Weighing the pros and cons of Common Core Standards

Putting the children first

Nicole Guttermuth

Nicole Guttermuth

By Nicole Guttermuth

Even though I am an only child, I was never particularly selfish. This debt of gratitude I owe to my mom, who is one of the most selfless human beings I know. One of her sayings that has always struck with me throughout life is “it’s nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice.”

As a mother, she always put me first. Not in a “the world revolved around me” sort of way, but in the way, in my humble opinion, parents should put their children first in most instances. Despite that she might have been tired from an eight or 10-hour day on her feet as a nurse, caring for the needs of others, when we got home from school and work, her focus was on helping me get my homework done, making sure I ate dinner and took a shower, and tucking me into bed at a reasonable hour so I could get up in the morning and be ready to tackle another day at school.

It was only after my needs were met that she turned her attention to other things. Truth be told, by that point she was probably ready to climb into her own bed and go to sleep so she could start another day taking care of other people.

When I became a parent, life ceased to be about me. If I had to pick a pivotal moment when I understood this fully it would have to be this: my own personal comfort became less important than that of my daughter being able to sleep peacefully and soundly.

I had the fortune and luxury of being able to stay home with both of my daughters for the first years of their lives. When they were newborn babies, the greatest piece of advice I received was to sleep when they slept. I can recall endless afternoons sitting in a rocking chair, nursing Em or Ella (of course this was two years apart), and I would hold them against my chest for a gentle burping. Sitting, rocking, they would eventually fall asleep, and I would sit for hours holding them and watching them sleep.

Those were defining moments in my life as a mom because I knew, unequivocally, that the welfare of my daughters would always come before my own.

Fast forward a decade, and Emerson and Eleanor are still the No. 1 priority in my life.

By my choice.

They have long since outgrown afternoon naps in a rocking chair. Our primary focus now is on education and them being as successful in school as possible. I want them to be challenged. I want their sponge-like brains to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Even as elementary-aged students, right now is a crucial time in their lives because they are building a foundation for the years of school ahead, and, if I have my way, earning a degree from Harvard.

Children are our most valuable resource. They are the future of our community, businesses and government. If we have any hope of prosperity and success, we have to start investing in our children now, and it is never too soon to start.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a public forum on the issues surrounding Common Core Standards, presented by the Pickens County Taxpayers Association.

Sheri Few, President and CEO, of South Carolina Parents Involved in Education (SCPIE) gave a presentation on the problematic aspects of our state adoption of federal education standards and how this impacts the School District of Pickens County and our students.

Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services for the SDPC, Sharon Huff, accompanied by District Superintendent Dr. Kelly Pew, gave a presentation on the benefits of Common Core and how these standards will be implemented throughout SDPC schools.

Politics aside, as I listened to each presentation as a parent of two children being educated in the SDPC, I was able to garner pros and cons from each side of this controversial and highly debatable issue. I left the informational session that evening not knowing where I stand personally on the issue; and in all honesty, I’m still not entirely certain how I feel.

That said, as a reporter, I am mandated to present the facts — the issues on both sides of the coin, so our readers have as much information as possible to form their own educated opinions about the matter at hand. Because I am limited in space, I cannot possibly present every shred of information on Common Core, but I will offer resources so readers can conduct their own personal research on the issue.

While we might not always agree on the best way to reach the end goal, I do believe that the majority of parents want the same thing for their children here in Pickens County. We want them to receive the best educational opportunities possible so they can be intelligent, successful young adults as they enter college or the workforce.

We expect the SDPC to equip them with the knowledge and the tools they will need, step by step, grade by grade, to earn a high school diploma that carries weight when they transition to the next phase of their lives. As parents, we have to be educated about the issues as well so we can ensure that our children’s educational needs are being challenged and fulfilled.

Standards-based instruction:

The definition and rationale

Educational standards are expectations for student learning that state what students should know at the conclusion of study.

Standards have been adopted individual states for decades and were adopted in all 50 states after No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001.

Based on a belief that student performance could and should be raised and that specific goals needed to be established to drive improvement.

Based on a belief that all children should have access to the opportunity to learn the content and skills required for employment and civic participation.

Standards offer educators support in in developing and sharing curriculum and instructional best practices.

Standards define learning expectations but they do not dictate curriculum (e.g., textbooks and reading lists) or prescribe a method of instruction.

As states uniformly adopted learning standards, decisions about curriculum and teaching methods have continued to be made by local communities.

Typically, standards decisions are made at the state level, curriculum decisions are made by local districts, and instructional decisions made by local and principals.

Standards Movement in

the US and Common Core Standards History

During the 1996 National Education Summit, a bipartisan group of governors and business leaders decided to create and lead an organization dedicated to supporting standards based education reform efforts across the states. To do so, they formed Achieve, an independent, bipartisan, non-profit education reform organization. In December 2004, the American Diploma Project released the report, “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts.” This report documented that most high school graduates need remedial help in college, most college students never attain a degree, and most employers say high school graduates lack basic skills.

Based on the report, Achieve & the National Governor’s Association conduct additional work to review how current state standards align with the expectations of colleges & employers. In July 2008, Achieve documented the efforts of multiple states working to set career and college ready standards. The report tracked the voluntary standard-setting efforts in 16 early-adopter states including Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas.

The current Common Core State Standards initiative was launched by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in 2008. College and career readiness standards were developed in the summer of 2009. Based on the college and career readiness standards, K-12 learning progressions developed. Multiple rounds of feedback from states, teachers, researchers, higher education, and the general public took place. Final Common Core State Standards released on June 2, 2010. SC adopted math and ELA CCSS in July of 2010.

The Common Core State Standards: Aligned with college and work expectations; Focused and coherent, they include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills; Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards; are internationally benchmarked so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; based on evidence and research; and are state led — coordinated by NGA Center and CCSSO.

Why Are Common Core State Standards Important?

Currently, every state has its own set of academic standards, meaning public education students in each state are held to learning at different levels. All students must be prepared to compete with not only their American peers in the next state, but with students from around the world. The major goal is to prepare our students for college and future careers.

Common Core State

Standards in English

Language Arts: What’s


Increase Reading of Informational Text

Text Complexity Increase

Academic Vocabulary

Text-based Answers (citing evidence)

Increase Writing from Sources

Literacy Instruction in all Content Areas

Text to Text Comparison

College and Career Ready in ELA

Comprehend as well as critique — be a discerning reader by questioning/analyzing

Value Evidence — support ideas in writing and speaking opinions

Use technology and digital media strategically and capably

Understand other perspectives and cultures [multi-disciplinary approach necessary]

Literacy is Stressed in All Subject Areas

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the author takes.

Common Core State

Standards Mathematics: What’s Important?

Focus on Critical Concepts

Procedural Fluency and Deep Conceptual Understanding

Concrete to Abstract: Manipulatives until students understand and move to abstract (pictorial, numeral)

Types of questions must vary

Multi-step problems

Talk Moves/Writing Explanations

Eight Standards for Mathematical Practice

Carry across all grade levels

Describe habits of mind of a mathematically expert student

Standards for Mathematical Content

K-8 standards presented by grade level

Organized into domains that progress over several grades

Grade introductions give 2—4 focal points at each grade level

High school standards presented by conceptual theme (Number & Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Modeling, Geometry, Statistics & Probability)

College and Career Ready in Mathematics

Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

Reason abstractly & quantitatively.

Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

Model with mathematics

Use appropriate tools strategically.

Attend to precision.

Look for and make use of structure.

Look for an express regularity in repeated reasoning.


Common Core complaints

What Is The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI)?

CCSSI is the effort that created and is attempting to impose on states a set of national K-12 standards (Common Core). Common Core was developed primarily by a nonprofit called Achieve, Inc., in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The Standards cover mathematics and English language arts (although they also claim to cover “literacy” in other subjects such as science, history/social studies, and technical subjects). Currently, two consortia of states have accepted hundreds of millions in federal money to create national tests to align with the Standards.

What Is Wrong With The Common Core?

