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Common Core vs. Common Sense

Common Core standards are advanced standards.

I’ve written about that before. So what is the issue with it? On its face, it doesn’t seem as though there should be any. Don’t we want to provide the best opportunities for academic growth possible? Let’s look further at what Common Core means.

According to its own document, found at, these standards were developed to prepare America’s K-12 students for “college and career readiness”. That is supposed to mean that any student graduating high school should be ready to enter the work force with the requisite skills for success in our modern world. Setting aside the obvious rebuttal that this has always been the case, let’s examine their literacy overview, which is parsed as follows:

• Key ideas and details; • Craft and structure; • Integration of knowledge and ideas; • Range of reading and level of text complexity.

In second grade, under the heading of key ideas, students must “ask and answer questions such as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.” They must also “retell stories, including those from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, moral, or theme”, as well as “describe how characters respond to major events and challenges.” This is second grade, and we're requiring students to understand the themes in literature.

Craft and Structure has to do with how a story is presented; students must “describe the overall structure of a story, including how the beginning introduces the story and how the ending concludes the action.” They must also analyze differing points of view of the characters, including how dialogue, dialect, and word choices affect these.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas means how students are processing the information they learn. This is tricky to assess because it requires us to look for evidence of how someone’s mind works. One way is to ask students to compare and contrast texts, a fairly high-level skill. Second graders must be able to do this for different versions of the same story, such as Cinderella stories written by different authors or shared from different cultures.

So far, what we can see from Common Core is that young children are required to analyze the abstract nature of literature. Is every second grader capable of thinking abstractly? Perhaps. But not every second grader will be able to do it independently, which means a lot of adult interaction is required.

Under Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity, second graders should be able to “read (independently) and comprehend stories and poetry in the 2-3 text complexity band proficiently.” 2-3 means second and third grade. So Common Core, itself, advocates giving all students advanced reading material, with “scaffolding [help] as needed at the high end of the range.”

What does a typical Common Core text for second grade look like? Here’s an example from the Spectrum series of workbooks, a popular choice of supplemental material that a lot of teachers use:

Look at the word choices (nervous, excellent, worried) and the sentence structure (…he almost poured milk into his orange juice instead of into his cereal bowl). Notice the figurative language (others look light, as if they are hanging in the air; tons of great bridge ideas). This is second grade material in its brevity only. Everything else about it screams advanced: advanced word choices, advanced sentences, advanced language concept. Is it wrong to require this of students? That depends on the level of importance we place on skill acquisition and how we handle non-acquisition. We’ll get back to that later.

College and Career Readiness: what does that mean? According to the State Standards Initiative, it means graduates of a K-12 program can do the following:

Demonstrate independence, • Build strong content knowledge, • Respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline, • Comprehend as well as critique, • Value evidence, • Use technology and digital media strategically and capably, and Come to understand perspectives and cultures.

The theory is that when we establish the need for these concepts early (such as in second grade), students will continue to respond earnestly to the expectation to work hard, learn deeply, and achieve mastery. But does this actually happen?

Common Core has been the adopted curriculum in many states for nearly a decade, and their state assessments have been written to assess this advanced material. This means that only a student displaying advanced achievement will pass Colorado’s Measures of Academic Success (CMAS). When the public sees the statistic that only 40% of third graders passed the CMAS reading test in 2022, they are likely to assume that third graders just cannot read well. But is that really the case? When a typical question on that test looks like this, I'm not so sure:

Is "plunging" really a third grade vocabulary term? A lot of credit is given for figuring out words in context, but if a student does not get Part A correct, what hope does he have for Part B?

(Even prior to COVID, the results of CMAS were not reassuring: 41% of third graders passed the reading test in 2019.)

According to this table, third graders will be put through four and a half hours of testing this spring to determine their reading ability.

Success depends on how much the child is able or willing to focus on his computer screen for the duration of the test. He is not able to ask the adult monitoring him any questions, including how to navigate the test. In high contrast, he has been able to ask questions about anything during his classroom instruction, and often, bounce ideas off a group of learners. The only way a child is going to fare well in a solo testing environment like this is if he possesses a high degree of confidence and perseverance, in addition to the level of skill necessary.

And now we come full circle. What is wrong with instituting advanced standards? Well, there are no repercussions for students if they miss the mark. So now we're going to raise the bar on concept acquisition without offering incentive to work even harder than before?

It’s a funny thing. Not funny in the humorous sense;

funny in the “this doesn’t make any sense” sense.

Why are we requiring students to learn faster and deeper

without holding them accountable for their learning?

Who is going to give his best on a test that takes multiple sessions of arduous solo work? No adult I know would do that without a substantial incentive, such as advancement in salary or career. But we’re asking elementary students to do it.

If a child knows his results will determine his class placement, he might be more motivated to give his best. And even if he isn’t, that alone helps educators determine the best learning environment for him.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. It is impossible to adequately address learning standards without also addressing testing, which leads to how we handle testing outcomes and if that affects how we place children in classrooms, which then leads to who is teaching what and which students, which also brings up class size and adult to child ratio….

Chaos reigns in our schools because certain elements of success are not up for discussion. By instituting advanced standards while ignoring everything else about learning, the most significant outcome of Common Core is a high degree of frustration...

...for everyone except the power structure, which seems to enjoy its position of instituting mandates without the inconvenience of dealing with them personally or analyzing them realistically.

There’s something very wrong with this picture.

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