Many people who post on this blog–including me–have expressed grave doubts about the Common Core standards–about how they were created, funded, evaluated, and promoted, as well as their connection to high-stakes testing and evaluation of teachers by test scores. Others, including me, worry about the Common Core testing and the fact that the two federally-funded testing consortia decided to align their cut score (passing mark) with NAEP proficient, which guarantees that most students will fail. We have heard the many criticisms, but we have seldom heard a strong defense of the standards.

In this post, Bill Honig explains why the Common Core standards have won broad support in California. Bill was state superintendent of California in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is a personal friend. California has not yet implemented the testing that has proved so upsetting to students, parents, and educators in other states. Will California be able to avoid test-based teacher evaluation? Can the state decouple the standards from the tests and the other parts of the market agenda?

Bill Honig writes:

Common Core Standards, YES

High-stakes Testing, Rewards and Punishments, and Market-based Reforms NO

The California Story.

This article is a plea not to let legitimate hostility to pervasive high-stakes testing, rewards and punishments based on junk science, and privatization measures aimed at delegitimizing public education, which too often accompany the adoption of Common Core Standards, blind you to the value of the standards themselves. In California, there is strong opposition to such “reform” efforts, yet widespread, enthusiastic support for the standards. The standards are seen both to embody the kind of education we have long desired for our students, as well as providing a tremendous opportunity to stimulate much-needed discussions on how best to improve practice at each school and district and develop the collaborative capacity to support such efforts.

Leaders in the Golden State have spoken out forcefully against the current batch of “reforms” being peddled nationally and in many other states. Our governor, Jerry Brown, has repeatedly decried heavy test-based accountability attached to severe rewards and punishments. He has expressed concerns about the resultant narrowing of the curriculum, gaming the system, and demoralization of the teaching profession. Our State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, unlike superintendents in many other states, has argued against many of the proposed reforms and the overwhelmingly negative rhetoric accompanying them. He has proposed that the primary goal of any testing should be gathering information for instructional improvement and has offered strong suggestions for placing instructional improvement and school site team and capacity building at the center of school improvement efforts. To that end he commissioned a broad-based task force chaired by Linda Darling-Hammond and Chris Steinhauser, the Long Beach superintendent, which issued an excellent report arguing for positive alternative strategies for revitalizing instruction and the teaching profession, Greatness by Design: Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State

Our State Board of Education president, the governor and the state superintendent have repeatedly refused to knuckle under to Arne Duncan’s demands that the state institute teacher evaluations based in large part on test scores. Despite threatened fiscal punishment by the Feds, the legislature, supported by state leadership, suspended state-wide testing with student results for at least two years to give schools and districts a chance to implement the Common Core Standards. The legislature also revamped future assessment in the state to conform to the superintendent’s vision. Finally, educators in the Golden State have been heavily influenced by Michael Fullan, Jal Mehta and Richard Elmore’s beliefs and the successful experience of such school districts such as Sanger and Long Beach that an alternative strategy of placing instruction and collaborative, continuous capacity building at the center of any reform efforts is key to success.

At the same time, in California, there is widespread, deep, and enthusiastic support for the common core standards among teachers, administrators, educational and teacher organizations, advocacy groups, and political leaders. What gives?


The first explanation is that the standards are seen to embody the kind of teaching and instruction that our best teachers and educators have been advocating for years. In math, based on what such organizations as the National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics and the National Research Council have been proposing, the standards move away from primarily a procedure-only driven instruction to also stress conceptual understanding and application. They place more emphasis on problem solving, critical thinking, and projects. The math standards also stress practice standards and their integration into daily instruction by calling for modeling, discussing, and explaining. The standards are bench-marked internationally and shift from the current mile-wide and inch deep approach to a more in-depth attention to fewer topics comparable to what the high-performing countries and jurisdictions do. All in all, the standards envision a much more active and engaging classroom which when presented to teachers is immediately perceived as a major change for the better—a difficult change, but necessary.

Similarly, in English Language Arts the standards also encourage a much more active and engaging classroom– more writing, presenting, discussion, and research projects and performances. They propose increased attention to the steady build-up of knowledge of both the world and the disciplines. They underscore the importance of being broadly literate and well-read as well as being able to understand complex literary and informational text.

Secondly, there has been widespread discussion of the standards and frameworks based on them in the state and extensive opportunities to offer suggestions. While, originally in 2010, the Common Core Standards were adopted by the Republican appointed State Board of Education which included many “reformers”, primarily in order to qualify for No Child Left Behind, the new State Board, heavily populated by educators appointed by Jerry Brown, readopted them with some changes in 2012.

Next, the new California State Board recently unanimously approved a new California Mathematics Curriculum Framework which offers advice for curriculum and instruction to implement the more active curriculum envisioned by the common core math standards. This document also contains extensive connections to other national and state resources which support this effort. For example, the math framework relies heavily on the well-respected progressions blog by Bill McCallum. I’d encourage readers of this blog to examine this framework and make an independent judgment on whether its advice is sound and whether the instruction being proposed wouldn’t be a significant step forward.

As for the English standards, the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), which recommends frameworks to the State Board, has just approved the draft of the ELA/ELD framework incorporating both the board adopted Common Core English Language arts standards and the English Language Development standards. The framework is undergoing a sixty day review (please feel free to offer us some advice) but the document is also extremely useful now in giving guidance to those currently developing local ELA/ELD curriculum and instruction based on Common Core Standards.

The ELA/ELD framework stresses not only the goals of college and career readiness but also education for citizenship and producing broadly literate individuals. It emphasizes the need to carefully attend to what students read, discuss, and write over their school careers to accomplish these goals both in class and in an organized independent reading program. The framework is structured around five interrelated strands common to both ELA and ELD (with ELD instruction helping EL students master the common core standards)—making meaning such as drawing inferences, language including vocabulary, syntax, academic language, and text structure, written and oral expression, a build-up of content and discipline knowledge, and foundation skills including the skills of decoding, understanding syllabication and morphemes, becoming fluent, and writing and spelling conventions.

These frameworks were created after first obtaining comments in state-wide focus groups with teachers and other educators. The framework committees which worked on the drafts consisted of a majority of teachers. Each framework will have had two 60-day review periods, completed for math and underway for ELA/ELD. Many teachers participated in the math vetting and many more are expected to participate in the upcoming ELA/ELD reviews. Both the math and English drafts were or are being evaluated by some of the most prestigious educators in the country such as Karen Fuson, Carol Jago, and David Pearson and many offered extensive suggestions which were incorporated.

The Instructional Quality Commission also had several public hearings on the documents. Of the numerous comments that were received in all these efforts, only a handful had objections to the Common Core Standards or the frameworks based on them. As an example, the California Mathematics Council at their well-attended annual meeting in October heard presentations on the math framework and members were solidly behind the document unlike the widespread controversy surrounding the previous math framework.

I know many of you have taken issue with various aspects of the standards. Some of the concerns relate not to the standards themselves but to unwarranted classroom practices based on a misunderstanding or misreading of them. Such examples include over-scripted instruction, assigning inappropriate activities to kindergarteners, or abuses at the state level, such as NY state arbitrarily setting cut levels on tests so high that huge numbers of students failed. Others are misinterpretations of what the standards actually say such as stating that the advice that 70% of high school reading should be informational text means English classes will devalue literature. The 70% refers to all high school reading so there is plenty of time in English classrooms for a full literature program. And what is wrong with incorporating some powerful essays, biographies, and books such as The Double Helix into the English curriculum?

Still other objections didn’t stand up to scrutiny in the vetting process such as the argument that some of the math standards were developmentally inappropriate. Not so, said our primary teachers on the framework committee as well as Karen Fuson, one of the most prominent primary math researchers in the country, who went over the framework with fine-toothed comb. Finally, the ELA/ELD framework committee and the IQC were also sensitive to the potential for the English standards to be misinterpreted as overemphasizing instrumental knowledge at the expense of encouraging students be well-read and developing broad content knowledge (even though the standards were heavily influenced by E.D. Hirsch’s insistence on the importance of the “what” as opposed to the “how”). Strong language in our frameworks should dispel that notion.

