Common Core: a primer on understanding the program

The state of education in the United States is an intensely debated topic as the U.S. education rank has slipped to 14th in the world according to Pearson’s Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment.

In an attempt to resurface in the upper echelon of the world’s top education systems, 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

So what is this Common Core that is designed to improve our education system?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative mission statement reads: “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

What is Common Core and how is it designed to improve education?

In 2009 the National Governors Association (NGA) decided it was important to develop an education curriculum throughout the U.S, said William McCallum. McCallum is one of four people to write the standards, and a mathematics professor at the University of Arizona. 

The NGA formed a committee of four education experts to draft standards to be uniform across the states and leave students prepared to succeed in the work force and higher education.

When drafting the standards, the committee studied education research and surveys from college faculties. The committee also frequently attended meetings with educators around the country, McCallum said.

The large curriculum discrepancies throughout the 50 states made it difficult for the U.S. to compete globally, according to Ron Marx, the dean of education at the University of Arizona.

“K-12 education is a state issue, not a federal issue. It gives rise to so much variation from state to state that it is hard for us to compete internationally,” Marx said.

The Common Core Standards cover English language arts/literacy (ELA) and mathematics. The standards define what each student should know at the end of each grade level, regardless of the school or state.

What Are The Standards?

The Core Standards Organization spells out the standards for mathematics and ELA.


The mathematics standards are “designed to be coherent and connected in a consistent sequence, with concepts that build on each other from grade to grade.”

Grade-by-grade the Core Standards Organization states, “Grades K-2 cover addition and subtraction; 3-5 cover multiplication, division and fractions; 6-8 cover ratios, proportions and algebraic concepts.” Grades 9-12 cover number and quantity, algebra, functions, modeling, geometry, and statistics and probability.

The goal of Common Core mathematics is for the student to conceptually understand and work through problems, rather than memorizing formulas and answers, said McCallum.


ELA standards focus on reading comprehension. Students read complex pieces of literature, whether it be fiction or non-fiction like science or social studies. Students are asked in-depth questions that require them to relate back to the text.

“This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life,” according to the Common Core State Standards.

How Has Common Core Performed?

The 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education found that between 2009 and 2013 states that implemented Common Core most aggressively recorded larger gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores than schools who had not.

The gains, however, are not very steep.

From 1990 to 2013 scores on the NAEP 8th grade math test rose an average of about one point per year, according to the Brown Center Report.

However, from 2009 to 2013 after the launch of Common Core, the math test scores only rose an average of 0.33 per year.

A 0.33 level of improvement is nearly unnoticeable and the Brown Center Reports at this pace it would take 24 years to see noticeable improvement.

Has Common Core succeeded in preparing students for success after high school?

In October of 2014, 68.4 percent of 2014 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of the high school graduates who were not enrolled in a college or university, 72.7 percent were employed.

From 2000 to 2010 the number of students attending a university or state college rose from 15,312 to 21,016.

In the five years since 2010, the number of students attending has only increased by 250 according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Common Core in Arizona

Arizona adopted Common Core on June 28, 2010, and was one of  Common Core’s initial driving forces. However, recently it has been under siege.

Recently appointed Superintendent of Education Diane Douglas is vocal about her desires to remove Common Core from Arizona.

In her first State of Education address, Douglas said, “Our Arizona state standards were discarded and replaced with the unproven Common Core standards.”

Gov. Doug Ducey ran his campaign as anti Common Core, however his views aren’t as strict as Douglas.

“As you know, I am against Common Core, and I openly opposed it in my run for this office,” Ducey told the Arizona State Board of Education.

In March Ducey met with the Arizona State Board of Education and requested the board retain and review Common Core with the hopes of tweaking some of the issues.

“It’s also important to know I have high expectations and I am for high standards. Therefore, I’m calling on this Board to make right this situation. Begin by reviewing the English language arts and mathematics standards in their entirety to ensure that our children are well served by the standards you develop,” he said.

How do other countries compare?

According to the most recent Program For Student Assessment (PISA) Test in 2012, 510,000 15-year-old students from 65 countries participated, and U.S. students are rated as underperforming in math and average in reading and science.

America is presented with a large task being the third most populated country in the world. Many of the countries currently excelling in education are smaller countries like South Korea, Singapore, Finland and the Netherlands.

This is advantageous and the reason for their educational success, according to Marx.

“They are smaller and more uniform and all have national education systems,” he said.

One of the other issues the U.S. encounters that most of the top performing countries do not, is a large wealth distribution.

“In this country, one of the biggest challenges is the structural poverty we have. We have a much wider spread between the richest and poorest kids, and we have known for years that poverty is the highest predictor of failed education,” said Marx.

The politics behind Common Core?

During the Great Recession, President Obama created the American Recovery Act which was intended to inject money into the nation and avoid a depression. Through the American Recovery Act, billions of dollars of were allocated to education.

Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, using $4 billion, started the Race To The Top Fund in 2009. The Race To The Top Fund offered cash rewards for states that adopted the Common Core standards and exhibited improvement in education.

Rather than spread the $4 billion proportionally throughout the states, this incentivized education and tied it to Common Core.

“This is where all the political issues come from. It’s seen as an imposition from Obama,” said Marx.

Marx believes that if Common Core had not been so politicized and associated with the Obama Administration, the question of ‘what is your stance on Common Core,’ wouldn’t even be reasonable to ask.

“If you just look at the standards, its a good idea,” he said.

The future of Common Core and the American education?

It is impossible to predict the future of Common Core, but there is writing on the wall.

In a system predicated on state unity, the backlash and lack of results has lead to some states beginning to backslide.

In Arizona, for example, the name was changed to Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, advertised as standards more personalized to Arizona.

“Common Core has been around for about 15 years, and it has not produced a better education. I think it is going to fail, and I think it is regrettable because it gave us opportunity,” said Marx.

Despite slipping in the ranks, the American education remains in good shape, despite the need for changes, Marx said.

“We have a lot of fabulous schools, and America continues to have the most robust economy in the world,” he said.

Despite states disassociation from the Common Core, McCallum thinks that Common Core is here to stay. Perhaps not in the same name, but Common Core will be engrained in the future of the U.S. education, he said.

“I think a lot of states are going through a review. A lot of states are coming up with something that looks pretty similar.

“Everyone agrees that basically the Common Core represents a good set of standards. You can tweak it here and there, but you can’t really completely change it,” he said.

McCallum believes that because the Common Core is based on hard-evidence driven education research, states wont find much to change, and that’s a good thing.

“I think they represent a step forward from what we had before. For most states the standards are higher and that’s a big shift,” McCallum said.

Joseph D’Andre is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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