On the Common Core website, a section on myths about the standards says “international benchmarking played a significant role in both sets of standards.” A 2012 study by William Schmidt and Richard Houang, education researchers at Michigan State University, seems to confirm this. It found that the Common Core math standards were highly correlated with those of high-performing countries. As in these countries, the Common Core includes fewer topics for students to master each year. The grade-levels for given topics also tended to match, according to the analysis.
An earlier study, led by University of Pennsylvania education school dean Andrew Porter, found less congruence between the Common Core and the standards in three other countries (Finland, New Zealand and Sweden). Education observers and other researchers have criticized this study, but Porter hasn’t been alone in his concern that the Common Core standards are less rigorous than they could have been, particularly in math.
The standards don’t lead to a complete Algebra I course until high school, unlike in other high-achieving countries. An analysis by Achieve, a nonprofit organization that has supported the Common Core, found that Singapore’s math curriculum was similar to Common Core, but that in Singapore, students more quickly reach a higher level of math proficiency.
So how do the new Common Core standards compare to what existed before in the United States?
“The reality is that they are better than 85 or 90 percent of the state standards they replace. Not a little better. A lot better,” said James Milgram, a mathematician at Stanford University who sat on the Common Core validation committee. But, he added, “that’s really a comment on the abysmal quality of these state standards.”
The studies looking at international comparisons also considered how the Common Core compares to previous state standards, and found significant differences. The Porter study found the new standards put greater cognitive demands on students; in English language arts, for example, the Common Core places more emphasis on analysis—about a third of the English standards—than did previous standards, where analysis made up less than a fifth of the standards. The Schmidt study found that the Common Core standards in math are much leaner than previous standards.
Porter also found that the Common Core focuses more on basic algebra than did previous standards, which tended to emphasize more advanced algebra.
Still, another main reason for the shift to the new standards was the large amount of variation among previous state standards, making it hard to generalize about them. Some states, like California, Massachusetts and Minnesota, adopted highly praised curriculum guides in recent years, and there have been questions about whether it was wise for them to switch to the Common Core standards. In the case of Minnesota, the state chose not to do so for math.
In 2010, the Fordham Institute published a report ranking state standards along with the Common Core. The report examined the best states, detailing why they ranked highly. Six states, including California and Tennessee, received an A for their English standards, in contrast to the B+ earned by the Common Core. The new standards in English were marked down for “bloated” and “confusing” language, and for missing elements, such as no requirement that students be able to define “plot” or its elements.
For math, five states, including California and Florida, earned an A, while the Common Core received an A-. It lost points for some broad standards that were difficult to interpret.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. It was written by Sarah Garland for the Hechinger Report’s national reporting project on the Common Core.