Poor Implementation Undermines Promise Of The Common Core

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

Our guest author today is Stephen Lazar, a founding teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, where he teaches Social Studies. A National Board certified teacher, he blogs at Outside the Cave. Stephen is also one of the organizers of Insightful Social Studies, a grass roots campaign of teachers to reform the newly proposed New York State Social Studies standards.

The Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) seek to define “college and career readiness expectations." Forty-five states have adopted them, and are moving briskly towards full implementation in the coming year. Last January, I wrote that the standards “represent the greatest opportunity for history teaching and learning to be widely re-imagined since the Committee of Ten set the basic outlines for American education over a hundred years ago."

While I stand by that statement, with each step towards implementation I see the opportunity being squandered. We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally.  Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings.  New curricula will need to ensure students use an inquiry-based approach to go in depth with a smaller amount of content to gain the wider breadth of skills and dispositions required for civic, college, and career readiness.

All teachers working in Common Core states are currently engaging with the changes demanded by the Common Core. In too many places, this is happening without sufficient time and supports, but it is happening very quickly nonetheless. The U.S. and state Departments of Education have poured over half a billion dollars into the assessments already, and, beginning this year, the results will be high-stakes for students and teachers. All systems are moving full speed ahead to assess core skills without sufficient consideration of the end to which these skills are applied. Two things need to happen to avoid driving off a cliff.

First, we need to ensure we are driving in the right direction. The Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two groups responsible for the Common Core, quietly released a brief vision statement this past September, which called for a framework that would provide inquiry-based standards to prepare students for civic life. This is coming far too late. With all the momentum already behind the move towards the College and Career readiness standard, the third C is likely to get lost in the shuffle. It is imperative that our public schools do not forget their core responsibility and civic mission. Primary and secondary schools cannot merely be a farm system for universities and jobs. Rather, as public institutions, they must ensure that a new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults.

Second, we need to remember that backwards design is not a simple linear process. These assessments will exist before anyone has had a chance to develop curricula that will prepare students for the assessments. As any strong teacher knows, the development of a curriculum should occur hand-in-hand with the development of standards and assessments. As Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe remind us in Understanding by Design:

…though the three stages present a logic of design, it does not follow that this is a step-by-step process...don’t confuse the logic of the final product with the messy process of design work.
It will take revision to ensure that the assessments actually address the standards, and that the curricula actually prepare students for them. As each is developed, alterations will be necessary at all three stages; it is naive and simplistic to assume that changes to the standards and assessments will not be necessary once implementation occurs.

Even after we ensure we’re headed in the right direction, with the right tools for the job, there are still numerous pitfalls ahead. New York State is currently attempting to make this happen. The New York Board of Regents recently released a draft of a new 9-12 Social Studies Framework. The Curricular Framework recognizes that the purpose of Social Studies “is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world."

Towards that end, the Framework claims to allow “students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents, and an examination of patterns of events in history," and teachers “to have increased decision making power about how to teach and illustrate conceptual understandings and key ideas to promote student understanding." On those three points rests the entirety of the work I do with curriculum, teachers, and students.  Count me in!

However, the framework undermines these very goals by providing a list of concepts to be fed to students that is far too long. A certain interpretation of history and civics is established through the “Key Ideas," which are meant to be transferred to students, as opposed to a series of questions or statements that could lead to the inquiry necessary to develop civic responsibilities, as well as demonstrate most of the Common Core standards, including argument, (Writing 1) and comparing texts with different views (Reading 9).

Along with a number of other high-caliber Social Studies teachers in the state, I have founded a group called Insightful Social Studies to try and reform the Framework. Our long term goal as teachers is to better help students learn to make sense of our shared societal situations via meaningful social studies instruction that focuses on powerful and relevant questions, deep consideration of crucial issues and authentic civic engagement. Our current struggle is to spark an effective resistance to the “laundry list approach” to social studies standards provided by the current draft NYS Social Studies Framework, and thereby to build greater support for meaningful social studies. We want to see three main things in any adopted curricular framework:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions and inquiry, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.
We hold that these shifts will demand the actual inquiry, thinking, rigor, and decision making practice that is necessary for students to be prepared for an active Civic life. For example, the current Framework demands that eleventh graders know that “The success of the revolution challenged Americans to establish a system of government that would provide for stability, while beginning to fulfill the promise of the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence."

This assumes that the Constitution provided stability, an idea challenged by the Civil War, and that it was a step on the road to certain ideals, despite its protection of slavery and the slave trade. It also fails to look at the Constitution in the context of the present day. Instead of starting with the answer, it would be better if we started with questions, such as:

  • To what extent did the Constitution succeed in fulfilling its stated goals in the Preamble?;
  • To what extent did the Constitution fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence?;
  • How well does it still work today?;
  • How might it change to work better?
These are the very questions with which intelligent and engaged adults struggle, as civic decisions are made on a daily basis throughout the United States. It is this civic realm, which is foundational and supportive of the academic and economic realms, that current pedagogical reforms must buttress.

- Stephen Lazar


I have always said that common core standards is a good idea, for some consistency and continuity. I'm not sure that they are always developmentally appropriate at the younger years, and the "college and career" stuff is a starry-eyed, back-handed slap of an accusation that comes without the conversations:

1) Careers?!? What careers? We are not long off a Clinton-to-Bush run where our leaders more or less told us that good jobs were gone, retraining and acceptance of less might be the lot of a lot of us, and a town hall where Bush II just didn't get it when a clearly well spoken and educated, almost middle-aged mother lamented the need to work three jobs just to make ends meet. Bush: "Three jobs? That's truly American!"
The movies really do get it right once in a while: "If you build it, they will come." When "job creators and investors" really did, and supported the nation/workers/economy that gave them investor/creator powers...our schools churned out workers that participated, and kids who went to college were ready. The investors creators have turned to hoarders in a speculation based economy and now they are speculating on the value of people, their public institutions, and finding a way to restrain and milk them on their public-to-private farm. If good jobs existed, parents would be working, feeding, loving, preparing students to succeed.

2) College? What exists after that would pay back the Sallie-Mae master?


Sadly it seems that high stakes testing is the only hope for History in public education. I dont care if the curriculum includes answers, questions, or pictures just as long as we start expecting students and teachers to perform as well in a history class as they do in math and reading.

And how about including some writing standards in History and actually enforcing them? Why are English teachers the only ones expected to assign and grade writing? Histroy is the core of our notions of a democratic education, and we are dropping the ball at every step.


I think I like Common Core for what it is, standards. However, all the good that the standards do for students' engagement and depth of knowledge is negated by the test that is being written by someone who has not been in the students' classrooms.

We also must be careful in implementing any sort of test involving thinking in history (and social studies, in general) because different groups have different histories. Histories that are not recognized by institutions ans establishments.

My concern about the testing in Social Studies can best be explained using the Civil War. A friend of mine told this story: When was living in West Virginia, the Civil War was about slavery. She moved to a town just north of Atlanta, GA, where they studied the War of Northern Aggression (which was about states' rights).

Another friend of mine grew up on the other side of Atlanta. She said they when learned about the Civil War, they learned that it was fought over slavery.

Both of these ladies were in school at the same time, learning about the same subject. The first one middle class white, the second middle class black. They learned two different histories. In my opinion, neither is wrong. History is simply a narrative of people's memories, oral or written.

How can you standardize and test people's memories of an event. Students should be allowed the opportunity to explore different points of view on history. This would be true critical thinking. But how would that sit with mainstream parents and how would you assess that?