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The Common Core, explained

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The Common Core standards are a major change to how American education policy works, part of an era of ambitious reform ushered in by the Obama administration. They're also a big political story — but not always for the same reasons.

The Common Core is a major change to math and language arts education

The Common Core is a set of academic standards, expectations for what students should know and be able to do at every grade level in language arts and math. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia use the standards, meaning that students are tested at the end of the year based on those expectations.

The Common Core represents a major shift in education policy. It's the first time that students are expected to learn the same things at the same grade level, no matter where they live — a big deal in a K-12 education system that historically has been controlled at the state and local level. National education standards make it easier to compare test scores and results from state to state, and reformers hope that they'll help American education catch up in comparison to the rest of the world.

The standards have also become a political controversy. Republicans argue that when the Obama administration pushed states to sign on to Common Core, the federal government was overreaching into a state and local responsibility. Meanwhile, parents are angry about the continued importance of standardized testing and about the seemingly incomprehensible math problems that some teachers are using in Common Core–linked lessons.

The result has been that Common Core has ended up entangled with just about every major debate in education. One reason the Common Core has led to strange political bedfellows — teachers unions and Tea Partiers both oppose some aspects of the standards, if not the entire project — is that people are often arguing about different things. Whether you think kids take too many standardized tests is often a separate issue from whether the federal government should encourage states to adopt the same academic standards. But the Common Core has wrapped those debates into one.

The Common Core is trying to make US education more like the rest of the world

The Common Core is part of a much bigger project to try to improve American education, which some tests suggest is lagging behind the rest of the world.

Students in the US have consistently scored as about average, or even worse, on international tests. In the Programme for International Student Assessment, a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in 2008, the US ranked 27th out of 34 developed countries in math, well below average; American 15-year-olds were 17th in reading and 14th in science, about average. Some economists argue that the poor showing isn't just embarrassing, it's economically dangerous, because the US will need a better-educated population in order to compete globally.

In many countries that perform better than the US, the education system is much more standardized. Students are held to the same academic standards. Often, they also follow the same curriculum and take a single, standardized exam. American education reformers have argued that national standards would make education in the US more coherent and would stop states from setting a low bar in order to make their own students look better.

National standards alone aren't a guarantee of educational success. Most other countries have them, including nations that don't outshine the US on international tests. And adopting national standards goes against a long tradition of local control in American schools.

American K-12 education isn't really one system, but 50 different systems in different states. Only about 12 percent of all money spent on education comes from the federal government, and state and local officials make the bulk of the decisions about what students should learn. Requiring all states to use the same academic standards used to be seen as a political nonstarter. A majority of Americans support local officials determining what is taught in schools.

At first, it seemed like the Common Core might have gotten around this concern by having state officials, not the federal government, create the standards. The standards were created by a group of states working together, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, both groups of state officials. At the peak of the standards' popularity, 47 states signed on.

But the Obama administration strongly encouraged states to adopt Common Core. As states signed on to the standards, a conservative backlash was brewing that would become just one facet of a big political fight over the standards' future.

The Common Core controversy is about way more than just Common Core

The Common Core debate has become a proxy for bigger issues, such as a long-running debate about the proper federal role in education and more recent arguments about how important standardized tests should be in schools.

The Common Core, on its own, is a significant shift in education policy. But it's proven a potent political issue because it touches on almost every hot-button topic in education. Some people oppose the Common Core for reasons that have nothing to do with what's actually in the standards — telling pollsters that they think the Common Core requires teaching about global warming or human sexuality.

More parents of public school students view the Common Core negatively than positively, according to Gallup, and the standards' opponents are an unusually politically diverse group. The standards are opposed by many parents, by conservative Republicans, and by members of teachers unions and other groups on the left who are concerned about standardized testing.

Some concerns about the Common Core, particularly on the right, are about whether the federal government went too far in pushing states to adopt the standards. Other concerns are about the content of the standards, such as whether they ask too much of young children, or whether the math standards are tough enough to prepare students for more advanced math.

But much of the opposition is about trends that are bigger than the Common Core itself. Education standards only are only effective if students are tested to see whether they're living up to those expectations. So the Common Core has drawn opposition from parents who feel that standardized testing is overly emphasized in schools.

