How Common Core Damages Students’ College Readiness

As Massachusetts was considering signing on to a national curriculum and testing plan called Common Core, one of its lead writers gave a presentation to its state board of education. Even Common Core advocate Professor Jason Zimba agreed this national program would prepare students “for the colleges most kids go to, but not for the college most parents aspire to.” Common Core’s graduation requirements are “not for selective colleges,” he continued.

That’s not what a lot of reporters, teachers, and policymakers are telling the public about Common Core.

The New York Times says we can “Credit President Obama and the Common Core Standards for putting the ‘college and career ready’ mantra on the lips of K-12 educators across the country.” Indeed, “college and career readiness” is essentially the motto of Common Core, appearing in its subtitle and 60 times in its 640 pages of curriculum and test mandates.

Yet “college-ready” depends on which colleges we’re talking about, which undercuts the initiative’s promise of curricular equality.

Common Core is usually considered a national K-12 education initiative, but it is more than that. Federal and state regulations loop all the key parts of American education into Common Core, so it affects all levels of our education.

Unfortunately, Common Core undermines students’ intellectual growth (as I argue in my book The Education Invasion) and leaves many graduates unprepared for true college-level work, as opposed to career training. Here are the main reasons why.

Common Core requires high-school seniors—those about to enter college or adult life—to read  70 percent nonfiction and 30 percent fiction in school. Younger children start out with a higher proportion of fiction, which gradually declines.

An early study discussing these requirements from Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein, both respected scholars, found that “college readiness will likely decrease when the secondary English curriculum prioritizes literary nonfiction or informational reading and reduces the study of complex literary texts and literary traditions.” That’s because research shows the students who are best prepared for college have the most experience with complex texts, mainly classic works of literature. No research finds a tie between college readiness and “informational” reading.

Thus, Common Core means that students will read fewer pages of Dickens and Dostoyevsky and more pages devoted to such informational material as federal administrative orders.

Another flaw of Common Core is that it effectively eliminates pathways for students to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, a necessary step for any student who wants to pursue a math or science college degree without remediation.

Between 2013 and 2015, the latest data available “shows that nationally, teaching Algebra in grade 8 dropped from 33 percent to 29 percent, the first drop in ten years,” writes former U.S. Department of Education policy advisor Ze’ev Wurman. That’s largely due to the fact that Common Core degrades the level of expected math completion for high school students to a partially completed Algebra II course. Entering college with that math preparation means having to take remedial courses before attempting calculus, the gateway to the STEM fields. As Sandra Stotsky wrote in this Wall Street Journal op-ed, Common Core’s standards “are too weak to give us more engineers or scientists.”

According to the Every Student Succeeds Act, even the highest-quality public universities must admit students at this low level of preparation, and place them into “credit-bearing,” not remedial, coursework. That is simply not possible for a good science program without dramatically reducing its academic quality.

It’s still a bit early to make solid conclusions about Common Core’s effects on recent high school graduates, since it was not fully implemented in most American schools until 2014, but the early results of its curricular missteps are worrisome. Wurman notes that overall ACT scores have slightly declined since 2009, and SAT scores dropped in 2015 after showing no changes since 2007.

Common Core’s “chief architect,” David Coleman, was hired to run the College Board in 2012, and set about revamping the SAT in its image. The newly revamped SAT came out for the first time last spring, and since then has been plagued with problems.

One that’s most relevant here is that the redesigned math problems were wordy and confusing, leading to charges they didn’t measure students’ math abilities so much as language facility, depriving language-challenged kids of their chance to shine on at least two portions of the test. This also casts doubts about the SAT’s ability to fairly predict students’ preparedness for college.

The SAT shift creates another problem—removing a formerly independent measuring stick for the effects of large curricular changes like Common Core. Since the SAT has changed drastically as Common Core phased in, it will be difficult if not impossible to compare its pre- and post-Common Core results.

American education was not designed mainly for the private benefit of personal economic advancement, but for the public benefit of cooperating with families to bring up citizens capable of self-government. Those public and transcendent benefits were also once the core motivations for higher education.

Unfortunately, in the era of Common Core, the main educational emphasis is “career-readiness.” It drops the vision of American citizens as free people with the right and responsibility of self-rule, and instead treats students like “human resources” that officials must shape to perform some function in our increasingly government-controlled society.

There’s nothing wrong with technical training, but it’s damaging to make it the central purpose of public education, as Common Core does.

