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Myths About National Standards: Myth #1

Posted by Jim Stergios  November 16, 2011 10:31 AM

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Greek Myths.jpg

Being half Greek and long an admirer of Classical Antiquity, I do have a soft spot in my heart for mythology. When it comes to public policy, myths have far less utility, as perhaps the myths about the fate of modern-day Greece shows all too clearly.

When it comes to American education, the myths that are bandied about most frequently these days are related to the "Common Core" national standards. Proponents make a number of important claims about them: They're internationally benchmarked. They're aligned with workplace needs and also college readiness. They don't dictate state curricula; and they're state-led and "voluntary." Each of these assertions by proponents of the Common Core is highly questionable and in some cases outright false.

Friends in the academic world pulled together a series of Five Big Myths about Common Core Standards that I want to share with you. Today, I am going to focus on Myth 1: The Common Core standards are high and internationally benchmarked to those of high achieving nations.

In other words, will the new national standards make our classroom content comparable to the content taught in the best-performing nations? The answer is no.

In this case, the facts show the Common Core standards to be mediocre in rigor and below what high achieving nations expect of their students.

My opinion? As they say, roll the tape from the experts:

Prof. R. James Milgram of Stanford University, the only mathematician on Common Core Validation Committee, refused to sign on to them and wrote in his refusal letter:

This is where the problem with these standards is most marked. While the difference between these standards and those of the top states at the end of eighth grade is perhaps somewhat more than one year, the difference is more like two years when compared to the expectations of the high-achieving countries -- particularly most of the nations of East Asia.
(Milgram’s e-mail to Chris Minnich of CCSSO and the Validation Committee on May 30, 2010.)

Prof. Sandra Stotsky of the Univeristy of Arkansas, the only literacy expert on the Common Core Validation Committee, refused to sign on to them and wrote:

The two English-speaking areas for which I could find assessment material (British Columbia and Ireland) have far more demanding requirements for college readiness. The British Commonwealth examinations I have seen in the past were far more demanding in reading and literature in terms of the knowledge base students needed for taking and passing them. No material was ever provided to the Validation Committee or to the public on the specific college readiness expectations of other leading nations in mathematics or language and literature.
(Memorandum to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, June 6, 2010)

Prof. Jonathan Goodman of the Courant Institute at the NYU, who compared them to programs of high achieving nations, wrote about them:

The proposed Common Core standard is similar in earlier grades but has significantly lower expectations with respect to algebra and geometry than the published standards of other countries.
(J. Goodman, “A comparison of proposed U.S. Common Core math standard to standards of selected Asian countries,” 2010)

Prof. Andrew Porter, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, wrote in a research paper after studying them:

Those who hope that the Common Core standards represent greater focus for U.S. education will be disappointed by our answers. Only one of our criteria for measuring focus found that the Common Core standards are more focused than current state standards … some state standards are much more focused and some much less focused than is the Common Core, and this is true for both subjects. …

We also used international benchmarking to judge the quality of the Common Core standards, and the results are surprising both for mathematics and for ELAR. … High-performing countries’ emphasis on “perform procedures” runs counter to the widespread call in the United States for a greater emphasis on higher order cognitive demand.


(Andrew Porter et al., “Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum,” Educational Researcher, April 2011)

Finally, Prof. William McCallum of the University of Arizona, one of the three writers of the mathematics standards—and the only mathematician among them—said the following about the standards, when speaking to a forum of mathematicians:

While acknowledging the concerns about front-loading demands in early grades, [McCallum] said that the overall standards would not be too high, certainly not in comparison [with] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.

Intellectually curious people who are considering which side of the "standards" fence they should be need to be aware of what academicians think of the national standards. They are not all they were advertised to be.

In coming days, I'll post three other myths about the Common Core standards. If we were a state without a proven record in improving our schools, this discussion would be "academic." Given the efforts and results we've attained for our students, we deserve more than myths.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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