The early twentieth-century Harvard professor Irving Babbitt once wrote that “[t]he firmness of the American’s faith in the blessings of education is equaled only by the vagueness of his ideas as to the kind of education to which those blessings are annexed.” One century later our nation finds itself in a remarkably similar position. Virtually everyone would agree on the importance of education, and education done well, and yet the question of what education is—and what it means to educate well—remains a source of confusion and tension. The most recently proposed solution to America’s educational woes is a set of national standards, known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS or the Standards). Those familiar with the Standards comprise a small minority of Americans, particularly in the states in which implementation has only begun. The authors of a New York Times opinion piece humorously quipped, “Americans know more about the events in Benghazi than they do about the Common Core” (i.e., next to nothing). So what are these standards, and where did they come from? Will they improve education? What exactly will they be improving? Is the increasing hostility merited or simply the result of over-politicization?
This article will offer a description of the Common Core documents, the arguments of its proponents and critics, and a brief look at the results of Common Core in states where it has already been implemented. I will conclude by offering an assessment. The following is based upon an ongoing investigation of news stories, the findings of education think tanks, a survey of the history and philosophy of education, and interviews with scholars, public officials, and public school teachers. Before delving into the CCSS, however, a cursory history of the educational standards movement might prove helpful.
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