Let's Get Off the National Standards Train

Henry Burke and Donna Garner – The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) project (a.k.a., CCS for short) is an effort to establish national standards for all K-12 public schools. The two organizations that are leading the CCS project are the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).


Let’s pose a question.  If you wanted to “sell” something that a number of people did not need, how would you do it?  You might try setting up a contest where everyone competes for a significant financial prize.  After all, Americans love to compete, especially when money goes to the winner. 

Here are the contest details:  The competitors are strapped for cash; the competitors must give up some of their prized possessions in order to qualify; and the game organizers do not announce all of the rules until the game is well underway. How fair does this sound?

This is exactly what Barack Obama and U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have done with Common Core Standards (CCS) and Race to the Top (RTTT). 

Under Obama and Duncan, the federal takeover of our schools is rapidly spreading across our nation.  

It is not too late for the “contestants” to quit playing this game.  States that have taken no federal Common Core Standards (CCS) money can drop out of the game.  Even states that have received some of their Race to the Top (RTTT) funds could make a plea to Congress to pass a “hold harmless” clause that would allow these states some relief.

The questions that states must answer are, “Do we really want the federal government taking control of our public schools?  How much will it cost the cash-strapped taxpayers of our state to make up for the lost CCS/RTTT federal funding?”

This report includes the following sections:

A.       Origin of Common Core Standards (CCS)

B.       Money and Race to the Top (RTTT)

C.       Race Winners

D.       States That Adopted Common Core Standards

E.       Federal Control of Education

F.        Quality of Common Core Standards

G.      Assessments

H.       Follow the Money Trail   

I.          Congressional Hearings on Common Core Standards

J.         Legality of CCS and RTTT 

Action Steps are included at the end of this report.

A.  Origin of Common Core Standards (CCS)

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) project (a.k.a., CCS for short) is an effort to establish national standards for all K-12 public schools.  The two organizations that are leading the CCS project are the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). 

The NGA is a “bipartisan organization of the nation’s governors that speaks with a unified voice on national policy.” The CCSSO is “a nationwide, nonpartisan, and nonprofit membership organization…made up of states’ chief school officers.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is part of the United States Department of Education’s federal Race to the Top (RTTT) contest.

Other non-governmental organizations also heavily involved in the CCSSI project are: Marc Tucker, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a major sponsor of the project, and Achieve, Inc., as a principal advocacy organization.

No Congressional public hearings have been held on CCSSI/RTTT nor have any been announced for the future. (One Congressional hearing, to be discussed later in this paper, was held on 12.08.09; but only invited guests were allowed to testify.)  No Congressional votes by those we elected to represent us were ever taken on the CCSSI/RTTT. 

The people chosen to write the Common Core Standards (CCS) documents are closely aligned with the Obama administration.  Of course, the administration has tried to make it look as if the standards/curriculum/assessments are coming from the private sector; but the people chosen to write these CCS documents are all tied together. 

B.      Money and Race to the Top (RTTT)

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan inserted a half-page program description into the Stimulus Bill in early 2009, few people except top Democratic leaders knew that it would create Race to the Top.  This “Race” dominated the education news in 2010 because of the potential money that states could receive.  Using a combination of the carrot-and-stick approach, the Obama administration has pressured states to adopt the national standards. 

In Bill Costello’s comments (9.22.10), he captured the strings attached to taking the federal money:


As an incentive, states that adopted the Common Core by August 2, 2010 greatly improved their chances of receiving a share of the $4.35-billion Race to the Top federal grant. The strategy worked: most states adopted the standards. However, only nine states and the District of Columbia were actually awarded the money [in Phase 2]. All ten of those winners had adopted the standards.

As a penalty, states that failed to adopt the Common Core risked losing funding from Title I, a $14.4-billion program that provides funds for low-income students. Most school districts participate in the Title I program.

States spent millions of dollars and many hours filling out the complicated RTTT applications.  According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, it took states an average of 642 hours to complete each application. That means it took two staff members, working full-time for two months (doing nothing else but working on the RTTT application), to finish the task.

