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Five Questions to Ask about the Common Core*

2 January 2013 240,600 31 Comments

If you are reading this, you know the world didn’t end in 2012. But the world of American education may end in 2014, when the Common Core is scheduled to march into thousands of schools in the United States and end a “chaotic, fragmented, unequal, obsolete, and failing” system that has accompanied the rise of a nation with the largest economy, most scientific discoveries and technological inventions, best universities, and largest collection of Nobel laureates in the world today. In place will be a new world of education where all American children are exposed to the same content, delivered by highly standardized teachers, watched over by their equally standardized principals, and monitored by governments armed with sophisticated data tools.

This is the last year to ensure that happens: parents and school boards have to be convinced to remove any lasting resistance; teachers have to be fully trained so they can be turned on automatically when 2014 arrives; school leaders have to be readied so they can identify and incentivize good Common Core practices and exterminate bad ones; and data systems have to be developed so they can be deployed anytime. As American schools pour their resources into products, programs, and services to be Common Core ready in 2013, please keep in mind that the Common Core is a bet on the future of our children. While I have written about the Common Core many times before (e.g., Common Core vs Common Sense, Common Core National Curriculum Standards) I wanted to ask all of us to ask again if the new world of education ushered in by the Common Core will be better than the old one scheduled to end in a year.

The Bet

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. 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. Common Core Mission Statement

Questioning the Bet

The Common Core is placing this bet on behalf of millions of children. But how good is it? I cannot answer the question with as much certainty as the Common Core proponents, but I invite them and you to consider the following questions.

What makes one globally competitive?

With only a few exceptions (e.g., North Korea), geographical distance and political boundaries no longer divide the world in terms of economic activities. Virtually all economies are globally interconnected and interdependent. Employment opportunities are thus no longer isolated to specific locations. Jobs can be outsourced to distant places physically or performed by individuals remotely. In a world where jobs can be and have been moved around globally, anyone could potentially go after any job he or she desires. Whether she can be employed depends largely on two factors: qualifications and price. All things being equal, those who ask for a lower price for the same qualifications will get the job.

With over seven billion people living on Earth today, there is plenty of competition. But due to the vast economic disparities in the world, there exists tremendous differences in labor cost. The hourly compensation costs in manufacturing in 2010 varied from $1.90 in the Philippines to $57.53 in Norway, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2011 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). If a Norwegian were doing exactly the same job as a Filipino, it is very probable that his job would be gone soon. For the Norwegian to keep his job, he’d better be doing something that the Filipino is unable to do.

If all children are asked to master the same knowledge and skills, those whose time costs less will be much more competitive than those with higher costs. There are many poor and hungry people in the developing world willing to work for a fraction of what workers in developed countries need. Thus for those in developed countries such as the United States to be globally competitive, they must offer something qualitatively different, that is, something that cannot be obtained at a lower cost in developing countries. And that something is certainly not great test scores in a few subjects or the so-called basic skills, because those can be achieved in the developing countries. Yet the Common Core claims to be benchmarked with internationally high-performing countries, i.e., countries with high scores.

Can you be ready for careers that do not exist yet?

Old jobs are being replaced by new ones rapidly as old industries disappear due to technological changes and existing jobs move around the globe. For example, existing firms in the U.S. lost on average over one million jobs annually in the period from 1977 to 2005, according to a report of the Kauffman Foundation, while an average of three million jobs were created annually by new firms (Kane, 2010). As a result, there is no sure way to predict what jobs our children will have to take in the future. As the head of PISA, Andrea Schleicher, recently said: “Schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t know will arise” (Schleicher, 2010). If one does not know what careers are there in the future, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prescribe the knowledge and skills that will make today’s students ready for them.

Are the Common Core Standards relevant?

Jobs that require routine procedure skills and knowledge are increasingly automated or sent to places where such skills and knowledge are abundant with lower cost. As a result, as best selling author Daniel Pink observed, traditionally neglected talents, which he refers to as Right-brained directed skills, including design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning, will become more valuable (Pink, 2006). Economist Richard Florida noticed the increasing importance of creativity in the modern economy ten years ago in his best seller The Rise of the Creative Class (Florida, 2012). And economist Philip Auerswald convincingly proves the case for the need of entrepreneurs to bring the coming prosperity in his 2012 book (Auerswald, 2012). These are just antagonistic to the core subjects prescribed by the Common Core and tested by international assessments such as PISA and TIMSS, which are mostly left-brained cognitive skills.

Does Common Core support global competence?

The world our children will live in is global, not local as before. Given the interconnectedness and interdependence of economies, the rise of global challenges such as climate change, and the ease of movement across national borders, one’s birthplace no longer determines his or her future living space or whom he or she may be working for or with. Thus to be ready to live in this global world requires the knowledge and abilities to interact with people who are not born and raised in the same local community. But the Common Core does not include an element to prepare the future generations to live in this globalized world and interact with people from different cultures.

