Re-Imagining Common Core

Our public education system was built on the premise of local control, with the belief that communities knew what was best for their children. We focus on our children’s needs and determine the best way of providing them effective student learning. The more up the data food chain we go…..districts, states, countries, the more we ultimately focus on student achievement – that which is formally tested. But there are some significant differences between student achievement and student learning.

And today, the adoption of Common Core State Standards is viewed more as a bully than an ally. In the years since the Common Core movement was launched, seemingly most states, politicians, parents and educators have turned against the once-seemingly noble effort.


Why? Reading the countless articles and OpEd pieces, parents, educators and privacy experts have all taken various facets of Common Core to task on such issues as:

  • Privacy – suggesting that personally identifiable information on students will exist in the cloud and violate privacy concerns
  • Anger – As initial test data is released, many parents are shocked and frustrated to learn their child – who they previously thought was excelling in their studies – now is deficient and requires remediation
  • Teaching for the Test – as schools try to better prepare students to excel on assessments, students are experiencing testing that is simply longer and harder
  • Setting up for Failure – Students facing tougher standards are being supported by schools facing little to no additional funds to provide the necessary remediation to overcome their academic weaknesses. It creates a recipe for disaster, as student frustration leads to dis-engagement, higher disciplinary issues and higher drop-out rates
  • Unfair comparisons – As each state comes to the process with differing populations of students and different learning benchmarks, to compare student achievement state by state will create as much confusion and frustration experienced for years by many school districts who faced such public scrutiny when compared to other neighboring school systems

Most parents, when asked, rate their child’s teacher and school higher than they do the entire state of education as it is today. Because those closest to their child already understand those needs the greatest, and resolve to the best of their ability to improve student learning.

The media loves the term “student achievement.” On the surface, many lead with the directive to make tests longer and harder, and in spirit, their motives are genuine, but flawed. Good testing and good learning should go hand in hand, but when we choose to focus on only student achievement – and not student learning, their efforts will fail to deliver the desired outcome.

“No Child Left Behind” is obsolete and was in need of early intervention years ago. Achieving 100% proficiency in certain standards by 2014 was noble but not obtainable, and jeopardized our states’ funding. While we wait for Congress to eventually put rhetoric aside and focus on helping every child, we do not have to sit idly back and wait.

So as we look at Common Core Standards, should we look to our fellow states to try and come up with a better plan, hope that investing in Race to the Top Funds will solve the problem? Or should we collaborate to try something truly disruptive? Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Let’s ask ourselves a simple question….WHY do we assess student performance? Is it:

  • To measure student achievement to know which states and school systems have the smartest kids, and just address which schools are failing; or,
  • To measure student learning and provide two-way guidance to help schools and teachers recognize individual student weaknesses and recommend strategies to overcome them.

To quote the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, “What is tested counts, but much of what counts cannot be tested.” I have to wonder if it cannot be tested, or we choose not to figure out an effective way to test for it.

Should standards be national or local?

When initially developed by the National Governors Association and the Counsel of Chief State School Officers, the idea of “shared standards” came as close to a set of national standards for ELA and Math as we could. But to what ultimate goal? Initially, the objective was to ensure that graduating high school seniors are ready to excel in either their college or career path.

And today, it appears there is quite a gap. A recent ACT survey found the 89% of K-12 teachers felt their students were “college-ready” yet only 26% of college professors agreed. Yet, even with Common Core standards, are we to expect consensus between K-12 and higher education educators? Without an accepted reading list in Common Core ELA, how can we expect students to excel in ELA if professors may still find varying discrepancies in preparedness?

Could we leverage the spirit of Common Core and yet still embrace more of the local decision-making and control that was the foundation of our public education system? Could individual states collaborate on a state-wide level to address college and career readiness with the outcomes in mind, versus the initial test scores? In this model, we could establish benchmarks by the very foundation that Common Core was born.

  • College Success - Create state-wide consortia where college leaders agree on expectations for entering students in ELA, math as well as other topics. It sets the stage to develop a recommended reading list, so students are best prepared for college study. Most importantly the key determining factor is the percentage of students who successfully complete their first year of college study. Rather than place the blame and burden solely on K-12 institutions, the shared responsibility will help facilitate greater collaboration between K-12 and higher education officials.
  • Career Readiness – Working with the state Chamber of Commerce, each state can develop the skills students need to excel in careers should that be their option after high school. Such skills may not place as much emphasis on literature as it will other skills such as personal finances, business ethics, and communication skills and other traits that employers seek from exceptional candidates.
  • Economic Results – Keeping students in school and successfully completing their K-12 education has a financial benefit for every state. Data from ProjectRED ( suggests that retaining 10% of today’s dropouts and empowering those children to graduate could result in $3 Trillion (not Billion but Trillion) benefits in terms of decreased services and greater tax revenue.

Developing personalized learning models (also called 1:1 learning), such as those recently adopted in Huntsville, Alabama has shown growth in proficiency in Reading from 48% in 2011 to 74% in 2013, and Math from 44% in 2011 to 67% in 2013. Yet, buying many devices alone is still a recipe for failure, without proper curriculum, infrastructure, professional development and sustainable funding methods. Only by making technology part of the solution - rather than the solution itself - can schools accomplish such results.

In the 2012-2013 school year, HP set out to focus on subject mastery vs. test scores. We created a proof of concept test for a Personal Learning Engine, focusing on students who previously failed Algebra. When retaking the course in a traditional class, a school system in Arizona saw 31% of students pass with a grade of C or better. But when similar students were also given access to a personalize learning tool in addition to their traditional classroom model, over 64% of those students passed with a grade of C or better.

Creating higher standards is a noble effort. States and educators should be commended for their desire to constantly raise the bar in terms of student learning. But ultimately, any K-12 initiative requires the engagement and support of all stakeholders. The Common Core movement had promise, but its lack of stakeholder commitment has quickly unveiled its flaws. Working collaboratively with all stakeholders, individual states can re-imagine standards and demonstrate a more effective model which delivers the desired outcomes the original program hoped to accomplish, and explore and adopt new ways to re-imagine the classroom to help educators achieve these goals.

Elliott Levine is Americas Education Strategist for Hewlett Packard. There he works with schools and universities to support major educational technology initiatives and was co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine (US PTO PCT/US2013/062777), an effort that has him featured as one of three employees at He holds a Masters in Communication and Performance Studies from Hofstra University, where he was also an adjunct professor. A former K-12 official and regular public speaker, he has worked for and launched startups in the education and marketing industries. You can learn more about him at

Related toolkits

Learn more now with materials from these toolkit and resource collections:

The K-12 Blueprint: Produced by Clarity Innovations

Clarity Innovations matches the most promising technology with the evolving needs of education. By merging creativity, technology, and pedagogy, we create powerful learning experiences. Learn More