It’s been eight years since the Common Core State Standards were unveiled and states began adopting them for use in their evaluation programs.  The firestorm of controversy which initially greeted their introduction into American education from both sides of the political aisle seems to have died down somewhat and presently the Common Core appears to have been accepted as a part of the landscape in most of the nation, even as a handful of states that have not adopted it have established similar sets of academic standards. Thus, the efforts of politicians, corporate executives, and educational bureaucrats over the past three decades have borne fruit.  But I would like to suggest that there is a great deal about the CCSS initiative that is rotten to the core.  Here are 12 reasons I believe the Common Core is bad for America’s schools.

  1. It homogenizes learning.  By adopting a uniform set of standards, states are essentially establishing a ”one-size-fits-all” approach to learning.  Any educator worth her salt knows that students learn in different ways and that education needs to fit the needs of the student, not the reverse.  It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once wrote about ”a foolish consistency, [which is] the hobgoblin of little minds.”  The Common Core is all about foolish consistency and runs a super-freeway through all the little hills and dales of student individuality.
  2. It represents a top-down approach to education reform.  While supporters proclaim that the Common Core is a set of standards, not a national curriculum, seasoned educators know otherwise.  Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars writes that ‘’[the Common Core] is, in fact, very much a curriculum. The sneakiness in this case is . . . aimed at getting around legal barriers that prohibit federal efforts to establish curricula, but the sneakiness is also aimed at diverting teachers and the public from the truth . . . The Common Core standards are finely detailed, grade-by-grade specifications for what should be taught, how it should be taught and when it should be taught.’’  Top-down governance is most dramatically associated with the colossal failures of the Soviet and Red Chinese economies in the 20th century. On a far smaller scale we can see the same thing reflected in this government legislated top-down approach to how we educate our children (see Lawrence Baine’s article ”Stalinizing American Education,” published originally in the Teachers College Record in 2011)..
  3. It focuses too much attention on skills (when it should be focused on content):  Education is supposed to be about passing down a nation’s culture to the new generation.  Ultimately, education should be about introducing learners to the amazing world around them.  What does one make of, thus, a standard like the following: ”Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.” (ELA Literacy, RI 3.2).  What does this have to do with the solar system, the lives of cells, George Washington, or the Grapes of  Wrath?  The Common Core draws teachers away from the good stuff, the learning material that is intrinsically interesting and worthwhile to impart to young minds, and instead puts the emphasis on artificial learning skills.
  4. It encourages the fragmentation of the learning process.  Children are best taught initially via ”wholes” not ”parts.”  Students need to understand the why and wherefore of a topic before delving into the intricate structure of a learning topic.  The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his book ”The Aims of Education” that students must first learn something through the stage of ”romance” where topics are made fascinating, so that they can then move on to the next stage of ”precision.”  The Common Core skips this essential first stage of learning and takes the learning process itself and slices it into hundreds of tiny fragments that in and of themselves have little to entice young minds.
  5. It represents a heavily ”elitist” approach to learning.  The architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, was a Yale graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, and a student in classical philosophy at Cambridge University.  He has effectively imported his elitist training by imposing such so-called innovations as ”close reading” on the English/Language Arts Standards.  Close reading is essentially a distillation of a school of literary criticism called the New Criticism, a method popular at Yale University in the 1950’s.  It places a primacy on sticking to the text of a book and not giving credence to an author’s background, the historical period in which it was written, or the personal ideas and feelings of students.  Why Coleman’s personal prejudices and preferences should serve to drive the education of millions of students is an unanswered question.
  6. It is biased in favor of non-fiction reading as opposed to fictional texts.  Again, because of Coleman’s own biases, there is an emphasis in the Common Core on ”informational texts” rather than reading and/or writing good fiction.  This emphasis undermines the imagination of the student.  Referring to students’ writing from personal experience, Coleman has famously stated: ”no one gives a shit what you think or feel” effectively negating the importance of the subjective self, a particularly devastating bias that hits hardest during the teen years when students are busy building a sense of identity and need learning experiences that fuel that project.
  7. It fails to provide flexibility for students in special education.  With its plethora of skills and standards, the Common Core doesn’t make provision for the fact that many students experience a level of difficulty with literacy and numeracy that makes it all but impossible for many of them to meet grade-level standards.  While the Common Core officials have distributed circulars specifying that certain accommodations can be made in the way that standards are taught (including the use of Universal Design for Learning tools), little leeway is given for the actual taking of the tests.  In New York state, according to one report, only 7 percent of New York City students with disabilities scored “proficient” or better in English and 12 percent in math.  The problem here is not just with students with special needs, but represents a failure of flexibility for all students.
  8. It encourages teachers to teach to the test.  Increasingly, teachers are being held accountable for the test results of their students.  In many cases, teachers are being evaluated partially on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized tests, which focus on Common Core skills.  With their salaries and jobs on the line, many teachers play it safe by drilling students during instruction time on items that are likely to be found on the final tests.  This test preparation takes vital time away from real learning and teaching, and sends a message to students that knowledge is important only in so far as it increases the chances of doing well on a test.
  9. It puts pressure on teachers to teach in developmentally inappropriate ways, especially during the early years.  By focusing on grade-level skills that are highly academic in nature, the Common Core puts pressure on teachers at the early childhood and primary levels to teach using paper-and-pencil methods rather than using the rich exploratory experiential learning approaches that are developmentally appropriate for children from preschool to third grade.  This failure to address developmental needs can have serious consequences for children’s social, emotional, creative, and cognitive functioning.
  10. It discriminates against students in low socio-economic areas of the country.  The inequities that exist in this country with regard to people of color and other minority groups (including students speaking another language), mean that these students won’t receive the same quality teaching, use the same learning-rich resources, or have access to the same standards-based learning experiences as kids from rich suburban areas of the country.  The Common Core State Standards establishes a high bar for America’s students, but it doesn’t provide teachers and schools with the financial support necessary to help millions of students achieve at that level.
  11. Very few experienced teachers who’ve taught in the trenches were consulted in establishing these standards.  The Common Core has emerged as a result of the efforts of primarily non-educators (politicians and corporate executives) or educators who are out of touch with American schoolchildren’s real needs.  The educational ”summits” that led to a standard-based curriculum often included no educators at all.  As noted above, the architect of the Common Core was a Rhodes Scholar who never taught schoolkids, and Jason Zimba, the architect of the math section of the Common Core is likewise a Rhodes Scholar with no experience teaching elementary school students.
  12. It encourages a bureaucratic attitude toward learning and teaching.  With a Dewey Decimal System-like approach to learning (e.g. ’ELA.W.11.12.3b – Use narrative techniques such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines to develop experiences, events, and/or characters,’’) the Common Core appeals mostly to bureaucrats who are less interested in facilitating rich learning experiences in the classroom, and more interested in tracking compliance of students using this Byzantine set of codes as a Procrustean bed within which to confine the bright spark of genius that is every student’s birthright.