In her article on 1.26.11, Michele Malkin captured some of this effort and the role of teachers’ unions:


You need a chain saw to cut through the bureaucratese of the winning state applications, but the bottom line is that the ‘race’ is ‘won’ only when school reformers get buy-in from the teachers’ unions — the most stalwart enemies of introducing choice and competition to the atrophying system.

Robert Holland wrote an article on the RTTT’s hidden price tag (11.04.10). 


In addition, local and state bureaucrats who competed for RTTT grants like a pack of wolves snapping at juicy pork chops are finding the grants may cost more than they bring in.

Given that the loot will be dribbled out over a four-year period, it is entirely possible that bureaucratic costs will consume any presumed windfall and localities will have to foot the bill to keep the promises they made to Washington.

In Massachusetts the State Board of Education voted to replace the Commonwealth’s best-in-the-nation academic standards with inferior quality national standards and assessments.  The $250 million award calculates out to be $64 per student per year, over the four-year period.   “The federal grant we won amounts to 44 cents a day per student for the next four years. And for that rather miserly investment, what did Massachusetts get?” (Jim Stergios, 11.24.10)

When the Texas Education Agency calculated how much the state would have received from Race to the Top (if Texas had decided to apply for RTTT), it amounted to a paltry one-time grant of around $75 per student.  States that “won” RTTT funds received similar amounts.

Thankfully, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Commissioner of Education Robert Scott told Washington, D. C. — “Not interested in Common Core Standards nor in Race to the Top.”

California has also found that Race to the Top amounts to an unfunded federal mandate.  On 12.20.10, Doug Lasken (a retired Los Angeles Unified teacher and consultant) wrote:


It is in this context that we need to take a hard look at the costs we incurred under the Schwarzenegger administration when we accepted provisions of President Barack Obama’s education initiative, Race to the Top, an unfunded mandate of the first order, costing millions and not at all essential.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature agreed to drop our standards, and then found that the state had been rejected by Race to the Top and would get no money. This means we must cover the costs of all the changes made to qualify for a race we didn’t win. There are a variety of estimates of the costs we walked into, but what they have in common is that they will come to many millions of dollars.

Consider that the “Schiff-Bustamante” bill passed in 1998 allocated $1 billion over four years to pay for textbooks aligned with the then-new California standards, in addition to the $70 million per year already allocated for textbooks.  Grim projections come as well from the nonprofit EdSource, which estimates $800 million for new curriculum frameworks, $765 million for training teachers and $20 million for training principals, plus assorted minor costs, coming to a total of $1.6 billion.

How expensive would implementation of the CCS really be?  Let’s use Lasken’s figures for California (cited again in an article on 1.23.11). 


  $800 Million     for new curriculum

  $765 Million     for teacher training

  $20 Million     for training of principals

Total = $1.6 Billion

However, if California’s RTTT application had been chosen, California would only have received $400 Million.  How could a $400 Million RTTT award cover the implementation cost of around $1.6 Billion?  Obviously, California would be on the hook to cover the shortfall; and the same thing will happen to any state that tries to implement the CCS.

What does the future hold for RTTT funding?  Arne Duncan will reportedly ask for at least $1 billion in the 2012 Budget; but political insiders suggest he will get much less, probably closer to $500 million.  Whatever the amount, it must be spread over the whole country.  That means each state is vying for a diminishing figure, and nothing is guaranteed!  With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, Obama no longer has an unlimited credit card!

C.  Race Winners

Arne Duncan announced the two Phase 1 RTTT “winning” states on 3.29.10 and the ten Phase 2 winners on 8.24.10.  The 12 states selected were:  Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. 


These states “won” the right to have their students thoroughly indoctrinated by the federal government because they are taking the federal funds from Race to the Top.

Could a state that has received an RTTT award drop the Common Core Standards?  It is unlikely [but not impossible -- please see conclusion at the end of this paper] that a state would be able to pull out unless it repaid the federal funds.  On 1.11.11, Catherine Gewertz explained:


The new guidance doesn’t specifically mention or address the common standards. But as you might recall, all 12 of the RTT winners adopted them. They got points in their applications for doing so (as they did for embracing other reforms the department favors). So now that they’ve won money on those promises, the department wants to make sure that they’re carried out.

Those that wander too far from their key goals will be subject to ‘enforcement actions.’ [The heavy-handed fist of the federal government…]

We who wrote this report (Burke and Garner) have heard that many states are having “buyers’ remorse” on their decision to go along with the Race to the Top scheme.

[Please refer to our table, Scorecard of States, to see how each state stands on RTTT, CCS, and Assessment Consortia.]

D.  States That Adopted Common Core Standards


Alaska and Texas early-on declared that they would not participate in the Common Core Standards / Race to the Top.  They are to be commended for not going along with the federal takeover of the public schools. 

As of 2.01.11, forty-two (42) out of the 51 states (50 states + D.C. = 51 “states”) have formally adopted the Common Core Standards. 

The nine (9) states that have not yet adopted the CCS standards are:  Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.   

Can states back out of the national standards if they have a change of heart?  As discussed above, the 12 states that accepted federal RTTT funds may be stuck unless they pay the money back to the federal government.  However, we have presented in the conclusion of this paper some hopeful ideas that we believe may offer possible solutions.

What about the other 39 states?  [51 states – 12 states = 39 states.]  On 9.02.10, the U.S. Department of Education awarded funds to two assessment consortia (SBAC and PARCC).  The assessment consortia are the ones who will produce the national assessments that students will be required to take.  Most of us know that when anyone accepts federal money, there are always strings attached. 

We need to stop and explain the differences between the terms  “assessments” and “tests.”  Tests have right-or-wrong answers, and the majority of test questions are generally scored objectively. 

Assessments are subjectively scored based upon evaluators’ cognitive domain (e.g., opinions, feelings, and emotions) and may also utilize artificial intelligence.  The types of questions on assessments might include students’ opinions/beliefs/emotions, performance-based projects, simulations, and/or open-ended responses.

As Gewertz explained: 


Only 12 states won Race to the Top money, but 45 states and the District of Columbia are participating in consortia to design new assessments for the common standards. Those consortia have $360 million in federal money to do that work. And a condition of being in the consortia is that you adopt the common standards. So un-adopting them would mean un-participating in the assessment consortia.

[The Department of Education’s updated website (as of 2.1.11) indicates that 44 states plus D.C. are participating in the two consortia.  The total money awarded to the two consortia is approximately $330 million.] 

A state that drops out of the national standards might be required to repay the federal government.  Quite likely, the repayment amount has not been established.  If we divide the total award of $330 million by 45 states, we get $7.3 million per state, a rather small amount of money considering how much more the taxpayers in each state will have to pay to implement the entire CCS initiative. 

Many states might jump off the national standards train.  As Jim Stergios wrote on 11.16.10:


The key states to watch are California, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia. In addition to being states that either did not adopt the national standards, or adopted them and did not win federal funds, they have one additional and important commonality among them: They have had higher standards than most other states in the nation.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, as the new Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, may force the National Governors Association to revisit its support of the national standards.  The game is not over

Scorecard of States:

Page 2 : Let’s Get Off the National Standards Train


  1. Dr, Patrick J. Groff, Professor of Education, Emeritus, San Diego State University an Diego S

    It is apparent that the "National Standards" proposal has at least one glaring fault. This is that the application of this proposition will result in great harm to teachars who instruct children from low-income families, while vastly overstating the merits of teachers who treat children from upper-income homes. The fact is that this gross weakness of the plan obviously will unfairly denigrate certain groups of teacers, while vastly overstating the merits of others. It is shameful that school officials appear oblivious to this situation.

