Common Core State Standards: A National Curriculum?

William H. Young

Critics on the political right charge that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) constitute an illegal “national curriculum” that the Obama administration seeks to impose on local public schools and, therefore, should be abandoned. Ironically, both supporters and opponents of the CCSS agree on two related fundamental points.

First, there is already a deleterious de facto national curriculum imposed on local schools: it is the academic content, textbooks, and other instructional materials formulated and prescribed by the education monopoly since the 1960s. Second, states and local school districts should be the ones to develop new curricula to supplant that dictated by the education Blob. The difference is that supporters wish to help states and localities replace the Blob’s curriculum by implementing the CCSS, while opponents do not.

The Heritage Foundation has led the charge against the CCSS:

National standards…further expand Washington’s role and remove parents from decisions about the content taught in their children’s schools. Yet the Obama administration is intent on nationalizing the content taught in every public school across America. Without congressional approval, the Administration has used a combination of carrots and sticks to spur states to sign on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and federally funded national assessments have been crafted to align with these standards….

The constitutional authority for education rests with states and localities, and ultimately with parents—not the federal government. The federal government has crossed this line in the past, but dictating curriculum content is a major new breach that represents a critical level of centralization and a major setback for parental rights. Adopting Common Core national standards and tests surrenders control of the content taught in local schools to distant national organizations and bureaucrats in Washington….[1]

The CCSS do not nationalize content or curriculum. To the contrary, the CCSS expressly leave the task of developing content or curriculum to states and local school systems that have adopted the standards. As the standards document for English Language Arts (ELA) puts it:

While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content…they do not, indeed cannot, enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document….Students can only gain this foundation [for college and career readiness] when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.[2]

One specific step by the Obama administration in the direction of curriculum development which raised concerns about nationalization involves $15.8 million awarded to each assessment consortium, aimed at helping states shift from their current standards and tests to the new ones.

Education Week summarized the situation:

Two groups of states that are designing assessments for the new set of common academic standards have expanded their plans to provide instructional materials and professional development to help teachers make the transition to the learning goals….The two groups’ plans…show that they intend to wade more deeply into providing curriculum resources…to teachers…Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve…said PARCC hopes to offer a variety of instructional tools, such as sample tasks and model lessons, “without creating the national curriculum no one wants.”…Among the many organizations working on such products are major publishers…SBAC also…will create…model curriculum and instructional units aligned to the common standards and training modules for teachers to help them focus instruction on the standards.[3]

Education Week also reported:

The consortia’s plans to wade into designing curricular and instructional materials…also sparked this question: are you allowed to design curriculum using federal funds?...Christopher T. Cross…noted that the 1979 law that created the most recent iteration of the Department of Education prohibits the federal funding of curriculum….Cohen said that PARCC is planning to develop curriculum frameworks, model instructional units and such, not entire curricula…but no state would be obliged to use them….”The language here is very important,” said Cross. “It’s important to clarify” that the consortia do not intend to “standardize curricula across the country.”[4]

Further evidence that the CCSS do not impose a national curriculum has been provided by supporters of the CCSS themselves. In March 2011, Education Week related, “seventy-five respected leaders in education, business, and government issued a call to devise shared curriculum guidelines for the new common standards. ….Brought together by the Albert Shanker Institute…the signatories issued a statement March 7 titled “A Call for Common Content: Core Curriculum Must Build a Bridge From Standards to Achievement.”[5]

We…applaud the goals of the recently released Common Core State Standards…which articulate a much clearer vision of what students should learn and be able to do as they progress through school….We also caution that attaining the goals provided by these standards requires a clear road map in the form of rich, common curriculum content, along with resources to support successfully teaching all students to mastery. Shared curriculum in the core academic subjects would give shape and substance to the standards, and provide common ground for the creation of coherent, high-quality instructional supports—especially texts and other materials, assessments, and teacher training….

To be clear, by “curriculum,” we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades. We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions….

Common curriculum guidance does not represent a straitjacket or a narrowing of learning possibilities. States’ use of the kinds of curriculum guidelines that we advocate in the core academic subjects would be purely voluntary, comprising only about 50 to 60 percent of what is to be taught—leaving room for state, regional, and local variations to reflect student contexts and state and local prerogatives….[6]

To my knowledge, no action has been taken to implement this proposal.

In May 2011, Education Week reported that a group led by critics of the CCSS issued a manifesto arguing against development of shared curriculum. The document was signed by more than 100 leaders in education, business, and politics, most of them conservatives:

Signatories argue that shared curriculum and tests will stifle innovation, threaten local and state control of education decisions, and standardize learning for students with diverse needs. Arguments for a common curriculum are flawed, they contend because there is no evidence that it would lead to higher student achievement or that there is one “best” approach to curriculum for all students….

The new signatories also attack the assessment consortia plans to develop curricular supports, such as model units. They argue that shared curriculum and assessments are prohibited by federal laws restricting the U. S. government’s influence on curriculum, and by the U. S. Constitution, which defines which powers are held by Congress and which are reserved for states….