What opportunities we may be missing?

Globalization and technological changes, while presenting tremendous challenges, bring vast opportunities. Globalization, for example, greatly expands the pool of potential customers for products and services. Niche talents that used to only be of interest to a small fraction of people may not be of much value locally, because the total population of a given community is small. In the globalized world, the potential customers could number seven billion. Even a small fraction of the seven billion can be significant, and talents that may be of little value in a given location can be very valuable in another country. Globalization and technology today enable products and services to reach almost any corner of the world. But the Common Core, by forcing children to master the same curriculum, essentially discriminates against talents that are not consistent with their prescribed knowledge and skills. Students who are otherwise talented but do not do well in these chosen subjects are often sent to spend more time on the core subjects, retained for another grade, and deprived of the opportunity to develop their talents in other ways.

In summary, the efforts to develop common curricula nationally and internationally are simply working to perfect an outdated paradigm. The outcomes are precisely the opposite of the talents we need for the new era. A well organized, tightly controlled, and well-executed education system can transmit the prescribed content much more effectively than one that is less organized, loosely monitored, and less unified. In the meantime, the latter allows for exceptions with more room for individual exploration and experimentation. The question is what matters in the future: Do we want individuals who are good at taking tests, or individuals who are creative and entrepreneurial? I believe the answer is the latter.

*Adapted from my latest book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (Corwin, 2012)


Auerswald, P. (2012). The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the Global Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2011, December 21). International Comparisons Of Hourly Compensation Costs In Manufacturing, 2010.   Retrieved Jan 2, 2012, from

Florida, R. (2012). The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Kane, T. (2010). The Importance of Startups in Job Creation and Job Destruction. Kansas City: Kauffman Foundation.

Pink, D. H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead.

Schleicher, A. (2010). The case for 21st-century learning.   Retrieved Jan 2, 2012, from,3746,en_2649_201185_46846594_1_1_1_1,00.html

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  • Chris Jones said:

    Despite noble intentions, I’ve been worried about the long-range impact of the Common Core for some time. It’s difficult to argue with the mission. But your article makes the critical points. We may be a STEM-starved ecosystem, but the notion of ‘least common denominator’ still surfaces. Is it desirable to push everyone to the minimum? Do we run the risk of perfecting mediocrity?

    When we build a learning agenda, I believe the goals of affinity (sameness) and diversity (differentness) create a delicate but vital balancing act.

    To push a standards-agenda is to neglect the balance.

    I believe most problems we’re facing in K12 are derived from trying to due hurculean things at scale, when in fact the heavy lifting that matters most takes place 1:1 in classrooms. As the student populations grow and organized education strains to keep pace, the ability for teachers to make a difference 1:1 decreases. An abrupt, mandatory step to standards (and perhaps the darker downside, expanded high stakes testing) may pull teachers even more quickly away from their students.

    In attempting to solve one problem, we may be making things far worse.

    Perhaps it’s that we’re latching onto a solvable problem, ignoring the more systemic issues of scale that seem to defy resolution.

    Standards should be established, no doubt, to guide those practitioners and systems that need them. No harm in setting a new baseline. But to teach exclusively to the baseline is to turn away from the diverse learning skills and talents .. right brain, and otherwise .. of our children.

    The long-term damage may be irreparable.

    Survival requires adaptation, making adjustments in real time. What if we shift the Common Core to become guidelines, not standards, and focus our scarce resources and energies elsewhere? Few in the U.S. understand the global competitive dynamic you’ve laid out here, as we cling to comfortable notions of economic, social and political autonomy that fueled our stake in the 20th century. Global economic forces are powerful and unforgiving. The world is changing, and so are the rules.

    We must do the math. It’s time to change our thinking.

  • L Craig said:

    what scares me is the fact that the people who seem to be charge of the professonal development for implementing common core seem unaware of what it acutally is.

  • Diana Bermudez said:

    I believe that the standard should be to make each individual develop his potential so that his skills can enable him to compete in the market. Obviously, the goal of the Common Core Standard is to make all students just “prepared” for academic stuff and not for real-world demands. As Craig said, it is unbelievable that the people in charge cannot see this. Are we ruled by blind people? That is a mighty scary thought.

