It’s important to understand Common Core

As a parent, I’ve always had high expectations for my children. Marilyn and I have been involved in our local public schools for over 20 years, since Madeleine started kindergarten at Newport Heights Elementary School in Bellevue.

As Attorney General, I visited over 70 schools across Washington, talking to teachers, parents and students about what works — or doesn’t work — in their classrooms. One point everybody agrees on is that inconsistent standards and low expectations can hurt kids.

Let’s say you’re getting ready to run a marathon. The distance is 26.2 miles. You train by running thirty miles or more per week, and you keep your eye on that 26.2 mile goal. When race day comes, you think you’re ready — you’ve prepared, you’ve timed your runs, and feel good about your prospects. Then, when you get to the starting line, you discover that the race is actually twice that distance and, all of a sudden, you’re not prepared.

It’s the same for students in our public schools, kids who think they’re ready for college and then a career might not be adequately prepared. Students in Washington can be doing well compared to peers in their own schools, but when measured against students in Massachusetts or Korea or Finland, it turns out that many of our kids aren’t as well prepared to compete as we, and they, thought they were. In order to help every student understand the true distance of the race to academic and career success, every school in Washington will start using new, higher standards — called the “Common Core” — this fall.

The Common Core consists of higher learning standards in math and English language arts that will be used in every K-12 public school in Washington. Higher standards in science are also coming in the next few years. All of the new standards will be matched to smarter, more useful and more comprehensively designed end-of-year exams that give parents a better picture of how their kids are really doing in school.

Created by states and for states, with bipartisan support, the standards were voluntarily adopted by Washington in 2011. The Common Core’s clear learning standards describe what every student should be able to understand at each grade level.

When I was growing up in the U.S. Army, moving around the world from military base to military base, I noticed that the schools in Missouri, for example, could have different expectations than the schools in California. Common Core standards are consistent across states so that military families and others who move around a lot will be challenged by high expectations no matter where they live. The same will be true for students in our state, regardless of their school district.

Higher learning standards mean that a student who graduates from high school in Tacoma will understand the same key concepts as a student who graduates from high school in Woodinville or Spokane, Denver or San Diego, or Shanghai or Seoul. Similarly, a student whose family moves from Ft. Bragg to Ft. Lewis will be at grade level in their learning on their first day of school.

Consistent standards are good for your budget too. Right now, one-third of our college freshmen aren’t ready for college-level work. When students take remedial classes in college, they’re spending precious tuition money to learn things they should have learned in high school. In fact, Washington students lose nearly $60 million every year paying for remedial classes.

There are many conservatives who are concerned that Common Core is more federal over-reach, but in fact it is not. As one of the Attorneys General who sued the federal government over the individual mandate in Obamacare, I do not support more federal control over our schools.

I’ve heard the argument that higher standards could “threaten local control” of Washington’s classrooms, that curriculum will be decided by the Federal Department of Education. This simply is not true. Local school districts will still have the power to determine how they want to teach kids, what curriculum they employ and which textbooks to use. In fact, the Common Core simply creates high standards for what students need to know. Teachers will still have the freedom to decide how to help their students meet the higher expectations.

Some have also said that Common Core will allow the federal government to control charter schools, private schools and homeschooling. This is also not true. As an active supporter of charter schools, I would not support allowing federal control to get in the way of charters finding innovative ways to educate our children. Private schools can choose to adopt the Common Core, but they will not be required to do so.

There is also a rumor that the federal government is coercing states into adopting Common Core by granting waivers for No Child Left Behind or providing grants to help pay for implementation through “Race to the Top.” The waiver process for No Child Left Behind says that states must adopt career and college-ready standards. While Common Core is included in this category, Virginia chose a different standard and still received a waiver. Additionally, Common Core only accounts for 8% of a state’s score in “Race to the Top.”

One of the most concerning rumors I have heard is that Common Core will allow federal government agencies to gather and share our student’s private information. As Attorney General, I worked on protecting consumer privacy every day and would not support a system that infringes on privacy rights. Common Core doesn’t change the way data has been collected under No Child Left Behind. Furthermore, our schools have an obligation under federal law to protect the privacy of our students under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Many are concerned about the expected drop in student test scores as standards are raised. But while some students’ test scores may drop as they adjust to higher expectations, we know from experience and from research that students will work harder to meet the challenge. As a parent, the most important thing to remember is that any drop in test scores is temporary; the real goal is a well-educated student who is better prepared for the next step.

Washington has the technology and ingenuity to create even more good jobs for highly skilled workers; we have to recognize that our students will be competing against top candidates from around the world for those jobs. By raising standards and expecting more from our students, we’re supplying the tools they need to rise to the challenge and secure our economic future.

With the Common Core standards, Washington students will be ready to compete for the best jobs, families will see a better return on their educational dollar, and businesses will be able to hire a more qualified and skilled workforce.

To learn more about how the Common Core works, visit

— Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.