A Common Core Curriculum Conundrum


The Common Core State Standards is an aspirational document that describes a set of academic goals and learning expectations. The standards identify what ALL students should know and be able to do at each grade level in order to be ready for college and careers.

Proponents of the standards stress that they are not a curriculum as they do not prescribe how the standards should be taught or what materials should be used to support student learning in the classroom.

Another way of looking at it is standards are the destination and curriculum is the path or road students take to get there.

Standards are a critical component that help to inform and shape the curriculum. Together, standards and curriculum can serve as a foundation upon which assessments could be developed and aligned.

Common Core supporters insist that decisions on how to implement the standards are to be made at the state and local levels and school districts across the country may very well adopt different approaches and roads to implement the standards.

It is very surprising that states and local districts are encouraged to create different academic pathways for their students to follow when the video below explains that the goal of the Common Core is to create a national set of academic expectations and create a uniform or standardized education system so student and teacher performance can be compared on a national and international level.

If Common Core proponents claim it was not possible to generate valid and reliable data regarding student and teacher performance because states were following different standards, how does allowing students to use different class materials and follow different paths to the standards pose any less of a threat to data reliability?

Under the Common Core the curriculum clearly plays a greatly diminished and less important role compared to the national standards.

The national tests have already been constructed, so it is clear that the curriculum is not part of the foundation upon which the Common Core assessments have been developed and aligned.

The design and content of the National PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments has been influenced and shaped entirely by the Common Core State Standards.

Prior to CCSS it was the curriculum that dictated what materials would be used and what activities would take place in the classroom.

Since the tests have already been created and teachers will be held accountable for student performance on them via VAM, the new assessments will clearly be much more influential when it comes to decisions regarding classrroom materials and activities.

If Pearson publishes the new Common Core tests and Pearson also publishes the ELA and MATH text books that are aligned to the standards and assessments, how believable are reformers claims regarding “local control” of the curriculum?

While it may be true the standards are not a curriculum, the specificity of the skills identified in the Common Core Standards clearly does influence and control how we teach, just as a curriculum would.

Hard to argue that Common Core ELA Shift #2 doesn’t determine the way we teach and the way students learn in the classroom

Students build knowledge about the world (domains/ content areas) through TEXT rather than the teacher or activities

or Mathematics Shift #3

Students are expected to have speed and accuracy with simple calculations; teachers structure class time and/or homework time for students to memorize, through repetition, core functions

While education leaders and Common Core supporters continue to claim that test prep or teaching to the test is not an appropriate or effective means to prepare students for the Common Core test, the convoluted or rigorous format and design of test questions would suggest otherwise.

No better way to determine if teachers will need to devote extra class time to training students for the Common Core assessments than to look at a sample question like the one published in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” Blog,

Consider this fourth-grade question on the test based on a passage from Pecos Bill Captures the Pacing White Mustang by Leigh Peck.

Why is Pecos Bill’s conversation with the cowboys important to the story?

A) It predicts the action in paragraph 4

B) It predicts the action in paragraph 5

C) It predicts the choice in paragraph 10

D) It predicts the choice in paragraph 11

Hard to take the Common Core supporters criticism of teaching to the test seriously, when David Coleman, the chief architect of the standards, issued an enthusiastic endorsement of such practices during a 2011 Keynote Speech.

Coleman clearly boasts about the quality of his standards and the assessments that are built on them, while the issue of curriculum and how learning will unfold in the classroom in diverse and student-centered ways must have been a topic for another day.

… these standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period…our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation.

It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there‟s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don‟t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do.

Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and its hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention. It is in my judgment the single most important work we have to do over the next two years to ensure that that is so, period.

The use of test items that are “distractors” would also suggest a need for extra test preparation and also raise serious questions as to whether these tests are measuring decision making skills rather than critical thinking.

Distractors are plausible responses but not the fully correct answer. Many of the new test items require students to select one or more answers that “best support”, are “most significant” or are “most likely”.