This is not to say that the standards are perfect or that they shouldn’t be continually reviewed and modified as the schools across the country implement them. Our math framework committee has already suggested several changes which were adopted by our state board. Undeniably, some large issues remain such as whether it is appropriate to force all students into Algebra 2 or its equivalent. For many students, who are not stem bound but tech-prep oriented, a demanding statistics or quantitative reasoning course might be much more useful. Our math framework raised the issue and several states are already moving in this direction.


A third reason for the broad support for the standards in California has been the extensive and widespread local discussions over the past several years with teachers and administrators of both the standards and sample assessment questions from Smarter-Balanced based on them. In my opinion, one of the reasons for the lack of opposition to the standards and frameworks in California has been not only their quality but also the fact that most educators have seen, thought about, and approved of the direction the standards are taking us.

As evidence of this support, key educational leaders and organizations in the state have banded together to implement common core in an informal network, the Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CICCSS). They did so, not because of heavy state or federal mandates, since, as discussed below, much of the policy making has been recently devolved to local districts. They did so because they have determined that common core standards reflect the kind of curriculum and instruction they support, that the local districts are now primarily responsible for successful implementation and need help, and that in a time of local control it was important to develop cooperative efforts to support local efforts.

Members of CICCSS include state policy institutions such as members of the State Board of Education and California Department of Education, district and county offices, the California Teachers Association, the school boards association, the association of school administrators, the PTA, the LA Chamber of Commerce, and advocacy groups such as MALDEF, Californians Together (an ELD advocacy group), and Ed Trust West. At the same time, the Governor and the legislature have provided a major increase in school funding through a weighted pupil formula and a specific allocation of $1.25 billion directly to districts for common core implementation available for professional development, new materials, and technology. These political leaders have also instituted a shift towards more local control by eliminating most categoricals with their state compliance baggage, leaving policy and instructional implementation decisions to local districts.

This consortium, in partnership with the County Superintendents Educational Services Association, has just produced a 60 page leadership planning guide to support common core implementation. Topics include such areas as developing curriculum and instruction based on common core, team building at school sites, developing on-going capacity at schools and districts for continuous improvement based on collaboration, creating social and medical support for students, and using assessments for on-time decision making adjustments in instruction. Significantly, the groups participating in the consortium have agreed to use this planning guide in local implementation efforts.

Finally, and probably most critically, educators in the Golden State view the need to implement the Common Core Standards as a crucial catalyst to engender a widespread and much needed discussion at each school and district about how best to teach our students. The implementation effort puts on the table a broader liberal arts curriculum much richer than envisioned by NCLB and demands local collaborative management structures as the only feasible method for implementing such a complex instructional set of standards. This is what the most successful jurisdictions in our country and world-wide have done.

As many of you writing on this blog have chronicled, jurisdictions which have gone from mediocre to world-class systems have not primarily pursued a high-stakes testing, reward and punish strategy, or a privatization agenda (Sweden and Chile are at the bottom of PISA scores). These high performers have come to agreement on a strong curriculum, built cooperative capacity to support continuous improvement for the long haul, supported student safety-nets, and adopted measures to support and revitalize the profession. That is what most of us want for California. Even most of the fairly small subset of our districts, which have adopted some of the high-stakes and market-based reforms, believe in the primacy of placing instruction, capacity building, and team building at the core of reform efforts.

I know some of you believe that the Common Core Standards are a stalking horse for the detrimental policy measures which have been connected to them and, consequently are so tainted that they can’t be separated. I would plead with you to revisit that question. If a district is hell-bent to use test scores to evaluate teachers for personnel decisions based on flawed assessment assumptions or narrow the curriculum and instruction to look good on tests, the presence or absence of Common Core Standards and their associated tests will not change that district’s direction. It will just use off-the-shelf tests and continue to practice these injurious practices.

Further, politically, you can’t beat high-stakes, market-based reforms with nothing. Using common core standards as a powerful catalyst for initiating an alternative set of reforms that actually work– deep discussion of practice, attention to improving instruction at each school over time, and developing the support structures and atmosphere to bolster that effort– is just too great an opportunity to ignore. It would be a shame to miss the chance to get it right after years of misdirected efforts.

Bill Honig, former elementary school teacher, local superintendent, and California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and currently chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission