George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A fisheye photo of a classroom with wooden desks and a wood-burning stove.

Can the Common Core (CCSS) be an important agent for change? In this post, I argue that it can and explain how.

Our network of schools, Envision, has accomplished excellent results for students during a time of enormous pressure not to focus on deeper learning. The organization was founded in 2001, the same time the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed.

NCLB, while broadening awareness of the achievement gap, simultaneously narrowed the purpose of our nation's schools, boiling the whole endeavor down to the incremental movement of testing numbers as an attempt to say something about student literacy and numeracy.

Staying Focused on Deeper Learning

Like many others (we've never been alone in our thinking), Envision defined success for its students as something bigger, more aspirational, and with a longer time horizon.

For us, it has always been about preparing students for college and life success, and we never believed that standardized testing alone would get us there. We did what NCLB told us to do, but stayed true to our philosophy of building schools predicated on deeper learning.

Fast forward to today, where we seem to have entered the era of Accountability 2.0. Performance assessment is "trending," and fast -- a concept that for decades, especially the last decade, has been fervently tended to by a small and forward-thinking group of educators. And it's now at the tipping point of becoming mainstream practice in schools across the nation.

From NCLB to the Common Core

Many factors were at work in the Common Core's swift adoption by so many states, but significant among them is the increasingly shared verdict that NCLB, for all its good intentions, demanded accountability without offering any educational vision.

All value was placed on the act of counting, with scant attention paid to exactly what was being counted. A few states held themselves to a high standard, invariably one that was established before NCLB was passed.

Most states, however, opted to test themselves on what could be bubbled in. We now have a decade of evidence to support the aphorism, "What gets tested is what gets taught." And when bubble-in tests define what gets taught, we end up with narrow and shallow curriculum (and federal pressure certainly played a big role in this).

However, the Common Core would never have caught on if it weren't riding a groundswell of recognition that, in order to succeed in the 21st century, our kids need to not only learn content and basic test-taking skills, but also achieve deeper learning outcomes.

The change that the Common Core demands from us is considerable, but it's not radical. Two simple ideas sum up CCSS:

  • College and career readiness is the primary goal of school.
  • Higher-order thinking skills, communication skills, and conceptual understandings are just as important as fact-based content knowledge, if not more so.

Is the Common Core an important agent of change? Yes, but is it the driver of change? No. The Common Core is following, not setting, the direction of education. Hundreds of schools, including ours, were Common Core aligned before the standards ever existed.

Properly viewed as an opportunity rather than as a compliance hurdle, the Common Core makes it easier for educators to do what they wanted to do all along.

What's Next?

The next generation of assessment is coming. Beginning this school year, standardized tests -- as administered by the two major assessment consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) -- will look different from what we've gotten used to.

These new performance assessments will measure skills in higher-order thinking, research, argumentation, data analysis, reading critically across the curriculum, and even speaking and listening.

For more on how we can leverage the Common Core as an opportunity for deeper learning, readers can consider the book, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards.

Just published in January of 2015, this book, peppered with quotes and stories from Envision students and teachers, offers a structure for transforming a school into an agent of deeper learning and provides a game plan on how to make transformation truly take hold in a school.

When it comes to these new standards, many educators welcome the coming challenge, but they also need help.

After more than ten years of working within the cramped confines of NCLB, teachers and school leaders are crying out for tools, examples, and coaching that will help them guide their students into the next generation of assessment and, ultimately, the 21st century.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!'s picture
Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!
Instructional Specialist for Secondary Literacy

I am glad to read something "pro" Common Core! Everything that I have read against the Common Core is based on misinformation. People are often concerned of the effects of such high standards on struggling students. In my blog post I focus on strategies for scaffolding complex text---strategies that do not dumb down the texts, but engage students in uncovering meaning.

:) Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!