Interested in the ideas discussed in this article?  Then order Thomas Armstrong’s new book:  If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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77 Responses
  1. Jen

    You just put into words why over the years esp since common core came along our public schools felt very dark to me as a mother of 4. I am a professional but not a teacher so I could never put words to exactly why things felt so bad but I would see the effects it had on my children one being anxiety, crying before school… etc ( that would be a whole other letter). Your article completely hit on the spot all of it and why we took 3 of our kids out of the public system. We had teachers telling our kids at times they had to teach for the test. We experienced teachers morale change drastically. We were
    Able to see a few teachers several different years because our kids sometimes had the same teacher and they changed. When I tried to have a conversation with one of these teachers we knew well and had a good relationship with, asking what the deal was… I was looked down upon and probably seen as a challenging parent( you know one of those parents). Well now I have decided to homeschool my 3rd grader, and he is excited now for school, because it’s interesting and like the article said it’s important to spark their fascination about things so they will find it interesting. He is now learning amazing things while learning life skills like math, grammar, reading and comp. He is also learning non biased things like govt. and both sides to things (there was a lot of bias). Now he learns math like I did. No BS like many fill in the blanks etc, he learns vocabulary but because he will probably never use it again he is honing in on basic math skills and learning to do them really well. He is learning long multiplication like I did one way of doing it and learning to do it well then he moves on.. there is no homework but family time after school. Its completely unnecessary esp if your kid has been taught all day long. We go fishing instead. I just wish people stood up and I am not sure many do. We had good relationships with teachers and principles in our district but when we withdrew Three of our kids no one asked why. I did take it personal because we had given them our kids many years and we
    Pay taxes there. I often wonder why they didn’t ask? Because it wouldn’t matter
    Anyway? Great article

