Thoughts on the Common Core

Thoughts on the Common Core
My daughter considering a problem in her Common Core workbook.
My daughter considering a problem in her Common Core workbook.

I was an honors student at the public high school I attended. From the 9th grade onward, I was always placed in “Honors” English and the most advanced math courses for my grade. I took AP classes from 10th grade onward, including AP Calculus.

I never felt special or brilliant for doing any of this. There were about 100 other kids in my grade who were doing variations of the same thing and my sisters were all on the same track too. To me, these advanced classes were just what it meant to attend high school.

While Virginia is one of the handful of states that has not adopted the Common Core standards, our family has been exposed to them in the “Daily Review” workbooks we use throughout the year to prepare for standardized testing. I chose the Common Core books only because they were cheaper than the other workbooks I had been using. When I first opened the Common Core books at the beginning of the year, I remember thinking, “Wow! This is quite a bit more challenging than what we are used to.”

I have smart kids. They learned to read early. They work hard at but don’t struggle with math. They have no significant learning disabilities or developmental delays. I have always felt that they performed a bit above their respective grade levels. The Common Core workbooks indicated that my “smart” kids were merely performing according to standard and it was even stretching them to work just a little bit harder.

For my children, Common Core is like being in the honors program while in elementary school. For them, Common Core works. Common Core is not that much different from what we are doing already. The math is almost, but not quite, as challenging as the Singapore Math curriculum we are using. Language arts tracks similarly to the Brave Writer program.

The Common Core standards for high school seniors are not that different from the honors track I pursued. The language arts standards seem a smidge more demanding in the details and the math does not require calculus but substitutes statistical analysis and data modeling instead. Below are some of the more challenging of these 12th grade standards:

  • Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses).
  • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.
  • Develop a probability distribution for a random variable defined for a sample space in which probabilities are assigned empirically; find the expected value. For example, find a current data distribution on the number of TV sets per household in the United States, and calculate the expected number of sets per household. How many TV sets would you expect to find in 100 randomly selected households?
  • Resolve issues of complex or contested usage, consulting references (e.g., Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Garner’s Modern American Usage) as needed.
  • Vary syntax for effect, consulting references (e.g., Tufte’s Artful Sentences) for guidance as needed; apply an understanding of syntax to the study of complex texts when reading.

What makes me wonder about Common Core, however, is how this works for parents who don’t feel their children are academically gifted. Common core assumes a natural, linear progression for child academic development. This is true for my children but I have met many parents with children for whom this is not true. Some children are still struggling with reading at 8 or 9 and catch on later. Some kids are still working on their attention spans. Some are still learning not to wet the bed at night. These children aren’t doomed by any means but their academic progression might be in irregular bursts rather than steady progress. How do these children fare when the standard is set about as high as it possibly can be and increases in difficulty each year?

This year, the math program for my third grade daughter has been especially challenging. She can do it but she does have to put more energy into learning math than she ever has before. Sometimes it is frustrating and it makes her cry.

I'm not smart!

she will sometimes wail when I correct a mistake. The despair passes fairly quickly when I reassure her that she is indeed very smart and when I point out that she has completed by herself whatever assignment she thought she couldn’t do. She smiles, feels proud of herself and moves on.

The psychological aspect of Common Core is what I wonder about the most. Children obviously do pick up cues about their self-worth based on how they are performing in school. There is a fine line between being challenged and being demoralized. How does the Common Core continue to motivate students who fall short of expectations? How does it motivate teachers when despite best efforts their classes don’t perform where they need to be? How do we avoid threatening parents or siblings with the prospect that younger generations will know far more than they do? As human beings, we only have to be told once that we are not good at something to adopt a permanent mindset that we shouldn’t try. I wish I saw more psychological support associated with Common Core. Funding for motivational speakers for teachers, parents and children during this time of change would be a marvelous idea.

The other thing I wonder about is whether Common Core gets right the fundamental question of whether we have chosen the right educational aims for all American children. This is a huge responsibility. We don’t know what the future will require of any of us. Is “every child an honors student” the right path?

Are we discouraging individuality and innovation with these standards? With the Common Core standards so demanding, it would be hard for any child to have enough time to learn on their own to pursue their own interests or for a teacher to introduce any elective subjects. The two quotes below, while not on the subject of Common Core, raise the importance of allowing children space to learn and experiment.



It is easy to find any number of ways to attack the Common Core standards. But if the Common Core needs a defender it can look no further than my husband.

I have had many discussions with my husband about Common Core. He doesn’t find it much of interest to debate whether Common Core is a good idea as his natural inclination when faced with an intellectual challenge is to accept the standard and meet it. He believes strongly in the value of intelligence and learning. When I point out the difficult reality of implementing these learning objectives as a teacher, he has little sympathy for me. Finally, he came up with an argument that converted me to his point of view, looking to the past for guidance about the future. I asked him to write it down for me.


His words were very powerful to me. We need to get out of the weeds when thinking about Common Core and stop focusing exclusively on the nitty gritty implementation details. We need to remember the bigger picture of expanding human potential. This is our gift to the future.

Just as the peasant farmer may have found it pointless to learn to read and could not have anticipated that the simple act of reading would one day lead to newspapers, email and the Internet, we can’t imagine what it will mean to the future when we raise proficiency for English and mathematics.

So, I will go on record as a newly converted Common Core supporter. There are likely still many problems to iron out and if nothing else, the program will require a lot more funding and maybe a revised implementation plan that gradually ramps up the difficulty year by year, but I have decided focus my efforts on resolving these problems and moving the effort forward rather than accepting the status quo.

How do you feel about Common Core? Please share in the comments.