April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Is the Common Core Just a Scam to Sell Books? | Consider the Source

EH_MarcAaronson_CTS_perm2015What, are you crazy? It’s all about the money.” According to a video secretly recorded by a group called Project Veritas, these are the exact words of a (since-fired) executive at a major publishing company, commenting on the Common Core. Asked about the Common Core and publishers, a teacher caught on camera (in the same video) exploded: “‘It’s bullshit and the thing is, what they do is… create some new f**king system, that f**king sucks to sell more books and then we have to learn something new with the students.’” Is the executive telling the real truth? Is the teacher justified in her fury?
As a nonfiction fan, author, and editor, I have a stake in this. Indeed, I have seen nonfiction sales rise with the Common Core. However, I fell in love with the standards when I first read them, years before they had any impact on royalty statements. And having served recently on the New Jersey team that evaluated that state’s English Language Arts (ELA) and Math standards, I can say that the executive is simply wrong–I’ll get to the teacher in a moment. As a team, the New Jersey group carefully examined the standards one by one, grade by grade, and listened to extensive comments from teachers, administrators, parents, professionals, and business leaders. In our months of work, I saw commitment, not greed.
The initial push to examine the Common Core standards in New Jersey came from Governor Chris Christie. As we know, the governor in the midst of a campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination and many of his views are sliding to the right as he courts the party’s base. It would be easy to see his mandate as purely political grandstanding. As it happens, the state was due for a five-year review of its standards, and the process was conducted in a thorough, professional manner.
From the first, our guiding principle was this: What will someone awarded a high school diploma be ready for? The group looked at each educational stage and benchmark to consider what students would need to know to be ready for the next step, and the next, so that after graduation they would have the skill set to begin the next phase of their lives. Interestingly, perhaps the most useful comments and suggestions we received were from Amy Rominiecki–immediate past president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians. Rominiecki mapped out places where the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) standards could enhance and improve the New Jersey standards. We included several of her suggestions in the recommendations we attached to our final report.
Standards, of course, are not guarantees. Implementation and instruction must be delivered by skilled educators. Some of you may have reservations about the Common Core, or me, or find the publisher’s cynicism convincing, but what can’t be questioned is the educational imperative to improve students’ post-graduation outcomes. According to the New York Times while high school graduation rates are at an all-time high–more than 80 percent nationally–“The most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college level work.”
Why is there disjunction between graduation rates and preparation for life? Sure, there is grade inflation and social advancement. I also agree with those who say that the single largest problem with education is economic inequality. If more students had more resources (social, emotional, financial, cultural, and technological), more would be ready to meet the challenges and opportunities that follow after secondary education. Yet, there is a role for standards to play, and as educators and communities who care about our nation’s youth, it is necessary we establish a path that’s best for as many students as possible. The vow, the pact, we must make in our application of the standards is that students who master the progression of skills we have outlined will indeed be ready for military service, or to find employment, or to continue their education at a technical school, or two- or four-year college.

Perhaps some publishing executives do see dollars and cents in all educational decisions. It may be their job to do so. But that does not mean that we all have the same motivation. And while I may be misreading the teacher, her last comment is disturbing. Sure, if teachers are forced to turn their work inside out so publishers can make money, that’s just wrong. But I would think that having to learn something new in order to best help students is the nature of education. 


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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.



  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I would like to see the conversation shift from whether or not the standards are reasonable–I think they are–to what quality instruction looks like, what books and materials are useful, and what this instruction accomplishes. No one sets out to be the best at determining key ideas and details when reading informational text. Instead, people read to learn and to enjoy the experience. There are excellent examples of social studies units that follow the C3 framework, which includes Common Core Standards, and IRA has published sample units in literacy this is very helpful, but more is needed. If we think the standards are useful, then let’s talk more about curriculum.

    • marc aronson says:

      I could not agree more. Indeed the theme that came up over and over from the teachers was needing help in implementation — and NJ does plan to develop Professional Development for precisely that reason. If the standards as we wrote them are adopted (probably in May) we can focus on PD — and your insights will be most helpful.

      • D. Jennings says:

        I have retired from teaching and am not familiar with the “new” standards, but I found that teaching high school students who were only reading on a third grade level very frustrating. Out of the 120 students I taught each semester, several came to school drunk or were using drugs, a handful were obviously abused, a couple were homeless or evicted repeatedly, 6-8 had one or more children, only about 12 did any homework or studying, and only 6 stayed in school long enough to graduate. They would have been better served by learning not academics, but how to apply for jobs and keep them. I favor a work study system which teaches budgeting, home making & maintenance, parenting and also supports these students through their first years of adulthood.

  2. Sue Bartle says:

    I agree with Marc as we have presented on what quality NF is and what you could be doing to further the educational benefits with NF for our students. Myra’s comments are spot on about implementation. Today, I attended a training of an online reading program and the first nonfiction book in the collection I opened to had a focus question that was grammatically incorrect. I then noticed in their biography section a tip sheet on writing that included simple stating the facts tips to include a how do you feel about the person final tip. It was a flat uninspiring list of things to write about. Don’t feel – Think about – What impact did this person have? What was the effect? Sadly, most people in the audience didn’t question this. I did. My comment was that I would change this tip sheet because how you feel doesn’t get to the central concern of asking questions, thinking about perspective and identifying point of view. Even young children can do this. The three bears have points of views and so does Goldilocks. Inquiry needs more emphasis. Don’t settle and follow the crowds of low quality material. This is trap that many districts fall into. Educators need to be more critical about the resources they use in their libraries and classrooms.