  2. Thanks, Jen, for your message. I’m glad you’re homeschooling your kids – for those who can do it, it’s probably the best of all educational options. Much success to you and your kids!
    Cheers, Thomas Armstrong

  3. I am a grandparent who is doing remote learning with my nine year old 4th grader . Common Core is a travesty! What idiot with nothing else to do thought this junk up?
    What was wrong with the old tried and true way of teaching math?
    I can’t even help my grandson ! A pox on the idiots who shoved this into the school system!

  4. G Ayala

    For years, perhaps generations, the education in our country, specially in MESA, has been falling behind as compared with other developed nations. Basically, if a HS graduate cannot balance her/his checkbook our education has failed to perform its responsibilities. But if that is not bad enough, many college students have the same problems: cannot manage a bank account or a credit card. Aren’t these the signs of a common problem among adults in our society? What good has the core curriculum, standards, “common core”, etc., served our learners? What are our students doing with all the algebra, trigonometry, calculus and geometry they are supposed to master for graduation when they cannot even represent the value of 1/2 in decimal or percentage formats? The real problem is the giant business behind the education INDU$TRY, where profit is sine qua non and national politics are are subservient to the Publishers who produce their ever changing materials/texts/test to keep their Midas touch – grip in “education.” To understand basic arithmetic one should not require a PhD in math. But, regardless of good common sense, let’s apply common core math to check book balancing to see if we improve our multitudes.

  5. Thanks for your apt comments. I totally agree with you. Financial literacy should be a regular part of the math curriculum – in fact, all math instruction should be geared toward practical life skills, not for preparing ivory tower intellectuals to teach advanced calculus.

  6. Thanks for your passionate response! Math should really help kids understand the news, manage their money, and help them make sense of the numbers in our lives, not prepare them to be egghead professors in the math department of some college or university.

  7. Kim

    Thank you Mr.Armstrong,
    This article helped me to better understand the confusion and stress I’ve been recently experiencing as I am trying to help my son on a daily basis with the distant learning online schooling. He is enrolled with an IEP, and math by itself is the biggest struggle, not only for him but for me too.
    It’s absolutely ridiculous!! . .(systems of linear equations), etc. He is in the 8th grade, and has been refusing school since the 2nd grade. It is a daily struggle every day just to get him to go, or now to get him to get online to check in, and because I am sitting right along side of him and observing this math, it’s no wonder he is suffering anxiety and struggles with getting his assignments completed and turned in. Even if there is someone available to help him from the school to complete and turn in his assignments I will say with confidence that he has not actually learned anything from completing the math assignment because he doesn’t understand or comprehend the work he is doing. Therefore he is not learning it. It is causing anxiety, stress and frustration.
    I’m looking forward to reading some of your recently published books. Thank you again for being a voice to many frustrated parents like myself.

  8. I’m sorry to hear that your son has been having trouble with his math. I wonder if you contact the school directly, and if he qualifies, they might be able to send a tutor out to help him. Another potential solution would be to go to Khan Academy, online, which has 8 minute lessons on specific math skills, which your son could view over and over again until he gets it. He could go back to earlier math levels (since math builds on previous skills), and master them one at a time until he gets to the material being presented by the school. Good luck and I hope you enjoy my books! Perhaps you can get your son my book You’re Smarter Than You Think, which will help your son realize that there are more ways than words and numbers to being intelligent. For you, I’d recommend my book In Their Own Way. Thanks for writing!

  9. My two sons went through school way before this common core nonsense and did very well. Now they have children of their own and I hear them talking about this being absolute bull____! They don’t understand the math and can’t help their children Parents and children get so frustrated. PLEASE get rid of common core and start teaching common sense techniques.

  10. Erin K

    I’m confused about these concerns, especially about math. I teach elementary school . The common core outlines a set of skills students should master by the end of the grade level, but it doesn’t tell you how to teach these skills. If you don’t want to teach the area method of multiplication, for example, a teacher can decide to tech standard algorithm. I wouldn’t recommend it, but you could. Half of our incoming students come from religious schools that teach “the old way” these students almost all have a poor grasp of math concepts and if they can’t memorize a procedure they’re out of luck.