Mary Roush's picture

I agree in principle about the value of the Common Core, but not the assessments. We experienced Smarter Balanced Assessment this year, for the first time. There may be some good parts in the assessment that can look at deeper thinking, but the overall assessment is brutally long, usurps huge amounts of instructional time, and has yet to prove its worth. After this year, I don't see it as a sustainable system of assessment, and believe it may lead to the early demise of the Common Core standards. I suspect we will throw out the baby with the bathwater, which is a shame.

Chuck Fellows's picture

"We know that, to change teaching, we must truly understand it and the people who do it - rather than forcing through simplistic solutions based on or justified by one-sided stereotypes of what the job entails. When the classroom door is closed, the teacher will always remain in charge. Where the students are concerned, the teacher will always be more powerful than the principal, the President, or the Prime Minister. Successful and sustainable improvement can therefore never be done to or even for teachers. It can only ever be achieved by and with them." Hargreaves and Fullan, "Professional Capital" Pp 45.

Abby Redmond's picture

I read this article, and while well written it did not explain why? The article basically says "it's good, use it". I did not see any facts or stats to support it; nothing. If this is the argument then I can see why parents are complaining and why CCSS is getting a black eye. I mean really, the article's title says "How..." yet there is not a single "how" in the article. If this is the argument going forward I can see how CCSS is getting the bad press, because what the children are bringing home is confusing.

Kristen's picture

I believe many of the points presented here are beneficial in supporting what the Common Core aims to achieve. One way in which the Common Core specifically addresses critical thinking can be found in CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.5, which states that first graders should be able to "explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide range of text types" (2014). Although this article briefly addresses the common core and the benefits it can bring to teaching, there is little evidence of how to do so. I think this goes along with the indication that teachers need help in order to make a switch. What does this look like? How can we critically examine the Common Core to best utilize what it has to offer to support student success? These questions would be beneficial to have answered in order to make progress forward!



Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2014). Retrieved from

Kristen's picture


I agree with you, the Common Core is great for deeper thinking and I also feel the intentions behind it are good. In my experience teaching first grade, I had many students who would shut down, cry, and/or act out because they did not want to take the plethora of tests I was having to give them. There needs to be balance and I feel there needs to be different ways to "assess" the Common Core that does not always involve a standardized test.

Kristen's picture


With most things in life, we all come at this topic with different preconceived notions and judgments. I think the intent of the Common Core is very beneficial. I think what can cloud it is the other topics to cover in a school year, as well as how the Common Core is being implemented and assessed. You bring up a great point, the Common Core can allow students to engage in uncovering meaning, among other higher level thinking skills. Does your school have a strong support system in place to promote the effective use of the common core? If so, I would love to hear more about it!


Kristen's picture


I completely agree with this quote, that in order to change education and teaching specifically, we must understand it in all its complexity. Students look to teachers as the final say in most things they do, whether or not they always follow directions. When I was teaching first grade, the principal was rarely around and students knew to look to me for guidance and directions. In order to fully utilize the common core and make it meaningful for student learning, teachers need to fully understand what it is and the benefit it can have for students. Teachers should be involved in the creation and implementation of the common core in order to ensure there is a shared vision and students are the focus for all teaching practices.


Monica Johnson's picture

Me Shell,
I am a new teacher and I appreciate your point of view. I am still trying to understand the complexity of the standards and the CCSS so this kind of comments are useful. Thanks

Charity's picture

I believe the intent of Common Core was positive, but it certainly has room for improvement. I think Common Core brings too much standardized testing. These tests, like PARCC, are very long and it is hard for students to truly be prepared for these tests. These tests also change instruction for teachers. Many teachers are so worried about the performance on the test that they just teacher to the test. This leaves out many things that students should also be learning. I also believe there is a lack of resources for Common Core for teachers. Without resources, teachers cannot be expected to continue to better their instruction through Common Core. If there were more resources for teachers, as well as the community, Common Core could be implemented much better, and be a positive curriculum in schools like the original plan.

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