The Problems and Promise of Common Core

In the handful of years since the Common Core State Standards were unveiled and quickly adopted by 45 states, the initiative — setting benchmarks that spell out what students need to learn at each grade level, across the states — has become wildly controversial. As Education Next reported in an study co-written by Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Martin West, support for the Common Core declined noticeably between 2013 and 2014, threatening to undermine the baseline rationale of the project — that shared academic standards across states are a good idea, a notion that still wins wide support in principle. As the issue threatens to become more polarizing, legislative and lobbying efforts are underway in states across the country to pause, review, or repeal the standards, their accompanying assessments, or both.

In the first in a series of Usable Knowledge video roundtables, we ask HGSE faculty members Heather Hill, Daniel Koretz, and Paul Reville to weigh in on what went wrong in the implementation process, what needs to happen next, and how to support teachers and schools as they adapt to the new standards.

Watch the entire video roundtable, or see excerpted segments below.

A major driver of Common Core discontent is not the standards themselves but the related assessments, as Reville and Koretz explain. Concerns about high-stakes testing were already on the rise, they note, and those concerns are being conflated with questions about Common Core, particularly since its related assessments set ambitious targets and carry significant weight. “Now we’re entering an era where assessments are coming due,” says Reville, “and there are a lot of concerns about what the assessments will show.”


Education policy in the United States has long been dominated by the notion that the way to reform education is to set performance standards and establish a system of accountability. “It hasn’t been a very successful policy,” says Koretz, but policymakers have stuck to the theme, varying the details, but not the broad assumptions. Common Core is “another iteration of that same cycle,” he says.

By now, teachers are used to these cycles of test-based accountability, says Hill. She describes a “tension in education reform” between initiatives that focus on accountability and those that focus on helping educators improve their skills. “The question for me is how are these two going to affect each other, and what is the likelihood that we can help teachers and curriculum writers and people in districts actually implement common core and achieve the kinds of things that state policymakers and national policymakers have suggested.”



“People have lost track of the fact that tests are just tests,” says Koretz, describing reform policies that rely too heavily on the limited information that tests provide. “There is a great deal that I value walking into a school that can’t be measured in tests.” Reform policies that “lead with the test” need to be fundamentally reconsidered, he argues.


After more than two decades of experience with standards-based reform, Reville says, we need to look beyond the relatively narrow success measures we’ve defined for students and schools. “Part of the conversation we need to welcome now — and I’d encourage policymakers to have — is what are those other elements that contribute to students being successful that we ought to take a look at, and then how are we going to make room and build capacity within our education systems to address those issues,” he says.


– Bari Walsh

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s site Usable Knowledge.

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