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Education is the Civil Rights Issue of This Era – The Common Core

September 11, 2015

The achievement gap in academic performance throughout the United States has been one of the most pressing education-policy challenges for a long time. The “gap” between minority students, specifically African American and Hispanic students, and European American students has been researched since the Coleman Report in 1966, and studies have pointed out that those minority students still had significantly lower academic achievement than their peers, even in recent years (Rampey, Dion, & Donahue, 2009). While the achievement gap between ethnicities is prevalent within the country, U.S. academic achievement as a whole experienced another gap. 

By Yingkang (Paul) Wang, ENG’16

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a test given to samples of 15-year-old students from sixty-five countries for mathematics, reading, and science.  In 2009, students from the U.S. ranked 31st in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 22nd in science (NCES, 2010). 

It has been over a decade since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was enforced to close this achievement gap between the U.S. and other countries. It was also intended to make teachers more responsible for the learning progress of the subgroups of students that have struggled in the past, including minority students and students in poverty. NCLB had an overall goal of 100% proficiency on state tests by 2014 with yearly goals for schools to reach until the planned date. Over the past decade, however, a large percentage of schools failed to meet the yearly goals, and American education suffered in the process. NCLB made schools and school districts accountable based on test scores, and the ultimate penalty for failing to raise test scores was firing the staff and closing the school. Because of the high stakes, teachers began to teach the test instead of the material. Schools tried to game the system, and in the end, this policy gave schools and school districts more ways to fail than succeed (Duncan, 2015). NCLB did not significantly increase the average academic performance, nor did it significantly narrow any achievement gaps. In fact, American students made greater gains before NCLB (Guisbond, Neil, & Schaeffer, 2012).

As a result, in 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was to stimulate the economy but also invest in education. The Race to the Top fund included $4.35 billion to be invested in educational reform. Race to the Top created the Common Core Standards Initiative, which was launched in 2010, with the goal of preparing students to have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed for college and careers no matter where they live (Porter, McMaken, Hwang, & Yang, 2011). Nebraska, Alaska, Texas, and Virginia were the only states to end up not adopting the program. The Common Core established standards for what elementary, middle, and high school students should know in the subjects of English, language arts, and mathematics at the end of each grade level.

Unlike NCLB, which had varying standards and tests to measure student achievement across states, Common Core promises that all states will have the same standards. A high school diploma in the U.S. can mean something radically different from state to state and from school to school, but it shouldn’t. Common Core standards are linked to what colleges and employers want young people to know so that families and students could find out if they were off track sooner. The standards are developed by several experts across the country. Those in Massachusetts, a state known to have one of the most rigorous standards in the U.S., set policies for literature and mathematics. Educators from Georgia, a state renowned for its education in technology, set standards for technical literacy (Ripley, 2013). In mathematics, the Common Core changes the system to cover more depth instead of breadth. For example, first graders across the U.S. were required to learn thirteen different skills on average. The Common Core requires them to learn only eight but at a more rigorous standard (Ripley, 2013). In language arts, the Common Core wants to expand the focus from classic literature to nonfiction text, since that is an area of weakness for students in the U.S. when compared with international peers. When the Common Core tests were implemented in the state of Kentucky, the teachers and administrators knew there would be high failing rates. At first, only half of the elementary students were proficient or better in reading, whereas with the old standards, three-quarters were proficient. Yet in 2013, the Kentucky high school graduation rate has increased to 86%, up from 80% in 2010. Also, 54% of high school seniors were considered ready for college or careers, as opposed to 34% in 2010 (Ripley, 2013).  

Despite this, many educators believe that the Common Core is not the reform that will push America to the top. Teachers and parents mainly feel that their students are being tested too much and that the new standards are inappropriate and too difficult. In Southside High School in New York, only 48% of first-time test takers achieved a passing score. In the Common Core’s context, that would mean over half the students of Southside are not college-ready. This is a good high school, which had no dropouts this year and a 98% four-year graduation rate. Each year, over 70% of Southside’s graduates also pass the International Baccalaureate exam in mathematics, and 92% of the Class of 2012 enrolled in college two years after graduation (Burris, 2015). Other schools have suffered worse. At Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, only 24% of students passed the algebra exam (Campanile, 2015).

Perhaps the Common Core, just like NCLB, tests students too much. Or perhaps the critics just need to give it more time as the state of Kentucky did. It is expected that passing rates will plummet at first, but if the teachers and students can catch up to the new standards, the Common Core may be able to push America a little bit higher on the national rankings. If the bar is raised, fewer will reach it, but hopefully only for a while.


Burris, C. (2015). Principal’s Last Advice: Let’s Move Beyond the Rhetoric and Really Question the Common Core. The Hechinger Report. 

Campanile, C. (2015). Most Students at Basketball Powerhouse Flunk Common Core. New York Post. 

Duncan, A. (2015). It’s Past Time to Move Beyond No Child Left Behind: Addressing America’s Teachers and Principals. HOMEROOM.

Guisbond, L., Neil, M., & Schaeffer, B. (2012). NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure? National Center for Fair and Open Testing. 

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2010). Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-year-old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context.

Porter, A., McMaken, J., Hwang, J., & Yang, R. (2011). Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum. Educational Researcher 40: 103-116.

Rampey, B., Dion, G., and Donahue, P. (2009). NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress. National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Educational Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

Ripley, A. (2013). The New Smart Set. Time International 182 (14): 32.

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