Revise or Reject: The Common Core's Serious Flaws

Sandra Stotsky

In this essay, I suggest why the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics need revision before further implementation in any Common Core state—and well before tests based on these flawed standards are given. I have been a close observer of Common Core since serving on its Validation Committee in 2010. I found myself unable to validate the standards, for numerous reasons which I have detailed in dozens of papers, articles, reports, op-eds, and blogs. I present here summaries of some of my findings and observations. 

First, the ELA standards have many flaws:

Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least 50 percent of their reading instructional time on informational texts at every grade level. It provides 10 reading standards for informational texts and 9 standards for literary texts at every grade level. (An informational text is a piece of writing intending to convey information about something, e.g., gravity, bicycles, nutrition.) However, there is no body of information that English teachers have ever been responsible for teaching, unlike science teachers, for example, who are charged with teaching information about science. As a result, English teachers are not trained to give informational reading instruction—by college English departments or by teacher preparation programs. They typically study four major genres of literature—poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction—and are trained to teach those genres.[1]

Common Core reduces opportunities for students to develop critical (analytical) thinking. Analytical thinking is developed in the English class when teachers teach students how to read between the lines of complex literary works. It is facilitated by the knowledge that students acquire in other ways and in other subjects because critical (analytical) thinking cannot take place in an intellectual vacuum. By reducing literary study in the English class, Common Core reduces the opportunity for students to learn how to do critical (analytical) thinking.[2]

Common Core’s middle school writing standards are developmentally inappropriate for average middle school students. Adults have a much better idea of what “claims,” “relevant evidence,” and academic “arguments” are. Most children have a limited understanding of these concepts and find it difficult to compose an argument with claims and evidence. This would be the case even if Common Core’s writing standards were linked to appropriate reading standards and prose models. But they are not. Nor does the document clarify the difference between an academic argument (explanatory writing) and persuasive writing, confusing teachers and students alike.[3]

Most of Common Core’s college-readiness and grade-level standards in ELA are empty skills. Skills training alone doesn’t prepare students for college-level work. They need a fund of content knowledge. But Common Core’s ELA standards (as well as its literacy standards for other subjects) do not specify the literary/historical knowledge students need. They provide no list of recommended authors or works, just examples of levels of “complexity.” They require no British literature aside from Shakespeare. They require no authors from the ancient world or selected pieces from the Bible as literature so that students can learn about their influence on English and American literature. They do not require study of the history of the English language. Without requirements in these areas, students are not prepared for college coursework.[4]

Common Core’s Mathematics standards also have serious flaws.

Common Core does not complete the teaching and use of the standard algorithms of arithmetic until grades 5-6.[5]

Common Core defers the study of many Algebra I concepts to grade 9. This makes it difficult for mathematically able students to complete an authentic Algebra I course in grade 8. As the 2013 NAEP results indicate, over 30% of 13-year-olds nationwide take Algebra I, a percentage that has been increasing regularly since 1970.[6]  This percentage will decrease rapidly if schools choose not to make it possible for able students in mathematics to accelerate in grades 5, 6, and 7 so they can take an authentic Algebra I course in grade 8 and if grade 8 students who have completed Algebra I are not allowed to take an end-of-course Algebra I test at the end of grade 8.

As Stanford University Mathematics Professor R. James Milgram has testified before many legislative committees, the lower expectations in Common Core mean that: “Our students will be more than two years behind international expectations by grade 7. The top countries start algebra in grade 7 and geometry in grade 8 or 9. By the end of grade 9, their students will have learned all of the material in a standard geometry course, all the material in a standard Algebra I course, and some of the most important material in a standard Algebra II course. This allows a huge percentage of them to finish calculus before graduating from high school.”[7]

It was surprising that Common Core’s non-rigorous ELA standards received a B+ from the Fordham Institute (a D.C.-based think tank led by Chester Finn) in its 2010 review (and the Mathematics standards A-).[8] However, Fordham received about one million dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core and also used a different evaluation and grading scheme from the one it had used in earlier reviews of state standards. Among other things, the previous evaluation scheme for the English language arts separated “organization of the standards” from “disciplinary coverage” in order to rate the standards on whether their organization reflected sound scholarship or research. It also rated their coherence and the extent to which the standards increased in academic demand from grade to grade. Common Core to its credit does seek to raise the reading level of what students read from grade to grade but did not put the content into its secondary standards that would ensure increasingly challenging reading levels.[9] Thus, one should be skeptical about Fordham’s claim that Common Core’s ELA standards are superior to most states’ standards. Many states would benefit from stronger standards for K-8, but Common Core’s ELA standards have different but more serious problems than the previous standards in many other states. That is why they must be revised—or abandoned.

What should revision address? At the least, Common Core’s standards need international benchmarking, credible authors, and removal of the arbitrary percentage for literary study in K-12. Its Validation Committee (VC) was supposed to ensure that its standards were internationally benchmarked. Even though Professor Milgram (the one mathematician on the VC) and I (and possibly others) regularly asked for names of the countries to which the standards were supposedly benchmarked, we didn’t get them. Indeed, Common Core’s chief mathematics standards writer made it clear that its aim is not to increase the number of students for the freshman mathematics courses that science and engineering majors should take. He told the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at a public meeting in March 2010 that Common Core’s vision of college readiness is minimal and means readiness for admission to a non-selective college.[10]

Moreover, neither of Common Core’s chief standards writers (David Coleman and Jason Zimba) has ever taught in K-12, nor published anything on curriculum and instruction. They are basically unknown in the field of education. For credibility (if they are not abandoned), Common Core’s standards must be revised by high school English and mathematics teachers, literary scholars, and science, engineering, or mathematics instructors of freshman mathematics—groups that were excluded from the development and approval of Common Core’s standards. This would ensure that states that adopted Common Core to increase achievement in low-performing students are not at the same time inadvertently reducing the academic challenge needed by other students.

As many states proceed to implement Common Core’s standards, they should keep in mind: (1) These standards are NOT internationally benchmarked.[11] (2) They are NOT rigorous. (3) NO research supports Common Core’s stress on “informational” reading instruction in the English class or its approach to geometry in secondary schools. (4) The recommendations for informational reading in other high school subjects in Appendix B in Common Core’s ELA document border on the ludicrous and interfere with what should be taught in these subjects.[12] (5) The interstate mobility rate in K-12 is estimated at less than 2% of the school population. Finally, (6) NO state needs Common Core to find out how its students compare with those in another state. It can already use the averages and the percentages for each performance category in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) state results to do so.

Image: "books" by Angie and Chris Pye // CC BY-SA

[1] Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky. “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.” Pioneer Institute White Paper #89, September 2012.    

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sandra Stotsky. “More Than One Fatal Flaw in Common Core’s ELA Standards.” Posted on June 26, 2013.

[4] Bauerlein and Stotsky, op. cit.

[5] Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman. “Common Core’s Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade.” Pioneer Institute White Paper #65, July 2010.

[8] Fordham Institute, “The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010.”

[10] For the minutes of the meeting, see: See also Sandra Stotsky, “Common Core’s Cloudy Vision of College Readiness in Math,” posted on July 1, 2013. See also Sandra Stotsky, “Shaky New Standards for College Readiness.” September 9, 2010.

[12] Sandra Stotsky. “Literature or Technical Manuals: Who Should Be Teaching What, Where, and Why?” Nonpartisan Education Review/Essays, 2013, 9 (1).

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