This is an agenda steeped in skepticism, but it just might offer Common Core proponents the best chance to get their enterprise back on track.

First, states should actually take the lead on the Common Core. While advocates insist that the Common Core was "state-led," it's fairer to say it was conceived by inside-the-Beltway nonprofits, foisted upon the states by federal bribes, and kept in place by federal coercion. The Obama administration's decision to take a leading role was a grievous mistake, not only because it likely violated federal law but also because it severely compromised the practical implementation.

Giving the reins back to the states would take some doing. Advocates would need to acknowledge and denounce the Obama administration's efforts to coerce states into adopting the Common Core. They would also need to pledge to oppose future federal intrusions. These two statements alone would constitute a powerful marker that could help restrain future officials, but federal legislators would also need to strengthen the firewalls around curriculum and instruction by adding language that explicitly prohibits federal involvement in setting state standards. Legislation to this effect has already been drafted and is championed in the Senate by, among others, former secretary of education Lamar Alexander. In addition, the Department of Education would need to scrub from its NCLB waiver process any hint that states must keep the Common Core or Common Core-aligned tests. These steps would clear the air and start to free state-level decision-makers from federal intimidation and coercion. Common Core advocates who are serious about ensuring that the initiative is a "state-led" effort consistent with federalism ought to welcome this opportunity to set matters straight.

Second, states and Common Core advocates should start treating their handiwork with the seriousness that it warrants. In an effort to coerce states into signing on to the national standards, proponents of the Common Core have sacrificed its truly "common" character. Worried about keeping states in the fold, advocates have encouraged states to rebrand the standards to hide the link to the Common Core (Florida's standards, for instance, have been renamed "the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards") or to tweak the standards to fit their needs. And as noted above, different states have adopted different testing methods. Common Core advocates have been inattentive to designing mechanisms that would ensure that the Common Core standards are professionally governed and that the test results are valid, reliable, and comparable across states.

The disjointed and unserious execution of the Common Core, dictated by political expediency and the desire to keep lots of states nominally on board, undermines whatever virtue the exercise might possess. Thus, a dramatic downsizing would be good for the Common Core. A push for a meaningful common measure of educational quality should start with a small number of deeply committed states that choose the rigors of true commonality. Proponents of the Common Core should put aside nationwide implementation and instead establish an independent governance board that has the authority to update the standards, determine acceptable tests, set passing scores, and spell out technology requirements and acceptable testing conditions. States should opt in only if they're willing to embrace those arrangements, without federal inducement or coercion. It's likely that one or two dozen states would want in, and many others would head for the exits. This kind of shift would give the Common Core a fresh start with a coalition of the truly willing. Encouraging lukewarm states to exit should be a win-win, as it would allow committed states to move forward seriously and uncompromisingly. Such a tack could take us back toward the experiment that ought to have been launched in 2009.

Third, state leaders ought to take pains to make the entire enterprise vastly more transparent and understandable. There have been quite enough circus-like hearings where critics offer up ludicrous claims and defenders mouth trite talking points. What is needed is for governors, legislators, and state school-board members to push for answers to hard, practical questions. They should ask for evidence that the tests will reflect the "rigorous" vision of the Common Core and not the faddish version. They should demand evidence that the test results will not be subject to manipulation. They should ask to be convinced that the new math standards will not open the door to goofy "new math." They should ask for evidence that schools are not compromising the amount or quality of history or science instruction. They should demand evidence that the centrality of "close reading" and "conceptual math" won't punish charter schools that emphasize other approaches, putting their test scores — and continued existence — at risk. This kind of scrutiny can ensure that states are equipped to make informed decisions regarding the Common Core and that, should they opt to continue, they do so with more awareness of the practical reality and potential pitfalls.


Critics have tagged the Common Core with the pejorative "ObamaCore." The gibe is more instructive than many realize. The Affordable Care Act and the Common Core both involve ambitious efforts to change whole swaths of American life, though the practical impact of each was intentionally shrouded in uncertainty. Both would have benefited from more scrutiny early on but are now increasingly entrenched. In health care, critics have found it a losing strategy to talk about simply repealing the ACA without talking about what should replace it. They need to offer plausible alternatives to have a shot at policy or political success. Meanwhile, the ACA has started to change American medicine. The same is true of the Common Core. Five years on, it has started to change instruction, textbooks, and curriculum.

What ultimately matters is not whether states stay signed on to the empty words of the Common Core standards, but whether those standards are used to engineer the deep, sustained change that advocates seek. On that count, advocates look to be in good shape in perhaps a dozen states. In the rest, they face a long slog as they seek to defend the standards, adopt new texts, upgrade technology, change instruction and teacher preparation, ensure tests are valid and reliable, reassure teachers, and deal with manifold "implementation problems," even as they make do with declining (and steadily more partisan) support.

By taking a promising idea and making a hash of things, advocates of the Common Core paid homage to a long tradition in American education. What could and should have happened in 2009 just might still be possible. It would offer the surest way out of what otherwise looks to be a bruising war of attrition that will complicate school improvement for years to come.

Although that original vision still offers a potential path forward, the odds of the necessary course correction actually taking place seem slight. Indeed, self-confident Common Core advocates have not been inclined to acknowledge missteps or problems and are instead more disposed to double down on clumsy political machinations, attempts to impugn skeptics, and an insistence that everything is working out just as they intended. At this point, however reasonable the rationale for the Common Core, it seems increasingly clear that American education would be better off if this unfortunate, quasi-national enterprise had never made it off the drawing board.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include Common Core Meets Education Reform.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.