The questions on the Common Core English Language Arts test are more complex than those found on previous tests that measured previous grade‐level standards.

Correct answers will not “jump out”; rather, students will need to make a thoughtful distinction between the fully‐correct option and the plausible but incorrect options.

These multiple‐choice questions are specifically designed to determine whether students have comprehended the entire passage and are proficient with the comprehension and analyses specified by the standards.

Frequently Asked Questions: 3-8 Testing Program (pg 8, #21)

The passage above claims these new and improved test questions will determine whether students have proficient comprehension skills, yet many students may comprehend the passage, but their judgement and decision-making skills could be impaired by stress, and they mistakenly choose the plausible or partially correct response.

It is also quite possible that the student fully comprehended the passage, but they had difficulty understanding the complex and convoluted wording of the question.

Clearly teachers will need to use class time for students to prepare for the test and practice answering such questions.

We should also be concerned about lessons that the use of distractors will teach our students when it comes to learning and solving problems in real life?

Where wouId America be today if Thomas Edison had been taught not to pursue or investigate possibly true solutions and that plausible answers are always wrong.

If we are adopting national standards for the purpose of creating a unified educational system that will accurately evaluate students and teachers, then isn’t a National Common Core Curriculum or single “pathway” to the standards an essential component to assure that nationwide comparisons and conclusions regarding student and teacher performance are valid and reliable?

The editors of AFT’s publication, “American Educator” seemed to think so back in 2011 when they devoted their Winter edition to a discussion of the Common Core State Standards.

The AFT editors enthusiastically endorsed the standards AND even called for a National Common Core Curriculum…

A common curriculum – meaning one that is shared by all schools-is what binds all the different actors together…A common core curriculum – meaning one that fills roughly two-thirds of instructional time – leaves teachers ample room to build on students’ interests and address local priorities…This is an exciting new movement…but standards are just a beginning. They set forth the goals of an education, not the education itself. The essential knowledge and skills – the key to a rich life – must be set forth in a common core curriculum. It’s an idea who’s time has come

Common Core Curriculum: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Perhaps its time for AFT to publish another American Educator issue devoted entirely to the Common Core to clarify and update their position on a National Common Core Curriculum, or common pathway to the standards, and explain…Where They Stand?

Perhaps we should also consider the possibility that during the initial roll out period or Phase I of the standards, schools and states are being encouraged to develop and design their own Common Core Curriculum.

However during Phase II, when the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments become fully operational, a National Common Core Curriculum will be actively “sold” to parents in America as a means of improving student performance on the Common Core assessment and also as a necessity to accurately evaluate the quality of their children’s teachers.



Students spent as much class time on vigorous learning activities that cultivate social and emotional skills as they do taking rigorous assessments that quantify math and ELA skills.

The US Department of Education began grading parents based on the age their children learned to walk, tie their shoes, or ride a bike.

Teachers could focus more on cultivating students’ thirst for knowledge rather than satisfying ed reformers thirst for data.

Students spent more time taking informal and formative (informative) assessments rather than standardized summative assessments.

Schools provided diverse pathways and opportunities for students to explore and unleash their specialized skills and abilities rather than trying to standardize and quantify their skills.

Schools replaced rigorous and standardized rules for learning with a vigorous and vibrant approaches in the classroom that embraced the philosophy; learning rules!

Reformers understood that students learn from taking risks and testing things, not taking tests.

Schools could be more focused on teaching diverse learners how worthy they are rather than repeatedly testing students to determine how much their skills are worth.

Data-driven instruction meant helping EVERY child to learn and discover ways they are “Ten Feet Tall”

I’m clumsy, yeah my head’s a mess Cause you got me growing taller everday…

But you got me feeling like I’m stepping on buildings, cars and boats I swear I could touch the sky…I’m ten feet tall.

