The Common Core State Standards are part of an effort that, if one chose to, could have its origins drawn all the way back to the country’s early republican era. Then, people such as Pennsylvania’s own Benjamin Rush were calling for the creation of a public schooling system that would, “by producing one general and uniform system of education…render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”1 The goal was to create a consistent, values‐shaping education for all citizens of the new nation. But this ran up against a much more deeply‐ingrained tradition: local — indeed, for a long time family and church — control of education, which more or less held sway in American education until the mid‐1960s, when the federal government first became deeply involved in American schooling. Quite simply, until very recently few people would have even contemplated having federally supported, national curriculum standards. Local control is cherished.
It was not until the late 1980s that the federal government began to ask states for evidence about the performance of federally aided students, and not until the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 that states began to seriously comply with the letter — if not the spirit — of federal law by instituting standards, tests, and progress reports. Which brings us to the current drive for national curriculum standards and tests. Almost…
Benjamin Rush, “A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to Which Are Added, Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic. Addressed to the Legislature and Citizens of the State (Philadelphia, 1786),” in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, edited by Frederick Rudolph, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 10.
While few states complied with directives to have state standards and tests, in the 1990s the first Bush administration proposed the creation of voluntary, national standards and assessments, and provided some funding to create the standards. When the standards were eventually released they were almost universally panned, with seemingly all people finding something to dislike. President Clinton also tried — and failed — to create national tests. By the late 1990s the idea of having national standards and tests — especially driven by Washington — seemed dead. People simply did not like the idea of federal curriculum control, nor could they reach any agreement on what standards should contain.
How, then, have we suddenly ended up with 45 states adopting the Common Core?
The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to bring all kids to “proficiency” in math and reading by 2014, but it became clear early on that states — which remained in charge of their own standards and tests — were setting extremely low proficiency bars. It was also clear that the bars — though almost universally low — varied appreciably from state to state. These two things breathed new life into the national standards movement, but with the political lesson having been learned that the standards and tests could not come, at least directly, from Washington. So two non‐governmental organizations — the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — set out to create “internationally benchmarked” standards in mathematics and reading.
This effort formally became the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2009, and it is one that has repeatedly been characterized as “state‐led” and “voluntary.” In practice, however, it has been neither. The NGA and CCSSO, while organizations to which state‐level officials belong, do not represent states. Perhaps more importantly, adoption of the Common Core has not been voluntary.
From the outset of the Obama administration, officials talked about a need for national standards, and under the mammoth 2009 “stimulus” they got a lever by which to push that: the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program. To fully compete for Race to the Top money states had to adopt standards common to multiple states, and only one set of standards fully met the definition: the Common Core. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education earmarked $350 million for the development of tests to accompany the standards, and chose the two entities that would develop them: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Finally, when issuing waivers to release states from the most onerous NCLB requirements, the administration required that states either have adopted multi‐state standards — de facto, the Common Core — or have their biggest system of four‐year public colleges declare the state’s own standards “college and career ready.”
It has been suggested by some Common Core supporters that the Obama administration’s involvement in pressuring adoption of the Core was unwanted and the goal was to have state adoption be fully voluntary.2 But this is belied by the 2008 NGA/CCSSO/Achieve, Inc. report Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World‐Class Education, which explicitly calls upon Washington to provide “incentives” for states to adopt national standards: