The Common Core— Is it a plot by evil bureaucrats to make our kids stupid?

Yesterday I asked the director of my children’s elementary school this question. He surprised me by not laughing or scoffing as I expected. “No,” he said simply, quite seriously. “But there are people who don’t like it.”

That’s why I like him. He has a gift for understatement.

I stumbled into the quagmire that is the deep loathing for all things Common Core when I saw one of those “Third Grade Math Examples” on social media. You probably know it. If you haven’t seen it, it goes something like…

How the "Common Core" supposedly teaches three-digit subtraction

How the “Common Core” supposedly teaches three-digit subtraction


Is this really how the Common Core teaches third-grade subtraction?

Looking at this math problem, a few things jumped out immediately:

1. This was not how my third-grader (last year) was taught how to subtract three digit numbers. They use the Common Core in NC (at the moment). In my opinion, our school implements it much better (more on this later).

2. Despite that, I still had no problem following this example.

3. It seems to me this example is not designed to teach a rapid method of calculation (my son was still taught to do it the quick way, with borrowing and everything.) This example illustrates the theory behind the calculation, which is in line with the Common Core’s mission to teach higher-order thinking skills.

4. People hate the common core. I mean, really hate it. The comments following this example accused the Common Core of everything from rampant statism to evil plots to blatantly trying to make our kids stupid and make parents look bad because we’re no longer qualified to help them with their homework.

I am not an educator, but I care deeply about my children’s education. I have never felt like my children’s teachers felt otherwise. The idea of a far-reaching conspiracy with such nefarious goals seems ludicrous at best, not to mention overly-complicated.

Yet whoo-boy, people sure seem to think otherwise.

What was I missing?

What is the Common Core?

Maybe the Common Core was just misunderstood. Or maybe I misunderstood it. I honestly didn’t know much more than my kid’s teachers had told me—and they liked it. But my brother was an educator and school administrator in New York state, and he didn’t.

Somewhere, there was a disconnect. Clearly, I needed to know more about this potentially evil plot.

The Common Core was developed by a small group of politicians and educators following evidence-based best practices and launched in 2009. Given the state of education in America, I have no problem believing the standards were developed with the best of intentions:

The standards emphasize critical thinking and spell out what reading and math skills students should grasp at each grade level, while leaving how those skills are mastered up to districts and states. The hope was that higher standards shared across state lines would allow for shared resources, comparable student performance measures and smoother school-to-school transitions….” (From Real Politics article.)

Sounds harmless enough. This so-called “state-led effort” was initially embraced and signed onto by most states. The federal government got on board by tying educational funding to participation. Now states are pushing back.

GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal…has sued the Obama administration, accusing Washington of illegally manipulating federal grant money and regulations to force states to adopt the Common Core education standards. …Jindal initially supported Common Core… because the standards were first presented as a bottoms-up approach, but “the reality is what it has become is another tool for the federal government to try to dictate curriculum.” (Real Politics article.)

Part of the controversy is the link to federal funding, the other part is having teacher evaluations linked to student performance—but this is a political issue, not part of the educational standards at all.

Clearly the issue has become over-politicized. Part of the problem is that when people think they hate the Common Core standards, the standards aren’t their implementation. It’s like criticizing a language’s words. There’s some power in the words, but more in how they are put together.

Why was the Common Core working better in my children’s school?

What made the Common Core work so well in our school, where they are flopping elsewhere? That’s why I cornered our director outside his office yesterday. This is a paraphrase of the conversation, as I wasn’t slick enough to turn my iPhone to record:

“Can I ask you a question that has absolutely nothing to do with either one of my kids?”

“Um…” —trying not to look at the clock— “Sure.”

“What do you think about the Common Core?”

Eyes widen, as he perhaps realizes it would have been easier to talk about the kids. “I like it…as an educator at a project based school.” I noticed that he emphasized the caveat. He goes on, the gist of which is, “They emphasize oral communication skills as well as written, which works well with our mission.”

Short and sweet. I ask him what people don’t like. He has plenty of examples.

“They’re tied to the publishers, for one thing. So people worry about that. And even though it’s not a federal program, there’s federal money attached to it. If you’re worried about big government, you’re probably not going to like the Common Core.”

Finally, I ask why the teachers at our school don’t mind it. I tell him my son’s experience last year. “The third grade team got together, went through what they were supposed to teach, and decided when and how to do it. They didn’t seem to feel constrained.”

“But we’re a charter school,” he says. “We have more flexibility.” He explained that in a lot of school districts, lesson plans are handed down from the superintendent.

I didn’t know that. But it might explain the push back against “the new way of teaching,” especially if teachers aren’t getting a choice in how they approach their new lessons.

He agrees. “Maybe,” he says, “more schools should watch how charter schools take the initiative with implementation.”

The difference between a standard and its implementation

Like any standard, there are many different ways to implement the Common Core—some good, some bad. Yes, it’s been politicized—sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a way around that. Let’s not throw out the good that the Common Core was trying to accomplish.