You build me up Make me what I never was…

~ Afrojack, “Ten Feet Tall”

Reformers realized that cognitively delayed and disabled students who are resourceful, persistent, courageous, and resilient will succeed in college and careers while academically and cognitively proficient students who are lazy, hesitant, dishonest, unreliable, dispassionate, and unimaginative will not be successful in college and work environments.

Joy, civics, culinary arts, foreign language, geography, fun, health, history, field trips, home economics, humanities, recess, fiction, driver education, athletics, political science, chess, psychology, play, sociology, speech and debate, sign language, trade and vocational skills and visual and performing arts were not left behind in our Race To The Top.

Reformers understood that learning is a lifelong process and a self-directed journey of discovery and not a “race” to reach a learning standard or data point.

Reformers understood that it is far more important that students are free to learn in school and are well educated, than subjecting them to continuous testing to determine if they have been educated well.

Reformers understood that teachers are like gardeners and Common Core is like Miracle-Gro but students will never thrive if their schools lack the resources to purchase garden hoses or even pay the water bill.

Education programs had more resources to address the underlying “illness” of poverty rather than continually measuring and addressing student “symptoms” in the classroom.

Reformers realized learning that doesn’t take place outside the classroom can have a much greater impact on student achievement than what transpires inside the classroom.

Reformers understood that learning should be more passion and purpose-driven rather than standards and data-driven.

Education leaders realized that in free and open democratic societies education should be focused on the needs and interests of students rather than the desires of data miners, corporations, and the state.

Reformers realized that using students’ standardized test score to determine the quality of teachers is like counting patients’ cavities to evaluate the skills of a dentist or using patients’ blood pressure and cholesterol scores at the end of the year to determine the effectiveness of their doctors.

There was as much effort devoted to assuring there are equitable resources available to every public school as there is assuring schools have equally high learning standards.

We remember that it was not conformity that has been the engine to power America’s economy but creativity. It was courageous inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who have advanced our economy over the years. These learners didn’t fit educational molds, they broke them. They didn’t learn or think about problems the same way as everyone else. They often improvised and innovated and they were more inclined to break with tradition and “rules”, than they were to follow them.

Reformers understood that increased opposition to the Common Core is not simply “growing pains” but a growing awareness that coupling high stakes testing with the standards leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and incentivizes teaching to the test.

We did our best to help every child learn to care and we supported, encouraged, and inspired all students so they care to learn.

Teachers could first help EVERY student learn how to “Swim” before making them dive into complex informational text.

Yeah you gotta swim Don’t let yourself sink

Just find the horizon I promise you it’s not as far as you think

~ Jack’s Mannequin, “Swim”

There were many more education leaders and far fewer Common Core cheerleaders.

Ed reformers put less effort into selling solutions and put more thought into solving problems.

Ed reformers acknowledged that it is not fair to test older students using Common Core assessments or claim these scores reveal the effectiveness of their teachers because we are grading the ability of a person to climb an academic staircase that is partially completed and under construction.

AFT devoted an upcoming issue of “American Educator” to the Common Core State Standards and the editors clarified their statement in the 2011 Winter Edition that enthusiastically endorsed the standards AND even called for a National Common Core Curriculum

David Colemen retracted his infamous statement and the Common Core State Standards were rewritten by an experienced educator who understands that thoughts and feelings do matter in life.

Proficient and experienced educators took over leadership roles in the ed reform movement as the powerful and privileged education experts stepped down.

The Common Core’s close reading program were replaced by the National Work Readiness literacy program called Read With Understanding.

Reformers realized that employers desire workers who can think creatively, connect with people, and dive into their work rather than think critically while staying connected and diving into text.

Education technology were used to enrich and support student learning rather than to collect and share student data.

Reformers understood that education is a staircase of learning rather than an escalator and the diverse abilities and skills of students along with the amount of parental involvement will determine the manner and speed at which each student will be able to climb the steps.

The Common Core provided diverse career pathways rather than one path to college and underemployment.