How Common Core Is Destroying Training of Teachers

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As intended, Common Core’s standards shape tests determining “college and career readiness.” But, unfortunately, they affect the preparation of teachers and administrators, as well. How they do so is not well understood by most parents.

Here’s how it works. Stay with me, because even if you know some of the early points, the final part is a doozy.


A.  What lies have been regularly told to the public about Common Core’s standards?

As Arne Duncan claimed in his memoir, public education runs on lies. Duncan didn’t spell out the lies, but many state boards of education and educators in the schools to this day believe that Common Core’s standards were developed by experienced educators and experts nationwide and are “rigorous.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it endorsed Common Core’s standards because “businesses all across the country depend on a highly qualified workforce prepared for jobs in the 21st century,” and claimed the standards were “developed by a group of experts including teachers and school administrators.” It’s likely that the Chamber was simply repeating what it was told to say.

In fact, Common Core’s standards were NOT rigorous, nor were they developed by a “group of experts,” nor were they internationally benchmarked or comparable to those in leading nations. How do I know? I was appointed to Common Core’s Validation Committee in 2009 and read the standards and the background material that accompanied them. I was appalled, as I explained in a subsequent letter, and that’s why I was one of five members of the committee who did not sign off on the standards in 2010.


B.  Major Flaws in Common Core’s English Language Arts Standards

1.  Most of Common Core’s English language arts standards are content-free skills

Most of Common Core’s vocabulary, reading, and literature “standards” point to no particular level of reading difficulty, little cultural knowledge, and few intellectual objectives. They are best described as skills or strategies — when they can be understood at all. They cannot be described as rigorous.

Here is one example. The “Anchor Standard” of Common Core is:  “Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.”  The grades-11-and-12 standard “clarifying” this Anchor Standard is:  “Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.” This is a free-floating skill and can be applied to anything from “The Three Little Pigs” to Moby-Dick.

Skills training alone doesn’t prepare students for college. But Common Core’s English language arts standards require no British literature aside from one work by Shakespeare. They require no authors from the ancient world or selected pieces from the Bible as literature so that students can learn about their influence on English and American literature. They do not require study of the history of the English language. Without requirements in these areas, students will likely not be prepared for college coursework (or active, informed citizenship or critical thinking) in an English-speaking country.

2.  Common Core’s English language arts standards stress writing more than reading at every grade level

There are more writing than reading standards at every grade level in Common Core. This is the opposite of what an academically sound English curriculum should contain, as suggested by a large body of research on the development of reading and writing skills. The foundation for good writing is good reading in every subject of the K-12 curriculum.

3.  Common Core’s writing standards are developmentally inappropriate at many grade levels

Adults have a much better idea of what “claims,” “relevant evidence,” and academic “arguments” are than kids do. Most elementary children have a limited understanding of these concepts and find it difficult to compose an argument with claims and evidence. It would be difficult for children to do so even if Common Core’s writing standards were linked to appropriate reading standards and prose models. But they are not. Nor does the document clarify the difference between an academic argument (explanatory writing) and opinion-based writing or persuasive writing, confusing teachers and students alike. Worse yet, Common Core’s writing standards stress emotion-laden, opinion-based writing in the elementary grades. There is no research evidence to support this kind of teaching method – and how could there be, since it doesn’t make sense.

4.  Common Core expects English teachers to spend over half of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts

Common Core lists 10 reading standards for informational texts and nine standards for literary texts at every grade level. However, English teachers are trained by college English departments and teacher preparation programs and are expected to teach the four major types of literature (poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction) as well as the elements of rhetoric, not a large body of fragmented information on a variety of contemporary or historical topics. Moreover, it’s not clear from Common Core what “informational texts” are, especially since literary scholars do not consider them “literary nonfiction,” something Common Core sometimes suggests they can be called. Nor is there any evidence that a heavy dose of “informational” reading in an English class improves students’ reading skills.

5.  Common Core reduces opportunities for students to develop critical thinking

Critical thinking – which means analytical thinking – is developed in the English class when teachers teach students how to read between the lines of complex literary works. Analytical thinking cannot take place in an intellectual vacuum. By reducing literary study in the English class in order to increase informational reading, Common Core reduces the opportunity for students to learn how to do critical thinking, and in effect, retards college readiness.

6.  Common Core’s standards are not “fewer, clearer, and deeper”

They may appear to be fewer in number than those in many states because different objectives or activities are often bundled together incoherently into one “standard.” These bundled statements posing as standards are frequently not easy to interpret, and many are poorly written. For example, a literature standard for grades 9 and 10 asks students to:  “determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.” This wretched sentence is a jumble of at least three different activities:  determining a theme, analyzing its development, and summarizing a complete text. Good luck to the ninth-grader who tries to figure it out on his own.

7.  The vocabulary standards are weak, often inappropriate, and often poorly exemplified

These standards should be the strongest strand in any set of English language arts standards because of the importance of vocabulary knowledge in reading comprehension. But Common Core’s standards are not rigorous and often contain inappropriate teaching advice. For example, in grade 2, students are to “use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.” However, grade 2 students first need to be able to read the “context” in order to use it as a clue. Many can’t. So what good is this advice if it puts the cart before the horse?