    I think everyone’s upset because they were taught procedures not concepts, and concepts require a deeper understanding. They don’t know why the procedures work and instead of trying to understand the concepts, they’re mad because they think now they have to learn another set of procedures.

    As a kid in the 90s I was told that if you weren’t good at memorizing procedures then you weren’t a “math person” and that you were probably good at something else. Now I have fully grown adults telling me they can’t be expected to understand first grade addition because “they’re not a math person.” That’s a much bigger problem with our education system then learning concepts rather than procedures.

    Furthermore, there’s no law saying that schools have to do it. There is a test in most states, mine included, to access student mastery. How you get your students to mastery is up to you, but I’m glad we can agree on where the goal posts are. These tests existed far before common core. I think we over test as a country, and is be all for removing a lot of these tests, but the tests and common core are separate.

    I agree we should have a financial literacy set of standards! I would love to add that to common core.

    My family moved a bunch when I was in elementary school and I got some ideas multiple times and skipped others all together. In our increasingly mobile world, national learning standards are really helpful.

  11. Jay hayes

    To erin k.
    Math has no concepts. It only has rules. At least in k-12 math. I dont believe you teach if you don’t know that. These rules work everytime. A concept is unproven.
    That is my old-school opinion and I am sticking to it.

  12. Eric R

    Erin K- “concepts” are the problem with current common core teaching in math, at least from what you are referring to. They force students to find the answer only using one set standard method, when higher math has many ways of finding an answer, the that’s kinda the point! When I was in school, we had to show our work of course, but it wasn’t because if it wasn’t identical to the “teacher’s answer” it was marked wrong! It was so the teacher could see which approach you took to get your answer and if you got an incorrect answer, where you went wrong. My child thinks very differently (brilliantly many would say in traditional math teaching) he can find unique ways of doing his calculus homework answers and is punished for that because it’s not the common core math approach that is frankly confusing and includes so many steps it’s amazing children can even do simple addition let alone higher math! They have to memorize steps because just knowing simple freaking things like 2+4=6 doesn’t exist, you have to break it down to multiple steps that then have the increased chance for error. My son was always failing math which broke my heart, because he is exceptional at it! I’m so glad our state removed common core, at least the general math requirements because now students like him have a chance!

  13. What you say is all too true. The ability to figure out alternative ways of solving a mathematical problem is a sign of creativity, intelligence, and even genius. I hope your son doesn’t become too discouraged by the schools’ narrow focus, and manages to deeply trust his own intuitions and problem-solving strategies.

  14. Gloria

    Thank you for this article, sometimes I feel I’m all alone in this. We’re about to pull our child out of public school after this year is over. My husband is an accountant and I also have a degree and we cannot figure out this stuff and not only that but every single day is different. We ask our kid and she doesn’t know. Teacher is always giving out the answers so our kid never learns. We don’t even know what’s going on with history either, the things that are being taught are crazy.

  15. Tom

    From my perspective as a parent of 2, this article is mostly nonsense. I could go into great detail but it would take a lot of words. Many of the criticisms here don’t stem from common core at all but have existed in classrooms all over the country, just in a more limited scope. And children experience anxiety all over the country because we have, over time, increased the expectations of education since I was a lad. People who pull their children out because of this are making sad excuses and there’s no getting around this. I’ve known parents who did this 15 years ago before CC existed and they used essentially the same excuses. The bottom line is that the US is lagging behind many other countries in education mainly because we cannot agree on anything anymore and parents seem more involved in the minutia of schools than ever. This is in part due to the political division in our country and the irrational fear of “big government” that many have. If all of those little school districts were so great at their jobs then we wouldn’t be so far behind (we aren’t close to the top 10 in math, science or reading). But the fact that we do fall so far behind is evidence that what we are doing (defend it as much as you like), it simply not working!

  16. Actually, I think that this was the point I was trying to make. Despite 35 years of school reforms and billions of dollars spent, we literally haven’t made ANY progress with our students. While Common Core is only a part of the problem, in the last fifteen years it hasn’t taken us any closer to the goal.

