The notion that U.S. students should share core knowledge is not new.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower suggested national academic standards were needed as early as 1959. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both proposed that states voluntarily adopt national standards, efforts that crumbled under charges of federal overreach.
By law, the federal government is prohibited from telling states what or how to teach. Over the decades, organizations of educators have developed math, science and English standards, but acceptance by states was scattershot. Some states lacked standards entirely.
No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal education law crafted by President George W. Bush, required states to adopt math and reading standards, and test students annually in grades 3 through 8 against those benchmarks.
The law also stipulated that all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014, or their schools would face severe penalties, such as closure. But Congress left it to each state to choose its own standards, tests and definition of “proficient.”
That created an incentive for states to lower standards, in effect the exact opposite of what the government was trying to accomplish. As states found it impossible to bring 100 percent of their students to proficiency, 20 states eased their standards to make it appear as if more of their students were “proficient,” according to an analysis by the federal government.
In the years that followed No Child Left Behind, federal reading and math tests given to a sampling of students in every state revealed the lie: In several places, students scored high on state exams but did poorly on federal tests. Georgia, for example, reported 88 percent of eighth-graders proficient in reading in 2007, according to state tests, while just 26 percent scored at or above proficient on the federally administered test.
“It created a ‘race to the bottom’ concern, and I think, more than anything, that started to fuel the push for the Common Core,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, which has received $4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the Common Core State Standards, which aim to set national educational benchmarks.
The disconnect between how their students scored on state and federal exams was embarrassing to governors, and they increasingly talked about the problem at national gatherings.
“For the umpteenth time, we were having discussions about whether we ought to have common standards,” said Michael Cohen, an assistant education secretary in the Clinton administration who since 2003 has run Achieve, a nonprofit organization focused on improving college readiness. Achieve was founded by a bipartisan group of governors and major corporations such as IBM.
With most of its budget coming from the Gates Foundation, Achieve created the American Diploma Project, a kind of forerunner to the Common Core State Standards. The project spelled out academic benchmarks that high school seniors should meet in order to be considered ready for college or the job market. It didn’t address standards for younger grades. Thirty-five states embraced the diploma project by 2004, a signal that the states were warming to the idea of common standards, Cohen said.
“Everybody was realizing the timing was right, and we could no longer continue as we were,” said Gene Wilhoit, former executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “We could no longer continue as we were.”
Six years later — with the financial backing of the Gates Foundation and a network of education leaders pushing the idea nationwide — 45 states and the District of Columbia had signed onto the Common Core.