Teachers are increasingly being evaluated based on their students' standardized test scores, and because scores on Common Core tests are going to be lower, some teachers' groups have become skeptical of the new standards as well.

The Obama administration pushed states to adopt Common Core

One common conservative criticism of the Common Core is that the federal government forced states to adopt the standards. While states weren't explicitly required to use the Common Core, the Obama administration did everything it could to push states to sign on.

The Education Department's $4 billion Race to the Top competition was a major incentive for states to adopt the Common Core. The administration also waived some penalties of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that required students in all states to be able to read and do math proficiently by 2014, for states that could prove they had "college- and career-ready standards."

States weren't required to adopt the Common Core, and some states, such as Texas, managed to get No Child Left Behind waivers even without adopting the standards. But the federal government did offer big incentives for states who wanted the opportunity to compete for federal money. They also gave grants to groups writing standardized testsbased on the Common Core.

Still, the federal government hasn't generally punished states that have changed their minds and abandoned the Common Core. States are still free to choose whatever standards they want.

But although the Common Core was designed by state officials and nonprofit groups, not the federal government, its rapid spread and near-universal adoption really does owe a lot to the Obama administration. Other attempts to create national standards in other subjects, such as the Next Generation Science Standards, haven't proven nearly as popular without the federal incentives for states to sign on.

The Common Core requires students to read more nonfiction

States have developed their own standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level since the 1990s. The Common Core replaces those state-developed standards with a new, often more challenging set of expectations for students in math and language arts.

In language arts, the Common Core shifts the focus away from fiction and personal essays and toward critical analysis.

Students are expected to read more nonfiction than in the past — by 12th grade, the majority of what they read should be nonfiction — and their writing assignments focus less on personal narratives. They might be expected to do a "close reading" of a poem, going through it line by line without any background information to figure out what the author is trying to say.

At first, the changes to reading assignments seemed the most controversial. Some teachers and parents worried that emphasizing nonfiction would drive classics out of the curriculum. But those concerns have dissipated somewhat as the Common Core has taken root in classrooms.

Common Core math can look confusing, but there's a method behind it

The Common Core standards set out very specific expectations for students at each grade level. In third-grade math, students are supposed to "develop an understanding of fractions as numbers." By sixth grade, they're expected to be able to explain why dividing fractions makes sense.

This progression illustrates the big change in the Common Core math standards: Students learn fewer topics each year, but they're expected to master them completely before moving on to the next. This is common in math education in Singapore, which consistently gets top scores on standardized tests.

But Common Core math has become best known for seeming complicated and impenetrable to parents. The new standards focus more deeply than in the past on getting students to understand why math works the way it does. While the standards don't dictate what methods teachers should use to develop that understanding, many curriculums use number lines, area models, and other nontraditional ways to solve math problems.

Here's what those problems are trying to accomplish:

Students are still expected to master the traditional way of solving addition and subtraction problems. But the confusing math problems have led to a backlash among parents, and some homework assignments have gone viral.

Blame Congress — not the Common Core — for standardized testing

Students have to take standardized tests every year because of Congress, not because of the Common Core. The standards themselves don't do anything to make standardized tests any more important than they already were; they just mean students are taking a different test at the end of the year.

But the new Common Core tests are hitting at a time when there's more anxiety about standardized testing than there used to be, and that's contributed to stress surrounding the new tests.

Standardized tests were already used to evaluate schools, under No Child Left Behind. Increasingly, they're now also being used to judge teachers. The Obama administration urged states to link teachers' professional evaluations to their students' scores on standardized tests.

The Common Core changes what students are expected to be able to do on those tests. And because the tests are often harder than the tests they replaced, this can lead to a drop in how many students score as proficient in math or language arts.

In Kentucky, for example, more than 70 percent of students scored as proficient in reading and math on the state's old standardized tests. After the state adopted the Common Core, those numbers dropped to below 50 percent.

In New York, more than half of students used to be considered proficient in reading and math; the first year students took Common Core tests, only one-third scored as proficient.

Many states are phasing in those systems at the same time as they're switching to new tests based on the Common Core. Students' test scores are expected to drop just as those test scores become much more important in teachers' professional lives.

One Common Core dream that won't be realized: shared tests

One big piece of the Common Core initiative has fallen apart: getting students in different states not just to learn the same things, but to take the same tests measuring what they've learned.