Last year, congressional Republicans pushed through and President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act mentioned above. Among its other requirements, as Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project notes here, the law requires the states to tie freshman college coursework to Common Core exit standards. That will accelerate the initiatives underway to hitch college-level work to high-school-level work. This might sound logical, but it is a major break with American practices.

A mere high school diploma has never before guaranteed preparation for college. It has only certified that the bearer did at least the minimum required to graduate from high school (which nowadays has been getting easier and easier, as the Washington Post recently reported, to satisfy regulatory pressure on high schools to graduate higher percentages of students).

To enter college, high school graduates have traditionally been required to demonstrate academic preparation that exceeds the average, not merely the ability to scrape by the lowest graduation requirements. Americans formerly sent to college the particularly academic-minded, and our graduation and entrance requirements for both institutions reflected that distinction. By declaring that Common Core is good enough, we undermine the need to strive for excellence that used to drive students.

This has already led to declining academic standards of colleges such that employers continue to complain recent graduates are terribly unqualified. It gives people certificates of achievement without requiring them to earn those certificates, which ends up making the certificates useless.

It’s akin to the cycle of monetary inflation. Common Core amplifies this pre-existing trend.

  • Thank you for this realistic look at Common Core and why it is worrisome for educators, students, and society as a whole. Over the past 45 years I have graded high school, college, and graduate student papers. There is a significant drop in writing ability in that time period. So much so that some of the college papers submitted now would not have be accepted by my 9th grade English teacher in 1963. I have been educated in the math/science world as well as history and theology.

  • Betty Peters

    You have eloquently and clearly expressed what I had been suspecting about the CCSS all along. Thank you.

  • Good explanation of Common Core’s real story. I think the heart of the article is the following paragraph:

    “There’s nothing wrong with technical training, but it’s damaging to make
    it the central purpose of public education, as Common Core does.”

    Parents, educators, and political leaders really haven’t understood the massive impact of the changes on curricula and testing programs under Common Core. They have not been asked to picture the results on this country for coming generations under the Common Core standards. They should be asked, “What values will you see 20 years or 30 years from now in American workers and voting citizens?”

    I believe the huge movement away from historically rich classical studies and the complex thinking required within those will drastically change the face of America in more ways than the workforce, And the claim since 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that we’re teaching “all” of America’s children, especially girls and minorities (except Asians), to become “critical thinkers” cannot be confirmed after three decades by any national and international test. We will not be developing deep thinkers under Common Core instructional materials and programs.

    I would venture to say, sadly, that many parents or citizens see nothing wrong with this new direction since jobs and the economy have been so battered in the past 10 years, Jobs and economic development are also the driving forces among our politicians. The question no leader of this Common Core movement, that omits classical reading for “informational” reading and delays advanced math requirements in high school, is willing to answer, however, is “What kinds of jobs and citizens, specifically, are we talking about?”

    • Publius

      You ask “he question no leader of this Common Core movement, that omits classical reading for “informational” reading and delays advanced math requirements in high school, is willing to answer, however, is “What kinds of jobs and citizens, specifically, are we talking about?”

      And that nails it. However, the answer to the question is too painful to contemplate. So we prefer cognitive dissonance while ruining untold childhoods by imposing unrealistic standards.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Yes, exactly right: “What kinds of jobs and citizens, specifically, are we talking about?” Anyone care to guess?

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Technical training? What technical training? Look at Germany, where 15 year olds can earn money in state-sponsored apprenticeship programs. The technical school movement was active in the 1920s, and offered high school students book-learning that they receive one-week and use the next week working. But take a look at the modern workplace — retail cashiers, or flipping burgers (are machines doing that now too?) — suddenly algebra and Victorian literature are completely beside the point.

      Instead, “Parents, educators, and political leaders really haven’t understood the massive impact of the changes” in the workplace, the scarcity of jobs, and are completely unprepared for the 20/30/40 percent unemployment that is predicted. And we are already there if you include in labor force calculations the drug incarcerations of unemployed blacks (400,000), and the folks now on disability, approaching 11 million, and the warehoused students that should be working but are pursuing graduate degrees instead of raising families.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    High school curriculum has little bearing on reading choices of students — why would Common Core? You exaggerate (and negativize) the impact of CC, ironically turning it into an ogre that deprives students of the very rights of choice you seek to defend.

