Common Core State Standards: Above and Beyond

William H. Young

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide America with the first real opportunity—since A Nation at Risk thirty years ago—to reconstruct the adulterated academic curriculum, content, and pedagogies of the education Blob for public schooling, dominated by anti-intellectual progressive and postmodern multicultural ideologies from the 1970s. The CCSS provide the lead and model to replace teaching for social justice with teaching of knowledge. The CCSS also replace the objective of equality with that of excellence in achievement.

The CCSS elevate the foundations of knowledge in reading and mathematics—the bases for further learning—upon which all students can build in a progression from grades K‒12. The CCSS also contain provisions for instruction—above and beyond those foundations—of higher-achieving students in the salient learning required for more demanding or technical college programs.

Let’s review why those CCSS advances in achievement are so important for both individuals and the nation. Public school performance is even worse today than it was before A Nation at Risk even though spending per pupil has doubled. Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz show in The Race Between Education and Technology (2008) that since 1980, American educational attainment (primary and secondary school and college) has declined further and no longer produces enough workers with the basic skills needed to keep up with technological advance.[1] The lack of such skills is a key element of the decline of the middle class, as I argued in Middle Class and Governance. And NAS members know all too well the lack of intellectual capabilities of far too many college students.

Ironically, while real unemployment rates today remain stubbornly high, especially among the young, many jobs requiring skilled workers go begging for competent applicants. Economic growth and resulting government revenue to fund entitlements are reduced. Our economic competitiveness and prosperity are hindered by the lack of Americans as educated in mathematics and science as their foreign counterparts. I illustrated many of these effects in Competency, Growth, and Jobs. This is why American business is solidly behind the CCSS.

Nations thrive, in part, because their best and brightest provide the technical mastery and leadership needed to create and manage new enterprises—what Peter Drucker called the knowledge workers who drive the knowledge economy—and provide new jobs for qualified ordinary workers. Intellectually challenging learning opportunities should be provided throughout grades K‒12 for the most talented and ambitious students who could become such leaders. Concurrent ability grouping and tracking should be utilized, as I suggested in Human Capital.

Such practices became stigmatized or taboo after the 1970s, in favor of “social justice” to achieve equality, which I discussed in Social Justice and the Academy. But that has been changing, as Part II of the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education by Tom Loveless, The Resurgence of Ability Grouping and Persistence of Tracking, released in March by the Brookings Institution, finds:

Ability grouping and tracking are often confused. They both attempt to match students with curriculum based on students’ ability or prior performance, but the two practices differ in several respects. Tracking takes place between classes, ability grouping within classes. Tracking primarily occurs in high school and sometimes in middle school….Ability grouping typically is an elementary school practice….

Recent [National Assessment of Educational Progress] data reveal a resurgence of ability grouping in fourth grade and the persistent popularity of tracking in eighth-grade mathematics. These trends are surprising considering the vehement opposition of powerful organizations to both practices.

The percentage of students placed into ability groups for reading instruction skyrocketed from 1998 to 2009, from 28% to 71%. And the percentage of students whose teachers did not create ability groups fell from 39% in 1998 to 8% in 2009.[2]

The CCSS—and their multi-purpose assessments—support both practices. Nonetheless, talented students should, alternatively, be educated in special schools devoted to developing graduates with the higher skills needed to fill technical, managerial, and professional jobs—as Drucker suggested and I discussed previously in Knowledge Workers.

Some 165 such schools, called Exam Schools by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Jessica Hockett, are located in thirty states and the District of Columbia. They presently enroll only about 100,000 students each year.[3] Finn concludes:

It’s time to end the bias against gifted and talented education and quit assuming that every school must be all things to all students…America should have a thousand or more high schools for able students, not 165, and elementary and middle schools that spot and prepare their future pupils.[4]

Advanced instruction in either public or special schools is particularly important for developing students who can master the requirements for degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)— to reverse their decline, revealed by the 2010 Census and reported by Conor Dougherty and Rob Barry in The Wall Street Journal:

The share of American workers in the science and engineering professions fell slightly in the past decade, ending what had been a steady upward trend in the proportion of workers in fields associated with technological innovation and economic growth.

Workers in technical fields…accounted for 4.9% of the labor force in 2010…down from a peak of 5.3% in 2000. Before 2000, the share of these knowledge workers had increased every year since 1950….[5]

College attendance has increased by about 50 percent (largely women) over the past 25 years, but the number of STEM degrees has been flat. Most STEM graduates have historically been men, but between 2000 and 2009, the number of male engineering graduates declined by 106,000. (See my previous article STEM) Building upon the foundations of  the CCSS, more of our brightest students in high school—especially boys—should be prepared and inspired to choose the path to a STEM degree in college, as a contribution to our national economic interest and as well as their own careers. 