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  • Maureen said:

    I still have not made up my mind about the common core, as a teacher here is what I think so far.
    As I look at the standards they are not so different from what we already had for Oregon school standards. However they have been compressed, our state standards used to take up pages and pages and it literally was not possible to teach in one, let alone 2-3 years all that were the required standards for a grade. The core standards are more succinct. They are not a curricula, they are standards-the what, not the how. States and schools and teachers are able to decide how they want to teach the standards
    The common core does not dumb down standards, the standards are more rigorous. My concern is for the students who do not have a lot of academic support at home because their parents are not able to help them. The math requirements alone are really rigorous.
    Oregon already had a pretty rigorous testing regime in place, students get computerized standardized tests here 3-4 times a year already, for us there are now fewer tests–I think.
    The one issue that has many people upset is that there is now more emphasis on non-fiction. I have to be honest I think this is a good idea. Most of my students are from low income homes, do not have many books in the house and are not exposed to informational texts except at school and they have no tradition of reading the news. I started several years ago with news magazines in my classes for ELL students and found they responded to these news magazines. Kids like learning about what is happening in the world. I have had students complain that they only learn about things that happened in the past. It’s true, that is what schools are like these days with the heavy testing regimin. In life it is important that students learn how to access informational texts, in college that is what they are required to do, in life you have to.
    Literature is still being taught but it is not the empasis. The emphasis is now on critical thinking and analysis. Language arts classes will emphasize academic writing and reading.
    Just like the analytical skills in math the nalytical skills needed for literature are not always developed in peole until their early 20s. So I have still not made up my mind even though a lot of people, like Stephen Krashen, who I respect are against them. I’m in the classroom and it seems like these standards can be as emancipatory.
    ps. I am still committed to daily silent reading in my classroom and many students choose novels to read.

  • Mrs. Dorothy Barron said:

    When the mad circle and dashing from one system or platform of learning ends; we generally wind up back where we started – the need for Basics in Education.


  • Jim Butt said:

    As a school director and engineer, I believe in standards. They are the only way to measure relative performance over time or geography. The Common Core is a minimum standard and no school should feel limited in developing or collaborating on ways to address weaknesses, but we need standards as a place to start building.

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  • Craig Steenstra said:

    I agree that there are problems with any standards system, but you fail to mention that the Common Core includes a progression of complexity that allows a given teacher or student to achieve proficiency in a variety of ways. That counters your point about educating a mass of people who can do the same things. Also, the standards explicitly state that students must be able to select the appropriate tools and work collaboratively to solve problems, skills that you mention as most valuable in the global work force.

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  • Paul Blanford said:

    As a school district administrator, I am concerned with the mandates imposed by the CCSS not because of what it imposes on my school, but what it imposes on the system of education; it boggs it down.

    We continue to jump through the hoops and jump the hurdles but we still are able to foster creativity despite the new changes. We are flexible enough to continue the activities we have that have always fostered creativity/innovation. I will say that student’s creativity today seems to be stunted by the continuous use of technology (i.e. video games, phones, etc.) as there is less use of the imagination (i.e. necessity to create things to address boredom – making up games, collaborating with others outside to create an activity, etc.). In my day, we could use a stick and pretend it was a gun to play soldiers, use it as a sword, or other uses. Today’s kids don’t seem to be able to play make believe or be as creative because they do not have to.

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  • Jim Hutchinson said:

    For someone who writes and speaks about education you seem to be rather uninformed as to the intent of standards. Unlike years past when teaching was primarily about filling students’ heads with facts (Paulo Freire’s banking model), the current standards-based education system is primarily about teaching students how to learn and adapt on their own. Yes, there is still some focus on ideas and concepts we feel are necessary (multiplication and division) but the larger focus is on learning how to be a competent consumer of information and being able to use that information to make decisions and solve problems. Common Core standards will not result in a nation of automatons. Rather, if every student in this country were to meet all the standards then we would have a nation of creative, innovative, critical thinking problem solvers. In what way would this be a detriment to our future as a nation?

    It is interesting that you quote Andrea Schleicher. “Schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t know will arise.”

    Interesting because the focus of standards-based education is to precisely that – prepare students for jobs that have yet been invented and solve problems that we do not yet know are problems.

    You state, “if one does not know what careers are there in the future, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prescribe the knowledge and skills that will make today’s students ready for them.” What you do not realize is that the intent of standards-based education isn’t to prescribe specific knowledge and skills, but to prescribe competencies that will allow students to intelligently adapt to an ever-changing world.

    The extent to which Common Core meets these goals is certainly up for debate, but to assume that the goal is to somehow simplify learning, something implied in your overall tone, is simply false.

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  • Julie said:

    What gets tested, gets emphazised. Common Core tests are all taken individually on a computer. How will the test grade creativity and collaboration? Schools and teachers evaluated on test scores will emphasize…testing skills.

  • Robert said:

    With respect to your education and frame of reference, you seem to be arguing in a vacuum. You are opposing Common Core without suggesting an alternative. Do you believe the current system in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind, unaltered, achieves your aims?

