How the Common Core Changes Everything

It’s well established that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—adopted in principle by forty-six states—won’t get any real traction unless they’re comprehensively and faithfully implemented at the state and local levels. (They also have implications for federal policy and programs, of course.)

But what is comprehensive implementation? True, we’ve heard much palaver about what the Common Core portends for assessment, for teachers’ professional development, and for curricular/instructional materials. All true, all crucial, and all probably the most urgent. But these issues are also just the tip of the CCSS iceberg, most of which remains invisible under water. What I haven’t seen yet is clear recognition that the Common Core, taken seriously, eventually changes everything in American education and that implementation, done right, must be comprehensive.

Which means what? Start with a substantial analogy: World War II. A new book profiles General Albert C. Wedemeyer, who was assigned by General Marshall to the Army’s “War Plans Department” as the conflict loomed and (I quote the Wall Street Journal’s book review) “tasked…with reducing America’s mobilization requirements to a single document.” Then FDR asked Wedemeyer’s team to turn it “into a blueprint on how to defeat America’s likely enemies in a future war.” The book explains:

Completed in an astonishing 90 days, this plan laid down all the critical politico-military-industrial assumptions for the looming conflict, correctly identifying America’s adversaries and where the main fighting would take place and estimating the industrial capacity needed to feed the war machines of China, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States and how much war materiel could be spared to allies. Wedemeyer proposed overrunning Germany and Japan with an army of nearly nine million draftees, a number that he concluded would leave sufficient factory workers and farmers back home to feed the troops and keep the tanks, bombers and artillery shells rolling off assembly lines. He also called for an invasion of Europe in 1943, before Germany could strengthen its defenses.

The Wedemeyer plan was carried out only in part. (Churchill was convinced that an early invasion of the European continent would end disastrously.) But, dramatic though this may seem, full-on Common Core implementation will demand a plan a plan of similar comprehensiveness and vision. I don’t know who will play the role of Albert Wedemeyer, but maybe we can accelerate the process by offering a provisional table of contents.

Here’s my list of  topics that the plan should include, submitted  with some humility, as I’ve surely overlooked important items (bring ‘em on!), and with some trepidation, as understanding these implications may cause Common Core skeptics to stiffen their resistance.


1. Curriculum guides for teachers

The Common Core sets forth what students needs to have learned by the end of each year. It doesn’t help teachers with “scope and sequence,” much less lesson planning. Not all teachers want such help—and there’s much shrieking about “national curriculum”—but some will welcome guidance. (Keep it voluntary!)

2. Textbooks that are truly aligned
Every big ELA- and math-textbook publisher has already declared that its products are “aligned” with the Common Core, but mostly that’s not true. Who is going to apply the excellent publishers’ guidelines produced by Student Achievement Partners and actually rate the textbooks (and fast-proliferating digital resources) on how well they’re aligned?

3. Additional instructional materials

Traditional U.S. textbooks and “reading programs”—bulky, lumbering, and linear—aren’t going to work very well with the instructional demands of the Common Core. Teachers will need to be able to muster instructional resources from many sources, including electronic ones. (Some excellent nonprofit groups are already at work on materials that will end up being freely available, which also portends a radical transformation of the textbook market!)

4. Curriculum narrowing

How do we keep K-12 education from being whittled down to the two subjects in the Common Core? Yes, “next generation” science standards are in the works. But what about history, geography, civics, languages, and the arts? Health and phys ed? Where do they fit? What standards will apply? How will they be taught and assessed?


5. Professional development

Hundreds of thousands of current teachers need to update, alter, and amplify their own knowledge base and pedagogical arsenal if they’re to succeed in imparting the Common Core to their pupils.

6. Teacher (and principal) preparation

Pretty nearly every teacher-preparation program in the land, whether university-based or “alternative,” will need to revamp its own standards and curriculum if it’s to prepare tomorrow’s instructors to impart the Common Core to their students. Ditto for those who purport to train school leaders. A lot of professors will need to change their ways, too!

7. Evaluations

These will change, too, with implications for everything that is attached to them (tenure decisions, merit pay, layoffs, and more). Will it get harder or easier to make “value-added” calculations at the classroom level once Common Core assessments kick in? What about rubrics for teacher observations? (And how well trained will those observers be in what to look for in a Common Core classroom?)


8. The day and year

I wager that today’s standard school day and year will prove insufficient for many kids to master the Common Core plus everything else that they need to learn. Can instructional time be individualized, too, in school or online? What are the budget implications?

9. Promotion and graduation requirements

Some states have third-grade “reading guarantees,” but what about the rest of the K-12 sequence? Will going from sixth grade to seventh hinge on a student having mastered the Common Core standards for sixth? What about entering high school? Earning a diploma? Will this continue to be based on Carnegie units and course credits or on actual mastery? (And what about subjects outside ELA and math?) What does Common Core portend for the two dozen or so states with high-school-graduation tests that are pegged to yesterday’s ninth- or tenth-grade expectations?