    I’m also missing the political economy and the historical context of Common Core — which arguably started in 1860s in New York with their high school EOC Regents exams. So, it has been around a long, long time, and originally served as a way of justifying public expenditures *for* the high schools. Now standard assessment comes along, something completely different (maybe not), without historical context. Is this just another way for political leaders to demonstrate that they are “for public education”? Or, is this more a demonstration of weakening professional authority of teachers, or have the administrators lost the confidence of the legislators, who are scrambling to salvage trust and respect for public schools? What’s going on here? No one is telling us, no one can provide the backstage story that I need to make sense of this and the opposition.

    The author complains about “declining academic standards of colleges such that employers continue to complain recent graduates are terribly unqualified,” but this is not true for low-level service positions, minimum wage jobs — which raises questions about the particular bias of the author.

    Seems like, chasing too many rabbits down too many rabbit holes. But that’s just me.

  • Barry Garelick

    Nice article; I always enjoy Joy’s writing. Wanted to provide some clarification for one thing she says about the math standards. She states:

    “Another flaw of Common Core is that it effectively eliminates pathways for students to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, a necessary step for any student who wants to pursue a math or science college degree without remediation.”

    It is true that CC eliminates pathways to algebra 1 in 8th grade. Algebra in 8th grade is necessary for those who want to take AP calculus in senior year in high school, without doubling up math classes sometime in 10th or 11th grade (which some school districts think is a solution to the “no algebra in 8th grade” trend. But notwithstanding the problems of CC math standards (of which there are many and which I’ve written about for Heartlander), taking algebra in 9th grade does not mean that the student will need remediation in college. It means they will take calculus freshman year in college rather than senior year in high school. (Some people may consider taking calculus in college to be remediation, but it is clearly not the same as taking “college algebra” in college which is essentially the high school Algebra 2 class.)

    The policy on 8th grade algebra varies by school district; some districts allow students to take algebra in 8th grade if they qualify. Others (like the San Francisco Unified SD) put up a road block and force all students to take it in 9th grade. The rationale one hears for such denial of access is that CC pushes a lot of algebra into 8th grade math and that 9th grade algebra 1 has a lot of algebra 2 topics in it. This is a rather gross and inaccurate exaggeration. The algebra pushed into 8th grade math stops at systems of equations (i.e, solving for 2 variables with a system of two equations). And as far as algebra 2 topics in algebra 1, they must mean exponential functions which they’ll get it in more detail in algebra 2 despite CC’s spin that algebra 2 is pushed down into algebra 1.

    For further info on algebra in 8th grade, see

  • GeorgeTyrebyter

    Twenty five years ago a document produced by the California Dept. of Education, “Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools” poured math education failure into California’s public schools, thanks to one Phil Daro, who never even earned any degrees in science or math. He did enter UC Berkeley intending to become a physicist, then changed to mathematics, but ended with a BA in English in order to graduate.

    There is no shame in not managing to progress in math or physics at a UC Berkeley, but perhaps he and whoever hired him to chair the drafting of standards of how to teach math in California in 1992 lacked the perspectives of folks who actually did master enough mathematics to earn degrees in the subject, or related subjects.

    Math achievement tanked in the mid-90’s as California’s schoolchildren struggled to discover math concepts on their own, with little help from their teachers turned guides-on-the-side who, on the whole for the lower grades, didn’t do so well understanding mathematics themselves.

    It took time to get the ship of state directed education to respond to the real mathematicians who took control of the helm, but good textbooks that followed good content standards did return effective math education pedagogies to the state’s classrooms. That is, until California abandoned its own standards to adopt the Common Core standards sight unseen, in order to increase its chances to get Federal funds in the RTTT chaos (for naught… the state didn’t get any).

    One thing that has remained unclear… how, after igniting the Math Wars in the early ’90’s and setting California’s math students back with inefficient pedagogies, did Phil Daro, by then a longtime associate with education textbook and testing giant Pearson’s “America’s Choice”, get hired to chair the Common Core math standards which again poured constructivist methods as described by the NCTM into schools, this time from coast to coast?

    Mr. Daro had a BA in English when he was in control of California’s Mathematics Framework drafting in 1992, and he still had only a BA in English when hired as the Chairman and lead author of the CCSS-M in 2008, and still has only a BA in English as a co-chair and a lead author of the CCSS-M. If anyone knows who hired him, and why, please share the information.