Supplemental: What the heck is the Common Core?

TUESDAY, JUNE 10, 2014

A rumination on “standards:” What the heck are the Common Core “standards?” And why are they called by that name?

The “standards movement” has been in vogue for many years now. In our view, the use of that term has always seemed a bit odd.

For starters, Wikipedia tells us this about the Common Core:

“The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an educational initiative in the United States that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade.”

In fact, the Common Core “standards” are the skills students are supposed to be taught at each grade level. In Grade 6 math, these are the first two “standards” under the “Geometry” heading—and yes, that’s the actual numbering for each skill:
Find the area of right triangles, other triangles, special quadrilaterals, and polygons by composing into rectangles or decomposing into triangles and other shapes; apply these techniques in the context of solving real-world and mathematical problems.

Find the volume of a right rectangular prism with fractional edge lengths by packing it with unit cubes of the appropriate unit fraction edge lengths, and show that the volume is the same as would be found by multiplying the edge lengths of the prism. Apply the formulas V = l w h and V = b h to find volumes of right rectangular prisms with fractional edge lengths in the context of solving real-world and mathematical problems.
In common parlance, it seems to us that these would more naturally be referred to as “skills.” At any rate, you can review all the “standards” for all the grades at this, the “Read the Standards” page at the Common Core web site.

The Common Core lists the skills which should get taught in each grade. For that reason, we’re always a little bit puzzled when we’re told that this doesn’t constitute a “curriculum.”

David Brooks rattled this talking-point in a recent column (text below). In her valuable piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton put it like this:
LAYTON (6/8/14): The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and school districts.
“The standards are not a curriculum but [are] skills that students should acquire at each grade?” In common parlance, once you’ve told a teacher what skills she must teach throughout the year, haven’t you pretty much defined her curriculum?

We’ll offer a guess. For legal and political reasons, Common Core moguls want to minimize the sense that the states and/or the feds are intruding on the community’s right to run its own local schools. We’ll guess this sound-bite was invented to promote this conception.

If our speculation is correct, that means that “not a curriculum” is part of the “messaging” Layton describes in her report. Ironically, it would mean that Layton repeated one of the messages, even as she described the source of the messaging.

Whatever! To us, the Common Core “standards” come pretty darn close to being a “curriculum.”

That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad curriculum, of course—we’re sorry, a bad set of “standards.” It may be a very good listing of Grade 6 math skills—but only for students who are functioning at an appropriate level.

For many sixth-graders, the Grade 6 math “standards” may be very good—perhaps an improvement on the way they otherwise would have been taught. That said, our basic question remains: Given our large achievement gaps, how can any set of math “standards” be appropriate for all the kids in all our sixth-grade classrooms all across the land?

For some high-functioning sixth-grade students, those Grade 6 “standards” may be hopelessly boring. For other sixth-graders, those “standards” may be years beyond their actual level of functioning.

Given our large achievement gaps, how can any set of standards be appropriate for all students in a given grade? We’ve been asking this obvious question for years.

Given the way our discourse works, we’ve never seen that question asked or answered anywhere else. As we’ve noted, our journalists are very good at disregarding the size of the gaps.

Brooks repeats the message: The standards aren’t a curriculum! All advocates of the Common Core know they should make that claim. Here’s the way Brooks put it:
BROOKS (4/18/14): About seven years ago, it was widely acknowledged that state education standards were a complete mess. Huge numbers of students were graduating from high school unprepared either for college work or modern employment. A student who was rated ''proficient'' in one state would be rated ''below basic'' in another. About 14 states had pretty good standards, according to studies at the time, but the rest had standards that were verbose, lax or wildly confusing.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards. Remember, school standards are not curricula. They do not determine what students read or how teachers should teach. They are the goals for what students should know at the end of each grade.
The Common Core standards do not determine how teachers should teach?

That may be true, but they do determine what teachers should teach. In fact, they determine which skills a math teacher must teach. To us, that sounds a great deal like a curriculum.

Layton described the process by which the “messaging” was created. It seems to us that she proceeded to repeat one of the basic messages.

Brooks repeated the message too. To our highly sensitive ear, the message doesn’t make sense.


  1. You were a teacher and you think "standards" and "curriculum" are synonymous?

    Let me put it in a way even the dumbest of your sheep can understand. Say I live in LA and my goal is to get to New York in a week. I still have various means of reaching that goal that are best suited to my own needs and resources, correct?

    You want a big surprise? Among the first school systems to embrace "Common Core" bandwagon are the Catholic school systems across the nation. And they have faced a whirlwind of right-wing criticism over a government (specifically, Obama) take over of "curriculum" and throwing God out the nearest window.

    Of course, "Common Core" means no such thing, but it's easy to rouse the rabble who don't know any better when you tell them that setting standards and setting curriculum are exactly the same thing.

    1. Bob was not just a teacher. He is a Harvard graduate. That makes him imminently more qualified to offer his opinion about anything than Bill Gates, a college dropout. He has been arguing against standards for over thirty years. When most can't clear the high jump at six feet doesn't mean you improve things by moving the bar to seven feet.

    2. And that is the stupidest analogy I have ever heard.

      But assuming his argument, if you truly need to teach kids how to jump six feet and presuming that they are capable of it, you don't throw out the high jump bar altogether.

      You teach them first how to jump one foot. Then two feet. Then three feet.

      Step by step, by step, by step, by step.

      Has it ever occurred to you that this "Harvard graduate" (Oh lordy, we should all bow down and worship at his feet!) hasn't been very much of a success at anything he's attempted, including teaching?

      But hey, let's diss the "college dropout" who was on the cutting edge of the Information Age revolution and listened to the Harvard grad who was a failed teacher, a failed stand-up comic, a failed op-ed journalist, and is now failing badly at blogging.

    3. Umm Anon did you even READ this post? Obviously not. Bob wasn't arguing that standards = curriculum. He was arguing that COMMON CORE'S OWN STRANGE DEFINITION OF "STANDARDS" basically = curriculum.

      Unfortunately I know you aren't this stupid, rather you are being willfully obtuse in order to attack the big bad Somerby boogeyman.

    4. Well, Marcus, you fell for the oldest trick in the book.

      Somerby quoted verbatim a small portion of the standards that were meant for professional eyes. Since both you and he lack the education and expertise to understand it, Somerby told you it means something entirely different.

      And you bought it. No surprise there. The ignorant are easily fooled. That's how snake oil salesmen make a living.

      Now an honest person might read that and say, "Wow. This is beyond my area of expertise."

      But you? Nope. Your reaction to that which you can't even begin to comprehend is to call other people "stupid."

      Just a guess here, but in the real world, have you ever noticed people walking away from you? You probably have already told yourself it's because they are stupid, and not because you're a pseudo-intellectual know-it-all asshole.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. I would agree there's a lot of what exactly students would be exposed to that is left undetermined by the Common Core standards for, say, English. Students could be sharpening up their reading comprehension, analysis, and research skills with Homer and Greek mythology or with what we are explicitly told is suitable but not required for 9th and 10th graders, tales of Okies relocating to California and the one about that Mexican pearl diver.

      However, when it comes to math, the proposed standards for skills which would be expected to take the ordinary student a school year to master would seem, essentially, to constitute the whole of "the what" for the curriculum in that subject.

      In fact here, in part, is what they say in response to the Frequently Asked Question, [QUOTE] Why is the sequence of key math topics in the math standards important?:

      The mathematical progressions, or sequencing of topics, presented in the Common Core State Standards are coherent and based on evidence. Part of the problem with having many different sets of state standards was that different states covered different topics at different grade levels. Coming to a consensus on the standards guarantees that, from the viewpoint of any given state, topics will move up or down in a consistent grade level sequence....
      [END QUOTE]

    7. Thanks for posting that CMike. That should end the mystery Somerby is trying to sell about "raising the bar to seven feet."

      Be advised, however, that there is another set of Common Core standards for reading. To play Somerby's game, here is an isolated example of one second grade literacy standard:

      Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.

  2. I guess a curriculum is kind of like an itinerary . . .

    1. That's certainly a better analogy than "curriculum = standards = high jump bar."

    2. Marcus is not my real nameJune 10, 2014 at 8:56 PM

      Anonymous - too stupid to type in a random name, too stupid to read a Somerby column.

  3. Somewhat off topic:

    In an attempt to keep white families from fleeing Chicago, the second Mayor Daley came up with a plan: test-admittance-only public high schools. This was a reasonable solution for gentry liberals who pay high property taxes but didn’t want to leave the city or couldn’t afford to send their children to private schools. These select public high schools produce college bound students while “limiting” gentry liberal’s children from being exposed to children from “troubled backgrounds”....Being admitted to these select magnet schools can often determine whether a family stays in Chicago or moves elsewhere.

    I would think that this program also helps persuade middle class blacks to stay in Chicago.


  4. I've never seen specific Common Core standards in any news story. Only here, at the Daily Howler.

    1. I've never seen Bob answer the question "What the keck is the Common Core?"

  5. Crazy how educators, just cannot see beyond their noses, they keep trying to fix the education system, (unions and tenure, yes, should go, probably) when mostly the bratty kids, and the un-attentive parents are to blame! And all of the other fifty-million distractions that we did not have to endure as children! I have worked in every educational atmosphere imaginable (only admittedly as a teachers aide) this includes all aspects of Special Education, including the severely handicapped! I still think that students need more than one person person in a classroom at a time, way too many children just have no respect these days, and that solo person still makes it that much more easy for those children to be impatient and disrespectful!


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