The Problem with Common Core Education in America

Elizabeth Schmidt
8 min readAug 17, 2022

Over the last hundred years, the public education system in America has not changed and is arguably failing. School closures, overcrowding, stagnant spending, and lack of teacher innovation indicate the United States education system is not meeting the needs of today’s technologically advanced society (Lynch, 2017). The National Center for Education Statistics reports 60% fewer public schools today than in 1930 (NCES, 2019). Yet the US population has nearly tripled since 1930, going from 123M people to 332M (US Census, 2017). So there’s a failing public education system, fewer schools, and more people requiring education. State leaders got together to address the failing education system; thus, the Common Core State Standards were born.

The Common Core State Standards, launched in 2009, were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live (Common Core, 2020). These academic standards in mathematics and English language arts define what a student should learn by the end of each school year, from kindergarten through 12th grade (Niche, n.d.). As of today, 38 states have fully implemented Common Core. It is argued that the Common Core standards were not created to help students learn. Instead, they were a solution that would hopefully allow American students to compete with other countries for top proficiencies in math and science. To date, the U.S. is falling significantly behind compared to countries in Asia. The Common Core Standards aimed to improve those results. However, to State education policymakers, it’s just one giant race. What’s alarming is that since the Common Core standards were implemented, each state has seen a dramatic decline in math and science test scores (Pioneer, 2019). The decline in math and science proficiency among the bottom percentile is even more dramatic. These underprivileged students need the most help, yet they are testing even worse than before, getting left even further behind in their education. By considering alternative education methods rooted in creativity, innovation, and a hands-on approach, public schools in America can break the mold and bring students out of the industrial era of the 19th century and into the innovation era of today. To understand why Common Core is wrong for our country, it’s essential to look at how the educational system in America was first developed.

The last significant change in how children are educated in public schools occurred 124 years ago. In 1837, Horace Mann considered the “Father of Common School,” used his position as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education to spearhead a movement that would launch universal schooling. His initiative ensured every child could receive a basic education funded by local taxes (PBS, n.d.). Mann continued to reform education in America, much of which was inspired by a trip he took to Europe in 1843 to study the Prussian public education method (Ellis et al., 2014). Prussia, at the time, was one of the first countries to introduce an eight-year course of schooling for children, known today as kindergarten through eighth grade. These eight years were designed to provide the skills needed at the dawn of the industrial era (reading, writing, and a little arithmetic) and an education in ethics, duty, discipline, and obedience (Ellis et al., 2014). Mann was so impressed by the obedience he witnessed in Prussian students that upon his return to the states, he campaigned to instill the same methods of education across all public schools in America. There were two points in the Prussian method that he found particularly useful; 1) age-graded classrooms and 2) a new teacher(s) each year (Ellis et al., 2014). Mann fought hard enough for educational reform that the first State law was passed in 1852 requiring children to attend school. Attendance was now mandatory. Mann continued his plight, arguing that economic wealth and opportunity would naturally increase due to universal public education (Ellis et al., 2014). He convinced local businesses that it was in their best interest to pay taxes for public schools because it would produce more productive workers. Mann was instrumental in shaping what was to become the “Progressive Movement in American Education” (Ellis et al., 2014). He paved the way for more change and reform and laid the foundation of the education system that is most embraced today. Even how the school day is structured can be traced back to methods learned in Prussia. Students are taught in small groups, move from class to class according to a bell, and are forced to obey a teacher in each room. This is oddly how workers in a factory at the time were meant to behave. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that even more changes to the education system in the U.S. began to take place.

In 1892, the National Education Association formed The Committee of Ten to help establish a standard curriculum for all public schools (Weidner, n.d.). The committee, led by the President of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, recommended eight years of elementary school, followed by four years of “secondary” schooling, what is known today as high school. They also determined the curriculum essential for all four high school years, including English language arts, mathematics, science, and history. The unfortunate philosophies behind the Committee of Ten grouped students into two categories. The first is academic, representing students assumed to attend college after high school. The second was terminal, students that would not attend college and would benefit more from practical learning to prepare them directly for the workforce. However, the committee’s ultimate goal was to prepare both academic and terminal students to do well in life (Weidner, n.d.). The Common Core standards have a similar philosophy.