C.  Major Flaws in Common Core’s Mathematics Standards

Most of the major flaws in Common Core’s mathematics standards were pointed out in R. James Milgram’s letter of May 2010 explaining why he couldn’t sign off on them as a member of the Validation Committee.  He did not address them all in his May 2010 letter because the final version of Common Core’s mathematics standards was released later, and he expected standards for the “third pathway” (a sequence of courses leading to calculus) to appear in this later version.

1.  Common Core’s mathematics standards do not prepare high school students for the freshman mathematics courses needed by Science-Technology-Engineering-Math majors

There are no standards for precalculus and not enough for a full trigonometry course. And the Algebra II course outlined in Appendix A is weak (according to Milgram, logarithms and the standard algebraic analysis of conic sections are missing). Thus, this Algebra II course cannot prepare students for a traditional precalculus course.

2.  Many standards for basic arithmetical operations and place value are one or more years behind the corresponding standards for many if not all high-achieving countries

As Milgram noted:  Common Core’s mathematics standards are not benchmarked at the same grade level as the standards of high-achieving countries in mathematics. Instead, they expect full use of the standard algorithms at higher grade levels. For example, consider the Common Core mathematics standards for developing fluency with the standard algorithm in addition and subtraction. Although this algorithm is taught by grade 3 in high-achieving countries, the sequence begins in grade 2 in Common Core and is completed in grade 4.

An additional problem: As Milgram noted, there is particular danger of students becoming fluent in the use of non-generalizable algorithms that work for smaller numbers but do not extend to larger numbers. If students develop fluent command of special tricks for doing arithmetic (“strategies and algorithms”), this could very well result in severe difficulties un-learning their own algorithms in later grades where Common Core’s standards ask for some degree of proficiency with the standard algorithms.

3.  The standards do not provide a full Algebra I course in grade 8 or prepare students for one.

The pre-Common Core California standards expected most students to be ready for Algebra I by eighth grade and provided the standards for Algebra I in grade 8. Common Core doesn’t. So students fall behind.


D.  The Nation’s Major Accreditation Agency Requires Educator Preparation Programs to Address Common Core’s Standards

 The private organization that accredits teacher and administrator preparation programs in every state, the Council for the Accreditation of Education Professionals, seems to expect these programs to address Common Core’s standards for re-accreditation. So did the U.S. Department of Education, it seems, when it enticed states via its Race to the Top program in 2010 to adopt Common Core’s standards. Teacher/administrator training programs in every state must be state-approved and are expected to address the state’s own K-12 standards. (An account of a 2019 US Government Accountability Office evaluation of the federal education department’s effectiveness in monitoring the performance of the K-12 programs it funds (such as Title I) describes the U.S. Department of Education as a “massive failure.” For the January 2019 report of the General Accounting Office, click here.)

In CAEP 2013 Standards for Accreditation of Educator Preparation, approved by the council’s board of directors on August 29, 2013, we find under “Standard 1:  Content and Pedagogical Knowledge” the following standard as a “provider” responsibility:

“1.4 Providers ensure that completers demonstrate skills and commitment that afford all P‐12 students access to rigorous college‐ and career‐ready standards (e.g., Next Generation Science Standards, National Career Readiness Certificate, Common Core State Standards).”

Exactly how teachers can give students “access” to rigorous standards is not explained in the glossary for this standard. In addition, there are two basic problems with the wording in substandard 1.4. 

First, the word “rigorous” begs the question that is arousing parents across the country:  Are “college- and career-ready standards” (which everyone today knows as a synonym for Common Core’s standards) rigorous? It has becoming increasingly clear to watchful parents that Common Core-based lessons are not academically rigorous.

Why did the council decide that Common Core’s standards were rigorous? What experts on high school mathematics, science, and literary content helped the education school deans on the council’s board of directors to arrive at that decision? Even Common Core’s own mathematics standards writers have acknowledged that they do not prepare students for science-technology-engineering-mathematics majors or careers. By intention, Common Core’s level of college readiness in mathematics is low.

Moreover, in requiring prospective teachers (“completers”) to demonstrate their “commitment” to give all students “access” to “rigorous” standards, the examples given do not lead knowledgeable observers to place much confidence in the outcomes. The examples include Next Generation Science Standards, which were released in 2013. They have been heavily criticized by scientists for having few high school chemistry standards and unteachable physics standards because the mathematics to support high school physics coursework is not clearly specified nor integrated with the physics standards.

But forget for a moment about the deficiencies of Common Core. Even the council’s approach is wrong. Why should an accreditation agency promote particular sets of standards (even if as examples) rather than expect prospective teachers and administrators to learn how to teach discipline-based content? Accrediting personnel will rely on those examples of standards, especially if they have been told they are rigorous, leaving prospective teachers and administrators underqualified for work in private schools or homeschooling cooperatives that may still want educators who can establish and teach to authentically rigorous standards.

The Council for the Accreditation of Education Professionals may well be handicapping the preparation programs it has accredited. While private schools as well as some charter schools are exempt from hiring state-licensed teachers and administrators, a new accreditation agency is needed that does not impose weak or academically-limited K-12 standards on all educator training programs. Unfortunately, the nation’s self-appointed education policy experts, Bill and Melinda Gates, who gave us Common Core, have decided they know how teachers should be trained. They don’t. The results predictable and disheartening.

How did this country arrive at the point where its educators may no longer be trusted because of the accreditation of their training programs?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read other articles by her here.