  17. Vincent Selby

    Dr. Armstrong,
    I graduated from high school with a fifth grade math level. II have been tested to be a hands-on learner but in the school system my sister and I were in. I was classified as severely mentally retarded when I learn in a different manner. Basic math was required and algebra, calculus, etc, were electives. Now, they’re required classes. Where are students and regular people going to use algebra on the job if they’re in a regular job or higher trained job. I took college placement tests at two different colleges. Got through them in twenty minutes. English, many of the questions I was never taught in school. Algebra, which I’ve never seen before. I couldn’t do. The college advisors told me that I had to return to elementary school. A slap in the mouth. Many students in the past and now are literally giving passing grades to students just for being in class. Nothing is taught at all. I’ve asked some high school graduates and older people some history questions I was taught. The holocaust, American monuments, famous history and people the history was about. They’ve never heard of ant of those things. I feel sorry for the younger generation. They don’t know what America is from a historical point of view. As well as they don’t know how to survive without any other supplies like people had to do in the depression era. I have many other areas to talk about.

  18. Stefan

    Some of the postings here show that many of the parents that are freaking out over CC are the same ones that are freaking out over CRT – before CC and CRT they characterized the same problems in other terms – there is nothing new here, just faux uproar.

    The projecting of patents insecurities and inadequacies (passed down from their parents as well?) is very evident.

    Placing children into private (cultural/politically centric) schools will yield nothing useful – the evidence shows this. In that case the children will still not progress and truly grasp ideas/concepts (procedures are a dead-end plan) and they’ll run the risk of often performing in the bottom half.

    When children hear from certain cultural segments that “nobody needs algebra or physics” they are sadly being setup for failure and the confines of certain cultural segments of society – no upward path.

    Degrees mean nothing, demonstratable problem-solving skills and grasp of nuance are required in the modern world, else life is quite a battle.

    Teacher and Children are not the problem, the projected insecurities (and cultural will) are the problem. Apples falling from trees are often a good thing.

  19. AEM

    A little background first …
    Private tutor of 20 years for high school students at various competitive schools in Bay Area, CA. Taught high school chemistry and math for 4 years at a public and private high school. Substitute taught in 7 high schools for 3 years.

    In my opinion, high school common core math has failed students. For years, the books were severely undeveloped: no diagrams, no answer keys, no explanations. But there certainly were plenty of drawings of androgenous characters with ridiculous names; but, I won’t get
    any more into the obvious and controversial social agendas built into some of the books. With CC, the cart was put before the horse. Students need to already have high math literacy to be able to solve problems on their own. It’s like asking someone to write a novel when they haven’t learned the alphabet yet. A healthy amount of memorization and algorithmic learning is necessary. No need to toss the baby out with the bath water. Additionally, the entire “preview-review”approach is a failure. Students are constantly bombarded with a smattering of different topics they’ve never seen before in each lesson. Even if they succeed in figuring out what to do, they won’t see those same topics again for months, and, again, the exposure will only consist of a single problem. Thus, there is no repetition, the mother of mastery. The best schools in this area avoid implementation of the common core; they know better. It’s always been so obvious to me that high school common core math is trash that I’ve simply assumed that only those with a vested interest in its implementation approve of it. Either that, or it’s callow, starry-eyed graduates from teaching credential programs who have successfully been indoctrinated. Besides the standard courses, traditional ed already worked towards an increasing development of math competency and critical thinking; that’s partly what honors/AP/accelerated classes are for. Not to mention, there’s college, and for those who wish to keep going, graduate/professional school. One nice thing about CC, though, is that it sometimes drums up extra tutoring business and allows me to be a hero. I occasionally will accept students from lower performing schools (which are still located in areas where homes are at least 1.5 M), and it’s nice to be able to save them tons of time and free them from all the frustration and confusion brought on my their common-core-infested schools. Honestly, I could go on and on, but I’m sitting here in my car typing on my smart phone, and I already know what I see and hear from the students and schools as an experienced teacher in the trenches. High school common core math, and no doubt other subjects, might have been a cute, theoretical pet of elite ivory tower academics and those various levels of the educational system who stood to make money from its implementation, but in the end it has always been a disgrace and a failure.

  20. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with math instruction. What stuck out for me was your reference to ”elite ivory tower academics” because that’s exactly the problem with the Language Arts CC – its based upon a recondite theory of literary criticism called The New Criticism that was popular at Yale in the 1930’s. So much for dealing with reality!

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