10. Internal organization of schools

Though the Common Core is built around grade levels, kids don’t learn at the same speed—and individualization of instruction grows ever more important. What about moving kids forward as they master stuff rather than through lock-step progressions? Why can’t one be in third grade for ELA, say, and fourth or fifth for math? How about those who will need five years rather than four to master the challenges of high school? (Today they’re counted as “drop outs” in most states’ statistics!) And since we can no longer afford to individualize by shrinking class size further, we’ll need to rely more on technology—which the new assessments also need—and on more flexible ways of organizing school itself.

11. Preschooling

Remind yourself what the Common Core expects Kindergartners to learn (review page ten of the ELA standards or page eleven of math standards). Then ask yourself what must a child know and be able to do upon entry into Kindergarten to maximize the odds that she will be ready to succeed there. Then ponder how few of today’s preschool programs (Head Start included) have standards, curricula, and staff that are up to this challenge? And how many of today’s needy pre-Kindergartners don’t even have access to those programs?

12. Technology

This stuff is evolving at warp speed, with profound implications for schooling and for kids’ lives. Much of it’s about communication and entertainment, but as those realms overlap more with formal education—for good and ill—and as more kids gain 24/7 access to all of them, what will this mean for K-12 schooling? How much of it will actually take place in school? How much will require flesh-and-blood instructors—and of what sorts? And what’s to become of libraries, book rooms, backpacks, and the rest? Picture every school kid with her own iPad in hand…

Assessment and accountability

13. Tests

New Common Core assessments are under development for deployment in 2014-15—and let’s hope they turn out well—but for states and districts to make good use of them means rethinking their entire approach to student assessment, right down to the classroom level. How will the end of a “six-week unit,” for example, be assessed? What about those end-of-week vocabulary reviews? Weekly reports to parents on what was and wasn’t learned?

14. Accountability systems

Most state accountability systems incorporate multiple factors, including but not limited to student test scores, which are geared to current state standards and tests. Every state does it differently—and those differences are apt to widen as federal NCLB prescriptions ease with recent waivers and (maybe someday) ESEA reauthorization. States that embrace the Common Core will need to reconstruct their accountability systems, as will districts that have their own.

15. Alternate assessments

Then there’s the GED and other ways of gauging “equivalency” for those who don’t earn a conventional on-schedule diploma. Big changes are afoot there, but will the new tests equate to the Common Core—and redress the long-standing problem of the GED: namely that people possessing it don’t fare much better in life than dropouts?

The reception

16. Graduation rates

What happens, politically, when graduation rates plummet and dropout rates soar, at least for a few years? Are states and communities ready for this? Nobody ever is. But does that mean we’ll “phase in” the more rigorous graduation expectations? How long will that take?

17. Higher education

Once Common Core rigor takes hold (if ever) of high-school-exit expectations, will our universities actually accept that diploma as proof of college readiness? Will it yield automatic admission and placement into credit-bearing college courses? If not, why should K-12 students (and parents and taxpayers) take it seriously? If it does, what happens to faculty members who have been teaching remedial courses? What happens to collegiate English and math classes if entering students are truly prepared? Will that compulsory first-year writing course still be needed?

18. Career education

The Common Core claims to be geared to college and career readiness. We know that not everyone is headed to (or belongs in) college, at least not the four-year kind. But what exactly are the implications for employer expectations, hiring practices, and on-the-job training? (How about the armed forces as a major employer?) How about secondary-level technical-vocational education? Will Common Core expectations make it into those institutions, too? That will likely mean major-league curricular and instructional alteration.

19. NCLB and other federal policy

Everybody knows this but it needs underscoring: When Congress gets around to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—and other programs such as IDEA, Head Start and TRIO—it must contend with the changed expectations that most states will have for their students and the implications of those changes for the special populations, additional services, and so forth that Uncle Sam focuses on. And it must do so without turning the Common Core itself into a federal mandate. (Remember, four states want no part of it—and at least a few more are apt to back out along the way.)

20. NAEP

The role of the Nation’s Report Card will evolve, too. If most states end up using new English language arts and math assessments, calibrated to Common Core standards, at the individual, building, district, and state levels, there will be less cause to press for NAEP (and PISA, TIMSS, etc.) to be administered to everybody. But NAEP will remain the crucial external auditor for Common Core states and those that do their own thing. At the same time, the curricular frameworks that determine what NAEP assesses may need to be re-examined.

Yikes. It’s sort of scary. Daunting. Politically and organizationally challenging. Expensive in a time of tight budgets. Disruptive to myriad entrenched institutions and practices. But if we don’t wrap our minds around the totality of it, we may not win this war. Are you listening, General Wedemeyer?

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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