    If the current system teaches to the left brain, and Common Core’s organization is a more efficient way to teach to the left brain, would not Common Core be an improvement to the current system?

    If we want to compete against jobs in developing countries, would not the infrastructure for education in our country be superior to theirs? Would not, then, it make sense to utilize our existing superiority in organization and resources to impart to our children more left-side education than can be duplicated in developing countries?

    In order to change the current system to one which teaches more right-brained skills, would one not need a plan, submit the plan to politicians, get support for the plan, then implement the plan via some government action or program? This right-side education system would then be in a situation very much like the opposition to Common Core. People do not like change and would criticize it vehemently.

    Personally, I believe transitions should be gradual and well studied for effectiveness. Sudden shifts have inefficiency. Much like when one moves from one employer to another, there is a certain down time as one gets “up to speed” in the new environment. Employers, therefore, would be wise to pay attention to this cost inherent in re-training employees and seek to prevent an excessive turnover in their workforce. It seems some similar inefficiency creeps up when one makes sudden overhauls to the education system.

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  • Tracy Clifton said:

    I truly believe the BIG problem with Common Core is with HOW it was funded and by WHOM, the high-stakes attached to it, and the ignoring of the true problem (childhood poverty). If the wealthy backers had truly enlisted educators in it’s design, taken the time to introduce it and explain it to other educators and the general population, AND if they had truly done it altruistically (how many more billions of dollars in their pockets do they really need?), it might have had a chance. There is way too much being crammed down everyone’s throats, much too quickly, with a very interconnected group of people poised to make HUGE amounts of money at the expense of already cash-strapped school districts. And the TRUE problem isn’t even being addressed…childhood poverty.

  • James said:

    I’ve been flabbergasted by a number of attacks on the CCSS and NGSS [currently being adopted]. Usually the attacks are inflated by misunderstandings and myths – not modern educational practices. I want to keep this short but lets clarify. The CCSS and NGSS are not curricula. They DO NOT dictate the design of the classroom. They DO NOT keep teachers in lock step. In fact they will ALLOW the opposite. The CCSS and NGSS are performance expectations. They are the minimum students need to be able to DO to attain credit. The performance expectations have been designed to move away from rote memorization [easy level of Bloom’s] to application, design, evaluation, creation [hard stuff of Bloom’s]. They are meant to encourage development of each students ability to THINK and DEFEND. If you think these are poor skills to have in ANY century you need to wake up. The CCSS and NGSS provide an opportunity for teachers to design curricula that is more actively engaging, collaborative in nature and asks students to practice higher level thinking skills. Finally the CCSS and NGSS do not dictate standardized testing. This is a state/government requirement not a CCSS or NGSS one. The CCSS and NGSS meet and EXCEED the 5 so called questions listed. Competitive = Yes. Careers = Yes. Relevant = Yes. Last one is a red herring. ANY system has opportunities to miss. It should not even be included.

  • Lorenzo Morales said:

    Let me take a different position. America is a melting pot, which means, to me at least, that we have many, many different cultures and each places a different value on education. I believe the difficulties lies not in what is taught but the value a culture places on the education of its children. Cultures in different parts of the world, say Asian as an example are what I define as “pure” cultures. That is, everyone in the society values education the same. When they send their children to school all children are expected to achieve. Everyone is in the same boat, so to speak. The expectations are the same for all. In America, it doesn’t happen. Depending on the socio-economic or cultural group(Asian, Hispanic, etc.) level of parents children are sent to school with differing attitudes about what value school has. Everyone talks about the importance of education but the outcome is not the same. The involvement in the education of the child is not the same. The Common Core at least allows for a standard based system that is supposed to allow the same standards for all schools across states. Everyone gets the same. It doesn’t mean that those who have different talents cannot develop to their strengths.
    Personally, I am product of the boomer generation. My elementary education was filled with much rote memorization of math skills, language skills, Historical and geographical facts. By the time I graduated to high school, I had an excellent foundation in the basics. What I didn’t get was a structure for thinking and problem solving. I had to learn that as I went along. I believe children need both. It appears that the Common Core can provide both and it is up to the classroom teacher to provide the repetitive practice that is needed to “make it stick.” If a child does not know or understand the concept of multiplication and memorizes common multiplication products he/she cannot not proceed to division. Without these two there can be no understanding of fractions, decimals. How can one think critically if you do not know historical and geographical facts. Employers needs employees who can think and learn – know how to learn. They are not getting them and thus one sees the importation of talent from other countries.

  • Brad Meyers said:

    I have no problem with the common core itself. Actually, I believe it leaves a lot of room for creativity and innovation. My problem comes with the way they plan on testing it with the PARCC. The amount of time required for each test seems unrealistic especially we are school where every student does not have computer access.

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