The Common Core was trying to raise the bar and improve consistency in education. I think those are noble goals. Believe me, the people who create standards are passionate about their work. It takes a special kind of person, in love with nit-picky details and consistency. I worked on a standard trying to define the terms in one medical document, and with a group of over ten people it took two years. Can you imagine how massive a standard covering all of K-12 education must be? It’s only five years old. Some of it is bound to be flawed. Not through evil intent, I believe, but because no standard survives its first round of implementation intact.

Here’s an example that supposedly rips apart “The Common Core“, when if you look closely, each worksheet’s flaw is in implementation (like the one that is missing the shaded parts. And I’m going to go out on a limb and add that some of them actually made sense–I have a fourth grader and a second grader, and I understand how their math is being taught, i.e. from bottom principles up. Some of these examples DO make sense, in context.)

The politics aside (I have no solution for that), maybe we don’t need to throw out the Common Core standards themselves. Some of the criticisms against them are no doubt true–maybe the people who created them were out of touch with what educators really teach. Maybe not enough early childhood educators were involved. What’s the solution? Watch how they are implemented in places that have the passion and the time to implement them well, such as charter schools. Listen to the feedback about where they didn’t hit their target… then fix them. Politicians have no patience with imperfection, but this is the real world.

As this article puts so well, “We’re still in a war of explanation over Common Core,” and it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a success or not. American education is going through a period of change. Have hope. Assuming the Common Core isn’t an evil plot designed to ruin us all through our children*, things will probably get better.


* I believe that would be Minecraft.**

** Just kidding. I love Minecraft. Really. But the Sims are another matter entirely…..


4 thoughts on “The Common Core— Is it a plot by evil bureaucrats to make our kids stupid?

  1. Like your thoughtful summary. Definitely more nuanced than I expected it to be based on the first couple of paragraphs. & FYI I solved the problem in my head using a different approach from the one that CC showed or traditional–something I learned it through Singapore math.

    • Thanks. I’m curious about the way you learned to solve such problems. I’ve often wondered (but have no evidence) that the Common Core Standards are an attempt to close the discrepancy that exists between US education and other countries, especially with math. I realize I’m opening another can of worms by suggesting that…

  2. Singapore uses a very visual approach to math, which makes it easier to think of numbers in your head. To solve the problem, I first “saw” the distance between the nearest hundreds (300 and 500) kind of like it was on a number line. After that it took putting together 7 (7 is a “number bond” with 3 so that’s the distance between 293 and 300), + 68. Take 2 from the 7 to “fill in” 68 up to the nearest 10 (70), and you have 5 left. Put it all together, it’s 275.

    As for how I learned it, I was in my 40s (yes, my 40s) when I was first exposed to Singapore math. I was working at the publisher who was partnering with a Singapore publisher to make it available in the U.S. It was like scales fell away from my eyes and I realized that math is actually pretty easy–just not the way I was taught, having to write everything down and borrow and carry and cross out and try to remember what you did last and what you have to do next. It’s unnecessarily difficult and abstract. Now I solve math in my head to go to sleep, instead of counting sheep.

    Our kids in the U.S are every bit as smart as the ones in other countries. But change is hard, especially in the educational system.

  3. I think that you are absolutely correct when you say that the issue has been over-politicized and I believe that the root of that is the damaging polarization that has occurred in our country. If businesses tried to operate using the no compromise, my way or the highway philosophy that both our elected officials and much of our populace does, most would go out of business. I fear for our country in that regard.

    But I also think that some of the intransigence concerning common core originates from how most of us were taught. With regards to arithmetic, we were taught to do it by rote. It wasn’t until we progressed to mathematics that we were taught to reason through the problem rather than follow a script.

    Today’s parents remember that and are comfortable helping their children learn the same way. They’re missing the concept that, if the children learn to reason through basic arithmetic when they are in elementary school, reasoning through algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus becomes easier when they are older.

    Even though I’m a generation older than you, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher when I was in elementary school who was progressive for her time. She taught her students arithmetic problem solving methods that sound very similar to the Singapore method that Ms. Knowles described. Just after I left her class, I had a real world opportunity to use the skills that she had taught us.

    I remember visiting an uncle the summer after second grade. One evening, while I and my seven cousins were playing a board game in the living room, my uncle offered a challenge. He said that he would give 25 cents to the first one of us who could tell him what 25 times 25 was without using paper or pencil. Using the methods that I was taught, I multiplied 10 X 25 to get 250, doubled that to get 500, multiplied 4 times 25 to get 100, added 500 to 100 to get 600 and then added the left over 25 to get 625. The entire process took just a few seconds and I earned the quarter. Thank you Miss Cassidy.

    Too many people are reticent to accept, let alone embrace, change. If you add that to today’s political climate, I don’t think Common Core in its current form has much of a chance.

    P.S. I shared a room with three of my older cousins that summer. I paid dearly for my arithmetic skills after we went to bed.

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