Does Common Core Work?
The Common Core works in theory, in that it should teach all kids key critical thinking skills, but the implementation has been under-supported leading to real issues. Aspects of standardized testing, lack-luster “Common Core-aligned” textbooks, and a lack of support for educators, teachers, parents, and students has caused frustration for Common Core supporters trying to adopt the standards.
In simple terms, “the core” concepts are smart (part of why early support was so strong), but implementation has been underwhelming (part of why Common Core gets a bad reputation). Meanwhile, the entire issue has been confused by political messages and emotions which obscure a meaningful debate. When we do look for truth, we find bizarrely hard to answer questions like:
“If there is no required reading list, no required curriculum for Common Core, why are these books labeled as belonging to and adhering to Common Core?” – Washington Times.
Common Core Facts
Below we explain why the concept of Common Core makes sense, and why the implementation of it has so many people frustrated. First, let’s go over a few quick Common Core Facts:
- It is technically “the Common Core”, not “Common Core”.
- Common Core is not related to No Child Left Behind.
- The Federal Government played no direct role in Common Core’s creation (see comments below), although perhaps it should have (as Common Core needs more attention, as described below).
- Common Core doesn’t have any related textbooks, or math problems, or lesson plans, which presents a significant problem.
- Common Core is just a set of guidelines of some “core” concepts, for example: how to use base-10 number systems in mathematics, and how to apply critical thinking skills in the English Language Arts. It’s hard to argue that there is anything wrong with focusing on these concepts.
- A major criticism of Common Core is a lack of support including lack-luster textbooks, and a lack of funding for teacher education and implementation.
- Most agree that the core concepts are sound and that the biggest problems are in its application and its adaptation by states, regions, and schools.
- Probably the primary criticism that teachers and schools have is that they feel Common Core is being forced on them, just as many other standardized educational tests and administrative processes have been. Professional expertise and feedback from the teaching community has received little attention. When we combine directives instituted without sufficient feedback, poorly designed textbooks, and under-supported guidelines, we get a powerful concurrence of factors which work against the educational concepts that Common Core gets right.
Three-Minute Video Explaining the Common Core State Standards.
Common Core Concepts Versus Common Core Implementation and Adaptation
As noted above, the main issue with Common Core is that, while the core curriculum and concepts are solid, the implementation has been under-supported. The situation has been further confused by strong politically charged opinions for and against Common Core in the media. Aspects of both major talking points, “Common Core works” or “Common Core doesn’t work,” are only partially correct (why we rated “Common Core Doesn’t Work” as a myth.
The Common Core is is a smart concept that needs a lot more work and support to succeed. The president of the National Education Association for example strongly supports the core, but is upset by its implementation like so many others. (see the NEA’s president’s Common Core solutions here). 
Whether or not we keep Common Core, we need to recognize that people learn and test differently and that various regions have differing needs. The concept of Common Core teaches 21st-century skills, but standardized testing is a 20th-century concept. Some students test well, and others don’t. Some teachers find their subject matter lends itself to quantitative testing; others work with more abstract and less testable material. Evaluating acquired knowledge presents an ongoing difficulty.
Also, even the standards themselves are written in an odd language that is about as far from “Explain it to me like I’m 5” as possible. The concept of having teaching standards makes sense, but one can understand why underpaid teachers and overworked parents find Common Core confusing. Take this Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice Overview for example, which is meant for teachers, not students. The long paragraphs and technical jargon would make it a challenge for even college level students, yet if you bare with it you can see the underlying wisdom and beauty.
It would make much more sense to fund support for Common Core than to get rid of it (as funding is one big underlying issue of all this), but a real debate seems necessary none-the-less.
Luckily, at its core, Common Core teaches the high-level critical thinking skills we need to understand the nuance involved in the Common Core debate. It also teaches us the high-level thinking skills to figure out why poorly written textbooks and guides, different learning types, and different amounts have funding have led to an uneven state initiated implementation of a program that should be well received, but is instead creating a lot of upset people.
FURTHER READING: There is only so much we can cover here. The best sources on Common Core are NPR (for a practical overview of “why”) and the official Common Core Standards (for a straightforward answer to “what”).
What is Common Core?
The Common Core is a state, not federal, program that sets out core standards for learning in schools. There are no textbooks, workbooks or lesson plans, let alone particular math problems. Anti-Common Core videos and memes often focus on these deficiencies. 
The Common Core is simply a core set of guidelines and concepts related to Math and the Language Arts (AKA English). The concepts that students need to learn are laid out by grade, so while there is some homework on the teachers part, neither teachers nor students have to master the entire K – 12 Common Core guidelines. They can give it an overview and focus on their grade.
Common Core doesn’t replace anything kids are learning, or the way teachers are teaching; it only lays new core standards on top of the old ones. Standardized testing is a separate issue as is the fact that there is no Common Core textbook.
There are no textbooks; there are only “Common-Core-aligned” textbooks, which are often produced hurriedly to meet a market demand by private companies. We get downright awful examples of “Common Core aligned Mathematics” from the media, the internet, and even the classroom.
Likely, the best solutions include more funding for support material and teacher training. With that said, the Government’s role in education, and related funding is one of the most important points of contention in the Common Core debate in the first place.
Let us now look closer at what Common Core is and how it works.
Why Common Core math problems look so weird.
What are The Common Core Standards?
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led educational initiative that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. The concept is to teach critical thinking skills (which is vital in areas like computing, finance, and complexity science).
TIP: See below for more information, for example, how and why those strange looking math problems work.
An Overview of the Standards
The official summary of the Common Core standards is :
- Research- and evidence-based
- Clear, understandable, and consistent
- Aligned with college and career expectations
- Based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills
- Built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards
- Informed by other top performing countries to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society
Why is Common Core Being Taught?
Common Core is being taught to ensure our children can use “higher-order thinking skills” to compete on the world stage. Other countries have implemented standards like this successfully, primarily in mainstream classrooms. The treatment of special needs students in global education is a subject for debate by itself. We don’t have as rigid standards in America as are in place elsewhere and fear we will fall behind if we don’t kick it up.
Some people take issue with over-standardizing, but looking at other countries and history, we can see that under-standardizing can be dangerous too.
What isn’t Working With Common Core?
The big sticking points of Common Core are.
- The concept of standardized testing.
- Common Core being under-supported, for instance by cobbled together Common Core aligned Math books rather than adequate teacher training.
- Expecting underfunded districts to provide the same education as better funded ones.
What is Working With Common Core?
- The actual skills Common Core teaches.
- The concepts of teaching the skills.
- Having a uniform standard for education in all communities of all 50 states.
Is Common Core a Federal Program?
The Common Core is a state‐led effort that is not part of No Child Left Behind or any other federal initiative. The federal government played no role in the development of the Common Core. State adoption of the standards was in no way mandatory. Common Core was purposefully designed to be state-based to stop people from getting upset about the federal government’s role in education. See The Trouble with the Common Core, and How is the federal government involved in the Common Core?
TIP: See Common Core Myths Vs. Facts from CoreStandards.org for more Common Core Facts and Myths. Or see the Common Core FAQ page for more answers.
How Does Common Core Work (With Examples)?
Below we go through some examples of how Common Core Math and English work. To keep it simple, let’s choose a grade. Remember Common Core is hard and will push us to think deeper and more critically.
We will start with English. Both Math and English use the same type of thinking, but most people find it easier to express critical thinking in Language Arts than it is in Mathematics.
How Does Common Core Work in Language Arts?
The Common Core for “Language Arts” or “English,” as in all language related curriculum, works like this:
Instead of just reading a book and answering questions like: “What were the main events?” or “Who were the characters?” Children are asked to compare and contrast the characters and discuss the meaning of the events and themes in collaborative conversations. Not “Dick ran up the hill” and “Jill came tumbling after”, but “What was the dynamic relationship between Dick, the drive to reach the top of the hill, and Jill.” “Why was the pail of water important?” “We know the narrator thought of Dick, but what did Jane think?”
Why is Common Core Language Arts Important?
Even though it is harder to analyze than memorize, we want our children both to remember the names of characters, and understand the subtext and context in which they appear. We want them to recognize Holden Caulfield’s character when they read about him and understand his psychology in the context of modern life. We don’t care if they remember what he said about a particular chapter in the book, but we may ask, “what do you think that character thought about Holden? Why do you think this?”. 
You can learn more about basic common core for English here: English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Literature » Kindergarten
INFINITIVES, GERUNDS, PARTICIPLES – 3 VERBALS – COMMON CORE LITERACY – GRAMMAR and PUNCTUATION.