  2. Alan Matan

    First off, thank you for providing us with extensive information regarding the Common Core and the process that has been taking place. Second, Ms. Garner, I am disappointed on how you feel about the CCS. I would think that a person with your educational experience could see the benefits in these standards. Unless we want to teach the same content-driven way since the 70s, 80s, 90s, and now into the 21st century, then there is no need for these rigorous standards. But for me, as an educator of 22 years, I have finally seen the light. I have worked hard to incorporate the CCS into my curriculum. I am not a professional researcher, I am not a college professor, but a public education high school teacher/administrator. This is what I did and found success with my students (low-income, minority, English language learners):
    1. I created units of study around Common Core Skills, not around content and activities.
    2. I created formative assessments around the skills being taught/learned first before adding the content/activities.
    3. I added relevant and engaging content that will help me teach the skills.
    4. I only used research-based strategies to guide my instruction.

    And you know what? I have data that shows that my students became proficient in these CCS.

    You see, school can no longer be viewed as the sole place to gather information. Teachers must realize that content is all around us 24/7. It is how we teach our students to utilize information, validate it, apply it that will prepare them for their futures.

    I had a conversation the other day with a fairly new teacher to the profession. I asked her about how she was trained in unit/lesson design. Her response was it the professors focused on the Madeline Hunter design. Really? We are in 2011, and still this is our standard of excellence? Any other industry who would run the same way as they did 40 years ago would be out of business.

    I see the benefit of a CCS driven-curriculum. I am creating a curriculum around it and it has rejuvenated me. It will not harm our students, but prepare them to the leaders we desperately need in this great country our ours.

    • Deborah

      No one seems to be asking WHAT the standards are! Be they national, state, whatever — they are not automatically with credibility. I homeschooled my daughter, who went on to be an Honors student in college and just received her Masters Degree. We went withOUT state or national standards. OUR standards are scolastic integrity and quality academics, explicit phonics in reading (NOT Whole Language), with an emphasis on true critical thinking skills, REAL vocab, REAL spelling, science, and history. This isn’t about right wing, left wing, Rs or Ds. It’s about rewarding stupidity and dumbing down our kids in favor of the typical politcally correct rhetoric and calling it standards.

  3. Bob Oliphant

    Current criticism of our so-called Common Core "standards" are right on target, but they ignore its avoidance of metrologically sound measurement as mandated by our National Institute of Standards and Technology and the California Division of Measurement Standards. As indication in my eBook "BigVocab" (www.npe.ednews.org), the solution is dictionary-based measurements of vocabulary size, a concern which stretches from first graders to Alzheimer's worriers. Surely Americans deserve a vocabulary standard less humiliating than the NY Times daily crossword puzzle!

  4. Doug

    We should not fight national standards in education, in fact there should be a total national takeover of education. 50 state standards are totally insane. The reading expectation of Mississippi MUST be the same as Massachusetts or the nation can never upgrade to the level req'd to face 21C competition.

    The backwater states will languish until they are FORCED to meet the highest national standards.

    The states must turn over all athority for education to the national government. Is this one country or 50?

  5. Audrey Buffington

    I couldn't have said it better myself. I can't belive there are so many people willing to sell their souls for Federal $$$. It doesn't matter what your standards are if there are teachers without adequate knowledge of math content. They are out there. Of course, there are also great knowledgeable teachers but they are in the minority.
    And when there are new textbooks which in grade 4 have the direction line "Tell if the equation is true or false" and which define "multiple" as the product of two whole numbers, we are in deep trouble. Most 4th-grade teachers take the text material as gospel.

  6. Doug

    I get a real blast out of the right wing in the country who spout "standards, standards, standards… where are the standards?" so state government officials, not DOE types, get together and create national standards, that will, of course be dominated by the 2 coasts since that is where people actually live and the hue and cry goes up from Bubba in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, … that they will be dominated and forced into a national standards mould.

    We all know what will result from national standards and national testing. The results south of the Mason-Dixon line will look terrible but those states do not want to be forced to raise their standards to a national level, which costs billions but they also don't want to look like an uneducated backwater. Boo hoo, be careful what you ask for.

    People will soon be asking, why to the Republican parts of the country lag behind the Democratic parts of the country by so much? Duh.

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February 3rd, 2011

Donna Garner EducationNews Policy Commentator

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