CUNNINGHAM: Common Core linked to federal dollars

CJ-0813-COL-Cunnigham-MUGEDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of columns explaining Common Core State Standards and how they came about.


The fastest way to get action is to offer up some dollars. This is true even when the usually slow running cogs of government are involved. And, this is what happened when the time came for the Boards of Education in states across the country were presented with a new set of standards, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), for adoption.

After writing teams made of researchers and national figures in education had written the new set of academic standards, state boards needed to adopt them to make them “go live.” To have the CCSS used by teachers to guide lessons, state level school boards and departments of education had to adopt them, thus replacing the state written standards.

The carrot on the stick was “Race to the Top” grants offered by the federal Department of Education.

The Race to the Top (RTTT) grants have been funded with $4.35 billion in federal dollars from 2009-2011. The purpose was to offer states funds to turn chronically failing schools into successful ones with passing test scores and higher graduation rates.

To be eligible for these grants, worth millions of dollars, states were “strongly urged” to do several things, including adopting “common standards,” passing legislation to allow for charter schools, and adopting teacher evaluation systems that created a merit pay system based on a teacher’s ability to produce high test scores. (See the form used to determine the effectiveness of a state’s proposal for the RTTT grants that includes these items at: With millions of dollars of federal money on the line, the Boards of Education in more than 40 states jumped on board with the Common Core.

In June 2010, I was one of two Elementary Math Consultants for North Carolina. We had spent the better part of a year researching and writing new state math (and reading, science, social studies, etc.) standards. Our Board had been informed about the development of the CCSS, and the plan for the state to request $440 million in a RTTT grant proposal. The CCSS were finally released by the writing panel on June 2. On June 3, the board was already meeting. The vote for adoption of the CCSS was the second or third item on the agenda. I was in attendance, dressed up and prepared to answer questions if the need arose. The first agenda item was a presentation by a school. It seemed to drag on forever. I stepped out for a bathroom break and by the time I got back, the school’s presentation had concluded, and the vote had occurred to adopt the CCSS math and language arts standards, basically without discussion! There had been no questions, no discussion, just a unanimous vote to adopt these standards so that the state would be in a position to be able to apply for the grant.

Mississippi adopted the CCSS on June 28, 2010. (Check out each state’s adoption date at:

At the time, the state’s schools were using math standards that had been adopted in 2007, and English/Language Arts (ELA) standards from 2006. Mississippi was on a six year rotation of writing new standards, so this saved the state significant money by not having to do this again. Even when just writing standards for a state, staff at the department of education are focused on understanding the research in their content area (math, ELA, science, etc.), bringing in teachers to numerous meetings to review the drafts, purchasing books and resource materials, and it takes 8-12 months of this to get a set of standards from draft to final version. The CCSS for states like Mississippi provide a ready-made, researched, and vetted set of standards that can save a bunch of money to boot.

The RTTT money has been awarded to 19 states, and reports about the success of the programs they implemented are coming in. (see: The money is gone, spent, no longer funding teaching positions, intervention positions, or however a state planned to use it.

Mississippi did not get any of it.

Now that the money is gone and states are starting to fully implement the CCSS, questions are arising. Questions that maybe should have been asked before they were adopted so that people would have had their fears allayed and perhaps even felt a part of the decision making.

This is the history part of the story of the Common Core. Our next step is to look at the politics of where we are now, and why there is a controversy.


Dr. Renee Cunningham, Ed.D, is Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Mississippi. She earned her Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


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