Where shall we begin? Let’s start with the “state-led” and “voluntary” claims:

• Common Core was not developed by the states but rather by a DC-based nonprofit called Achieve, Inc., under the auspices of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Neither NGA nor CCSSO (which are merely trade associations with private membership lists) had a grant of legislative authority from the states to develop national standards. In fact, Common Core was written by the same progressive education reformers who have been trying to impose a national curriculum for decades. This time, they were savvy enough to invoke the “cover” of NGA so they could paint Common Core as a “state-led” effort. To the extent states had any input, it was limited to offering suggestions that may or may not have been accepted by the people in control.

• The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) did not create the Standards, but it was deeply involved in the effort to gather together the various trade associations and private foundations to do the work that USDE wanted done.

• Once Common Core was created, USDE “persuaded” the states to adopt it by tying adoption to the opportunity to obtain Race to the Top (RTTT) funding. No Common Core, no RTTT money. (Since then, USDE has also attempted to lure states into the Common Core by dangling No Child Left Behind waivers as a reward for adopting the national Standards and national tests. In both RTTT and NCLB waivers, Georgia took the bait — hook, line, and sinker.)

• USDE is funding the national tests that are being created by two testing consortia (called SMARTER Balanced and PARCC). Obviously, what’s on the PARCC test will dictate what is taught in SC classrooms — in other words, it will dictate curriculum. So by funding the tests, USDE will eventually control the SC curriculum — in violation of three federal statutes.

A Closer Look At The Standards

More Objective Analysis —Common Core Is Seriously Deficient and Rests on Questionable Educational Philosophies

• Common Core supposedly will make our children “college ready.” What does that mean? According to Jason Zimba, one of the drafters of the Common Core math standards, it means ready for a nonselective community college, not a four-year university. It doesn’t mean the University of South Carolina or Clemson.

• Common Core used to claim to be “internationally benchmarked,” that is, in line with the standards of the highest-performing nations. That claim has been dropped. Now the website says Common Core is “informed by” the standards of other nations. Experts such as Dr. James Milgram of Stanford University, Dr. Jonathan Goodman of New York University, and Dr. Andrew Porter of the University of Pennsylvania have criticized the Standards as being below those of other nations. As stated by Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas, who served on the Common Core Validation Committee but refused to sign off on the English language arts standards because of their poor quality, “‘Benchmarking’ means you use a set of agreed-upon criteria for judging something. To be ‘informed by’ other countries’ standards means simply that they were read. Some other countries are light years ahead of what the common standards require for college readiness.”

English Language Arts: What’s Wrong with the English Language Arts (ELA) standards?

According to Dr. Stotsky, an expert on ELA standards, Common Core consists of “empty skill sets . . . [that] weaken the basis of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.” This means they state what students should be able to do — such as identify the main idea in a piece of writing — but not what they should know — for example, specific works of great writers.

This means that almost anything could qualify for “English language arts” study — even anti-capitalist tracts like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or photo essays from a newspaper.

But will Common Core require students to read more complex texts, as claimed? Dr. Stotsky cites a report that assesses the grade levels of some of the books in Common Core’s recommended reading list. According to this study, some of the novels for grades 9/10 in Common Core average about a grade 5 reading level; for grades 11/12, about a grade 8 reading level.

But the most serious problem with Common Core’s ELA standards isn’t the reading levels of the literature — it’s the de-emphasis on literature, period. Common Core emphasizes “informational texts” to the detriment of creative literature. This means the Standards dictate that students spend most of their time — 70% — reading nonfiction such as technical manuals and court decisions. Although the Standards commentary claims that this 70% covers all subject areas, not just English, the drafters clearly recommend that at least 50% of the reading material within the English class should be nonfiction informational text, not classic literature. And because English teachers will be held accountable for how students perform on “literacy” questions on informational passages, they will be under tremendous pressure to reduce the time they spend on classic literature — which they were all trained to teach — and spend more time on informational passages from other disciplines — which none of them have been trained to teach.

Common Core claims to be “evidence-based.” So what’s the evidence that children will become better readers if they read informational texts rather than good literature? It’s nonexistent. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. For years, Massachusetts had a literature-rich set of standards that propelled its students to the top spot in national reading scores. This experience suggests that the way to make students more literate is to teach them to love reading — and you do that with literature, not informational texts.