Common Core defines the knowledge and skills students should gain throughout their K-12 education to graduate high school prepared to succeed in entry-level careers, introductory academic college courses, and workforce training programs (Common Core, 2020). The issue with these standards and the Common Core initiative as a whole is in the data. Reports show that a state’s adoption of these national standards will weaken the quality of academic content in classrooms. It is also argued that the federal government should not even have a role in K-12 educational policies, and those policies should remain state controlled. A 2019 study published by the Pioneer Institute shows that U.S. reading and math scores have seen historic declines in the states implementing Common Core standards. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in mathematics, not only do U.S. 15-year-olds still lag far behind students in top-performing countries, but they are also significantly below the average of most developed countries. Before the implementation of the Common Core, there was a steady increase in test scores, averaging 0.70 points per year for fourth and eighth-grade students. Since Common Core was introduced in most classrooms, these same test scores have declined as much as -0.50 points across eighth-grade students (Pioneer, 2019). Even worse, the test score declines are even more prominent for students in the bottom half of the student population. The farther behind students were before Common Core, especially those at the 25th and 10th percentiles, the more significant the decreases have been. These declines wiped out lower-performing students’ advances in the decade before Common Core was implemented. By eighth grade, the U.S. math curriculum is two full years behind the curriculum studied by eighth graders in high-performing countries (Pioneer, 2019). It’s painfully clear that Common Core does not work, and its effects are detrimental to American students, especially those that have already fallen behind.

What should students be taught if schools were to abolish Common Core standards? The debate of what an ideal public school curriculum looks like has continued for nearly a century. It’s not so much what students should learn in school but how they should learn. Ted Dintersmith, the co-author of the book Most Likely to Succeed, states, “Most of what people do in life involves observation, reflection, documentation, exhibition, and going through these different phases of being able to create something.” He continues to explain that if the measure of success is slight improvements on standardized tests, like vocabulary and esoteric math, then why even teach art, and why teach scientific inquiry? Along with co-author Tony Wagner, Ted believes that American public schools need to move towards education about building critical life skills and much less about retaining a body of knowledge. Students need to learn by doing. They also need intellectual freedom to learn how to be resourceful and resilient. Finally, students must know how to keep trying, even if they fail. As students continue to learn in this way, they’ll build a growth learning mindset. They’ll build grit and resourcefulness through perseverance (Dintersmith et al., 2015).

The old blue-collar industrial model of education is already gone. The information and innovation era is here. State educators in the US need to rebuild the K-12 curriculum and reform public schools entirely to produce young adults that are truly prepared to thrive in today’s society. Most Likely to Succeed is a resource designed to offer parents and educators a guide to getting the best education for their children and students. It also presents a roadmap for policymakers. Ted Dintersmith’s latest book, What School Could Be, also offers insightful explorations of alternative learning methods from teachers across America. Ted spent one full year traveling across America to visit over 200 schools and speak to the teachers and innovators currently educating children. Throughout his tour, he uncovered progressive and inspiring learning environments and witnessed firsthand the schools across America breaking the standardized mold. Since many schools are already embracing nontraditional learning, other schools can follow suit, and the guides exist to help teachers and policymakers do just that.

Given the alarmingly negative impact of Common Core standards on student performance, it’s the wrong approach for America. By eliminating Common Core standards and refining public education, schools can create a learning environment that embraces innovation and fuels creativity, preparing students to thrive in today’s world. Imagine the skills necessary for children to prepare for this technologically advanced society. The goal in education should not be to pass the test. Test preparation is not an effective form of education. Students are people, not data points. They need to be inspired, feel happy, be engaged, and ultimately want to be present and learn. Investing in the education of America’s youth will build a stronger middle class, realistically prepared for the careers most essential for invention and innovation. Educational policymakers would all likely state that a more robust economy in the United States is their biggest desire, and the next generation has to get us there. It’s time to do away with Common Core and build a new educational system that values the future success of America’s youth.

Sources

Closed schools. (2019). National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=619

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2020). http://www.corestandards.org/

Ellis, A., Golz, R., & Mayrhofer, W. (2014, January 5). The Education Systems of Germany and Other European Countries of the 19th Century in the View of American and Russian Classics: Horace Mann and Konstantin Ushinsky. International Dialogues on Education. https://www.ide-journal.org/article/ellis-golz-mayrhofer-education-in-19thcentury-europe-views-of-mann-and-ushinsky-countries-of-the-19th-views-of-mann-and-ushinsky/

Horace Mann (1796–1859). PBS. https://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/horace.html

Lynch, M. (2017, April 3). 18 Reasons the U.S. Education System is Failing. The Edvocate. https://www.theedadvocate.org/10-reasons-the-u-s-education-system-is-failing/

2017 National Population Projections Tables: Main Series. Census. (2017). https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2017/demo/popproj/2017-summary-tables.html

Pioneer Education. (2019). The Common Core Debacle: Results from 2019 NAEP and Other Sources [White paper]. Pioneer Institute. https://pioneerinstitute.org/download/the-common-core-debacle-results-from-2019-naep-and-other-sources/

Trachta, A. (2018, March 28). Don’t Be Afraid to Ask … What Exactly IS Common Core?. Niche. https://www.niche.com/blog/what-is-common-core/

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most Likely to Succeed (1st ed.). New York, NY: Scribner.

Weidner, L. (n.d.) The N.E.A. Committee of Ten. Notre Dame. https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/neacom10.html

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