In College and Career Readiness, I emphasized that a major new feature of the CCSS was upgrading Career and Technical Education (CTE) by improving student ability to read, understand, and act upon complex informational texts and to write—competencies lacking in today’s high school graduates. Christina Hoff Sommers argues that CTE is a “highly promising strategy for connecting boys with school.” She also observes that: 

In a rare example of the academic establishment taking note of boys’ trouble in school, the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently published a major study, Pathways to Prosperity, that highlights the “yawning gender gap” in education favoring women: “Our system…clearly does not work well for many, especially young men.” The authors call for a national revival of vocational education in secondary schools.[6]

We need more special vocational as well as academic schools for students heading on to technical careers—which should focus on increasing the number of graduates who are boys.

For there is a crisis in male employment in America. The labor force participation rate is defined as the percentage of the adult (16 or older) civilian non-institutional population that is employed or actively seeking employment. For men, the percentage has dropped from about 87 percent in 1948, when the rate first was measured by the Census Bureau, to less than 70 percent now, an all-time low. For men age 25 to 54, the rate has declined from 96 percent in 1954 to about 80 percent today. One-in-five men of prime working age are not working.[7]

Conor Sen summarizes the multiple reasons for that decline, which accelerated around 1980, and highlights recent experience in The Atlantic:

The participation rate…[has] been pretty steady for everyone over the age of 25 since the start of the Great Recession. The recent decline we’ve seen has been primarily among young, single men. For single men age 16‒19, participation fell by almost 9 points from 2006‒2010. For single men age 20‒24, it fell by almost 5 points.[8]

For their own futures and that of the nation, it is critical that our young men be better educated, beginning with the CCSS, and employed.

Of particular interest to NAS members, the CCSS return to standards derived from Western civilization and American history. The new requirements to read richer literary and informational texts provide the opportunity to teach more and better history and liberal arts, to improve cultural literacy.

We need to reestablish in public schooling the Western concept of what it means to be educated, which my earlier boss and mentor, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy, defined in a 1983 speech in response to A Nation at Risk.

First, it means to have knowledge of the world around us, to know history, literature, philosophy, science. Second, it means to possess skills such as the ability to read, to write clearly, to calculate. These make a person a useful member of society. Third, and most important, it means to be able to think critically and logically.

The purpose of education is to instill these attributes in people. To accomplish this, the overwhelming concern of the school must be with the intellect.[9]

He called for the new focus that the CCSS finally reflect today:

First, we must realize that ensuring adequate education for our children will require more academically “solid” courses for all students from elementary school onward. Those courses must emphasize the verbal and mathematical competence which is increasingly required of all working adults….

Second, we must ensure the opportunity for all talented students to achieve their intellectual potential.[10]

If political opposition to the CCSS from the left and right succeeds, the education Blob will be the winner and our children and nation the losers. Opposition from the left seeks to prevent reform of the destructive practices of the Blob—imposed on public schools for the past forty years. Opposition from the right would unintentionally perpetuate those Blob-dominated local public schools—which are producing the graduates who lack the knowledge and skills for participation in the modern American economy or as citizens in our republic.

This is likely to be the last real chance to shock the academic curricula and content in moribund American public education back to life. We will not be an exceptional nation if that opportunity is lost. The CCSS and the further educational achievements they enable are worthy of NAS support.


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] Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008)

[2] Tom Loveless, How Well Are American Students Learning?, 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education, The Brookings Institution, 18 March 2013.

[3] Chester E. Finn Jr. and Jessica Hockett, “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools,” Fordham Institute, 16 September 2012. Chester E. Finn Jr. and Jessica Hockett, Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[4] Chester E. Finn Jr., “Young, Gifted and Neglected,” The New York Times, 18 September 2012.

[5] Conor Dougherty and Rob Barry, “Share of Workers in Scientific Fields Shrinks,” The Wall Street Journal, 17 February 2012.

[6] Christina Hoff Sommers, “How to Make School Better for Boys,” The Atlantic, 13 September 2013.

[7] U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; David Brooks, “Why Men Fail,” The New York Times, 10 September 2012.

[8] Conor Sen, “Why Is the Labor Force Shrinking? Blame Young Men, Not the Economy,” The Atlantic, October 2012.

[9] Hyman G. Rickover, “Like Moving a Graveyard,” Remarks at the Annual Luncheon of the Puget Sound Chapter of the National Association of Naval Technical Supervisors,” Bremerton, WA, 24 August 1983.

[10] Rickover, “Like Moving a Graveyard.”


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