Some college English professors are aghast at the philosophy of the Common Core ELA standards — that English students should be drilled to ferret out facts rather than immersed in great works of literature that make them better citizens, better leaders, better people.

But this is all part of the larger philosophy of which Common Core is only one segment: the idea that children should be trained to be workers — cogs in a managed economic machine — rather than educated as thinking, feeling human beings who might upset the plans of their betters. Viewed in this light, the de-emphasis on literature makes sense. But if we see education as something more than than this — as our Founding Fathers saw it, for example — we should be alarmed at this direction. Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College put it well:

“What has happened to the people’s love of liberty? Where has it gone? I suggest that it has gone the way of our belief in the dignity of the human person, who is never to be reduced to a mere counter or cell or drab functionary in an economy . . . . There is a connection to be drawn between disdain for liberty and disdain for the things that are peculiarly human — for example, loyalty to our parents and forebears, or our often faraway longing for what is beautiful and virtuous, or an abiding sense of the sacred, or our common worship of God.” Common Core’s disdain for classical literature, he says, “is an affront to human dignity.”

Math: What’s Wrong with the Math Standards?

• Dr. James Milgram, the only mathematician on the Common Core Validation Committee, refused to sign off on the math standards because he concluded that by eighth grade, they would place our students about two years behind those of the highest-achieving countries.

• One serious problem is that Common Core, reversing the trend in most states to place algebra I in eighth grade, moves it back to ninth grade (Georgia’s previous standards had it in eighth grade). This will make it exceptionally difficult for most students to reach calculus in high school, as expected by elite universities. Although it may be possible for advanced students to pursue an “accelerated” path to get to calculus, the fact remains that the majority of students will leave high school without having studied calculus.

• Another problem is the way Common Core dictates that geometry should be taught: it uses an experimental method never used successfully anywhere in the world. This approach failed with Soviet math prodigies decades ago; there is no reason to believe it will be more successful with average American students.

• Other problems with Common Core math: failure to teach prime factorization, and therefore failure to teach common denominators; postponing fluency with division from grade 5 to grade 6 (in contrast to high-performing countries such as Singapore and South Korea); failure to teach conversions between fractions, decimals, and percents; redefinition of algebra as “functional algebra” that de-emphasizes algebraic manipulation; and excluding some algebra II and geometry content that is a prerequisite at almost every four-year state college.

• Criticisms from university professors: “It’s almost a joke to think students [who master the common standards] would be ready for math at a university” (Dr. Milgram of Stanford); Common Core has “significantly lower expectations with respect to algebra and geometry than the published standards of other countries” (Dr. Goodman of NYU).

SDPC spokesman addresses concerns


John Ebby, SDPC Spokesman

School District of Pickens County spokesman John Eby addresses frequent concerns raised in connection to Common Core Standards.

“Opponents of Common Core State Standards frequently refer to CCSS as a ‘curriculum.’ It is not. Each school district designs its own local curriculum. The standards are broader educational goals; overarching concepts that students need to grasp at each grade level.”

“South Carolina is only implementing CCSS in math and English Language Arts — not in science or social studies. While Common Core encourages literacy training for students across all subject areas, this approach is not unique to Common Core or new to our school district.”

“I hear and read concerns about Common Core often being criticized with the phrase “one-size-fits-all.” This criticism is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, we want to be able to tailor our curriculum to meet the needs of individual students, and our Instructional Services staff believes we can still do that under Common Core. On the other hand, we serve large numbers of students who come to us from different communities and different states. If we ignore instructional standards from other parts of the country, those students will be left struggling to make up for instructional gaps as they transition from school to school. We would be doing a disservice to those students. Our goal is to equip our students to compete for colleges and careers across the country and across the world — not just within the borders of our district.”

Lastly, on a more personal note, Eby shares his own experiences as a student.

“By the time I turned 13, I had attended four schools (counting homeschool as a separate school) in three different states. I remember coasting through some classes in which I had already learned the material, but I vividly remember being demoralized in classes where the teacher was already building on concepts I hadn’t learned yet. Opponents view standardization as something to be feared. They ignore how frightening it is to walk into a new school where nothing is familiar.”