As states were adopting the Common Core, they were also working together in two groups to write standardized tests based on the standards. Nearly every state that adopted the Common Core initially joined one of those groups, known as assessment consortia, which between them received almost $32 million in grants from the Education Department to write the tests.

If this had succeeded, it would have been a huge change. Before the Common Core, there were 50 tests in 50 states, based on 50 sets of standards, and with no guarantee that a student who scored as proficient in one state would be considered up to speed in another. The idea behind the assessment consortia was that, eventually, nearly every student in the US would take one of two tests — called the SBAC, for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and PARCC, for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Common tests, not just common standards, would have made it much easier to compare education across states. Students who moved from state to state would have test scores that clearly indicated what they could do. Even colleges could rely on the test scores, knowing that scoring as "proficient" in Maryland was the same as scoring as "proficient" in Mississippi.

But as the Common Core became more controversial, particularly among conservatives who feared it gave the federal government too much influence over education, pulling out of an assessment consortium was a way for states to reassert some control without backing out of the standards themselves. The consortia started to crumble as states decided to keep using the Common Core standards but to write their own tests instead.

Now, according to Education Week's reporting, 10 states, plus Washington, DC, are using the PARCC tests statewide, and 18 are using Smarter Balanced.

That means just over half of all states are using one of two standardized tests for their students. That means results will be more comparable than they've ever been, but it falls far short of what Common Core supporters originally wanted.

We don't know yet if the Common Core is working

It's too soon to tell if the higher standards are going to lead to higher test scores, let alone if those higher test scores will really make the US more economically competitive.

But so far, experiences with Common Core have varied a lot from state to state and from school district to school district. Kentucky, one of the earliest states to implement Common Core, has had a near-ideal transition, with little controversy and some early victories. The percent of students who are considered "college and career ready" at high school graduation has risen from 38 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2014. The state's ACT scores are higher than they've ever been. The state has become a poster child for the standards.

Other places are reporting good experiences with the Common Core, too — in Nevada, teachers that have developed their own lesson plans say they're working. And colleges and universities are beginning to say they'll use students' scores on the tests to place them in entry-level classes. That represents important buy-in from higher education: a major goal of the standards is making sure students are "college-ready," and that requires universities to agree that students who can pass Common Core tests are ready for college-level work.

But things haven't gone as well in other states, especially when the new Common Core tests have collided with new teacher evaluation systems. As many as 1 in 6 students in New York sat out standardized tests based on the Common Core in 2014-15.

Teachers, too, are starting to be wary of the Common Core. Just 43 percent of teachers in states where Common Core was fully in place in the 2013-14 school year said in a Gallup poll that they were getting enough support — and teachers who said they got support were more likely to describe themselves as confident and hopeful about the standards.

It's too early to tell if most states' experiences will be like Kentucky — where initial concern over low test scores has given way to better results later on — or like New York, where anger over the standards and tests just seems to keep growing.

The Common Core is unpopular, but it's probably here to stay

The Common Core is unpopular, but it probably isn't doomed. While opponents of the standards might be getting more of the public on their side, the standards themselves have an even more powerful weapon: inertia. Districts have already bought textbooks and trained teachers; replacing the standards is a long, hard slog.

Three states — Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina — have dropped out entirely. North Carolina and Missouri have committees in place to review, and potentially replace, the standards. In 2015 alone, 21 state legislatures have seen at least one bill introduced to get rid of the Common Core entirely. But most of those bills haven't gotten out of committee. North Dakota and South Dakota both rejected bills to get rid of the standards, and Common Core opponents have begun to concede that they may have lost the battle to get the standards repealed.

Even states that have written their own standards to replace the Common Core, including Indiana and South Carolina, have ended up like standards that look very much like the Common Core. That assuages concerns that the states were pressured into adopting Common Core by the federal government, but it doesn't address other concerns about the standards themselves.

All of this poses a dilemma for Republican presidential candidates who oppose the Common Core. They can say that the federal government shouldn't have urged states to adopt the standards in the first place, and they can encourage Congress to stop the Education Department from expressing an opinion about state standards ever again. But it's much harder to persuade states to get rid of the Common Core at their own time and expense.


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