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve…noted that many people are working to devise curricular supports for the new standards: states, districts, the publishing industry, and organizations working with philanthropic support….”The net result of all this, I think, is that there will be a marketplace [of materials] from which educators can choose.”[7]

The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli and Chester E. Finn Jr. further responded:

We…find curious the attack line…that “centralization of education is bad for everyone except for the central planners.” This faux-populist rhetoric is compelling until you consider that many of the counter-manifesto’s signatories have been deeply involved in efforts to centralize education decision-making at the state level for years. Weren’t Sandy Stotsky’s (praiseworthy) struggles to ensure that all students in Massachusetts had exposure to scientifically-based reading instruction and high-quality literature exercises in central planning and top-down control of curriculum and pedagogy….

Supporters of the Common Core, ourselves included, peer out across this vast nation and see a hodge-podge of standards, tests, textbooks, curricular guides, lesson plans—little of it of high quality or particularly “innovative” (with much of the “innovative” stuff being faddish or silly), and none of it aligned with much else in any meaningful sense….Attaining consensus on the standards and the assessments…is a huge leap forward. But why…pretend that more than a handful of the nation’s 14,000 school districts (and 5,000 charter schools) have the capacity to create the instructional materials that many teachers crave? And why leave it to the hegemonic textbook companies—vendors, too often, of thoroughly mediocre stuff—to fill the gaps?[8]

Heritage goes on to argue:

National standards will fail to improve academic outcomes because they do not fix the fundamental misalignment in American education today. The problems that plague American education are deeply ingrained in a power and incentive structure that disenfranchises parents and taxpayers, due in large part to a monopoly public education system that has little incentive to be responsive to the needs of families.[9]

Beyond school choice, what else does Heritage have in mind for “parents” to “fix the fundamental misalignment in American education,” the Blob that has plagued localities, states, and the nation for fifty years? The CCSS provide the unique opportunity and alternative basis for local school systems to reform and replace the Blob’s pernicious content and instruction.

Not surprisingly, many states and localities are struggling to meet the expectations and schedules of the CCSS. They—and teachers—should be provided rather than denied the support they need to realize new academic curricula, content, and instruction offering knowledge-based education. The federally funded curriculum materials should, of course, be scrutinized for non-compliant components from acolytes of the Blob within the preparers and reviewers.

The NAS committee on K‒12 education “seeks to promote the development of strong knowledge-based secondary curricula”[10] through assistance to states and localities in advisory and analysis roles. One such role might be to critique proposed new curricula and content to ascertain whether they are aligned with the knowledge objectives of the CCSS rather than the legacies of the Blob. In particular, participants could vet instructional materials from the Blob that are claimed to be aligned to the CCSS while most are not, vitiating rather than actualizing the CCSS.

Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein illustrates the kind of perusal of the Blob that might be emulated. He reviewed a New York City Department of Education web page that offers an “assortment of Common Core-aligned tasks, units and student work” for secondary ELA.

In all these materials, only three literary works appear….The site offers units on DNA and crime detection…digital media, European imperialism…and two on the civil rights movement. The assigned texts include a speech by Bill Clinton, a Los Angeles Times story on teens and social media, the “Complete Personal Finance Guidebook,”…and an entry on imperialism in the New Book of Knowledge.

This is not what the architects and contributors had in mind when they created the ELA standards….The push for informational texts was not supposed to displace outstanding literary texts.[11]

The CCSS are not a national curriculum, but require aligned academic curricula, content, and instructional materials from states and local school districts. Sharing that common burden within and among states is common sense. Preventing perpetuation of the patrimony of the Blob is a major challenge. The battle is joined. The war must be won.

Next week’s article will further address issues in the CCSS requirement to increase the proportion of nonfiction reading in all primary and secondary grades.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).


[1] Lindsey M. Burke, “States Must Reject National Education Standards While There Is Still Time,” Backgrounder No. 2680, The Heritage Foundation, 16 April 2012.

[3] Catherine Gewertz, “Common-Assessment Consortia Expand Plans,” Education Week,, 11 February 2011 (updated 24 March 2012).

[4] Catherine Gewertz, “Can the Federal Government Fund Curriculum Materials?” Education Week,, 11 February 2011.

[5] Catherine Gewertz, “Leaders Call for Shared Curriculum Guidelines,” Education Week,, 7 March 2011.

[6] A Call for Common Content: Core Curriculum Must Build a Bridge From Standards to Achievement, Albert Shanker Institute,, 7 May 2011. Also American Educator, Spring 2011.

[7] Catherine Gewertz, “Critics Post ‘Manifesto’ Opposing Shared Curriculum,” Education Week,, 9 May 2011 (Updated 24 March 2012).

[8] Michael Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr., “Fordham Responds to the Common Core “Counter-Manifesto,” Education Next,, 12 May 2011.

[10] Sandra Stotsky, Handout at A Mighty Maze, 5 March 2013.

[11] Mark Bauerlein, “Common Core vs. great literature,” New York Daily News, 10 July 2013.

Image: Flickr, Creative Commons

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