TIP: For more examples, see: OLD STANDARDS V. COMMON CORE: A SIDE-BY-SIDE COMPARISON OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS.
How Does Common Core Math Work?
Common Core for “Math” (as in all mathematics related curriculum) teaches kids high-level math skills from an early age.
As a concrete example, let us choose: Grade 1 » Number & Operations in Base Ten.
Here we teach children to understand base number systems, specifically base-10, the number system we use. We can consider numbers as groups of ten, so 22 is two tens and two over.
The core concepts that a teacher would be expected to teach this are:
- Ten can be conceptualized as a bundle of ten ones — called a “ten.” (see CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.1.NBT.B.2.A))
- The numbers from 11 to 19 are composed of a ten and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones. (see CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.1.NBT.B.2.B)
- The numbers 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 refer to one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine tens (and 0 ones). (see CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.1.NBT.B.2.C)
Why is Common Core Math Important?
The math concepts (like the simple example above) become more and more useful as we get into high-level math.
When teaching base number systems at higher levels, and factoring in things like subtraction, we sometimes will need to do a lot of work for a simple problem (as displayed in the videos on this page). However, when we get to bigger problems, our hard work pays off, and we can understand that which would have been difficult before.
Thinking of math as base-ten requires what seems like sideways methods to us, but in truth, it is in-line with the way you need to think to solve a 300-year-old math problem worth $750,000, Fermat’s last Theorem, or to write a computer program.
Common Core Math Explained.
FACT: There are many different base number systems. To understand them you need to understand math conceptually. That is the reasoning behind teaching this style of math. The Babylonians used a base-60 system; the Egyptians built the Pyramids with a variation of base-10, and programmers use many other base number systems like Hexadecimal.
How Common Core subtraction works.
TIP: Just because your student’s math homework is hard, doesn’t mean it is bad. It is supposed to be hard, to get children thinking critically.
Why We Need to Mix Different Styles of Learning, Thinking, and Teaching
There is something that can memorize long strings of numbers and names; you know it as a computer.
In fact, to read this, you are using a computer and have likely using social media or a search engine to find us. Google’s search and IBM’s Watson are better calculators than you, and by the time your children grow up, they will be better calculators than anyone on earth (see cognitive computing and collective intelligence). Teaching your child to be a calculator is doing them a disservice, this is one of many reasons why we have Common Core.
Learning “why base-10” and “complex thinking” aren’t meant to fill your head with, “8 x 11 = 88, 9 x 11 = 99,” they are supposed to teach you why the 11’s work like that. Then, later in life, you and the computer can collaborate to accomplish great things.
With that said, we still need to know how to calculate and compute analytically. With this in mind, it is a mistake to focus ONLY on what is new about common core.
Luckily, in reality, many schools teach both the old ways and common core. Common core is a flexible program that lays out guidelines for Math and Language; schools can adapt these tools to the other academic fields as well.
Different Learning Strategies
What we know today dwarfs what we used to think and know about teaching and learning skills.
Teaching kids using a single approach is short-sighted, and expecting teachers to all teach in one way is too. Students need to learn through self-directed learning, peer-to-peer learning, group learning, repetitive homework, breaking things down, looking at the connections between things, and more. Students need to teach and learn, and they need to know not just “what”, but “why” and “how”. TIP: See our page on “the best way to learn”.
One of the things Common Core gets right is having loose guidelines, another thing it gets right is teaching children about complexity.
Common Core and Complexity
Common Core in many ways demonstrates what many would consider the field of complexity science. One important aspect of complexity is understanding the two types of reasoning deduction and induction, or analysis and synthesis.
In systems thinking, there are two lines of thinking analysis and synthesis. The analysis is a very “what” sort of thinking and was a favored approach in American thinking in the past. Synthesis or looking at causation and combination in systems tends to ask “why” and “how.” When we combine our analytic thinking with the more complex thinking of common core, we prepare young minds for the future.
Complexity and systems thinking isn’t about making things more complicated; it is the study of complexity. Sometimes that takes some hard work.
Bill Gates knows this; Mark Zuckerberg knows this; Elon Musk knows this, and the people who wrote Common Core know this.
With that said, it takes a village, and the village still needs to do a lot more work to refine the implementation of Common Core.