fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

Research on adoption of Common Core State Standards in the United States: A close look at experience in Pennsylvania


Common Core State Standards (CCSS) marked significant curriculum reform in the U.S. CCSS set nationwide curriculum standards for the first time in U.S. history. In Taiwan, the 2001 curriculum reform of Grades 1-9 dramatically changed the goals from content-driven to ability-driven. Regrettably, the reform was not quite successful. Instruction in class still focused mainly on knowledge rather than abilities in Taiwan. The 12-Year Basic Education Curriculum (12-YBEC), the follow up curriculum reform, was implemented in the 2019-20 academic year. The goals are changed into core competencies. However, the two promotion strategies of these two reforms are similar. The policymakers did not learn from previous experience.

Political systems in Taiwan are centralized; while in the U.S., the system is decentralized. Local governments are mandated to adopt curriculum reform from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education. In contrast, state governments have the authority to make the final decision on whether to adopt the federal curriculum standards in the U.S. Nevertheless, the federal government still quite successfully attracted the adoption of states by grants. At its peak, 45 states and the District of Columbia had adopted CCSS. 

Common Core outlined what students need to know and be able to do. 12-YBEC focuses on core competencies. They share similar goals as critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. The U.S. had lots of resources and various strategies of implementation. It is worth learning from a more successful implementation model of school districts in Pennsylvania. Based on reasons above, this report has two objectives: first, understand the practical situations of CCSS adoption in the U.S.; second, inspire policymakers in Taiwan with reform strategies from the CCSS experience. 

Education Reform

Although CCSS is the first set of national curriculum standards, the federal government’s involvement in education can trace its way back to the 1990s. This report focuses on three strongly related previous education reforms to express that CCSS is not an independent education reform to be achieved nationwide. These efforts are bipartisan.

1. The Charlottesville Education Summit of September 1989

President George H. W. Bush of the Republican Party initiated federal government influence of state education in 1989. His platform was based on some faulty facts of education revealed in the “A Nation at Risk” report during Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency related to low literacy rates, low high school graduation rates, etc. Forty-nine state governors of the National Governors Association participated in the summit. The summit set up six goals and built consensus on an agenda for states for 2000. 

2. No Child Left Behind, NCLB, in 2001, 

NCLB was a significant U.S. federal education policy. Teachers and principals were held accountable by the law signed by former Republican President George W. Bush. Accountability of the school was examined by student performance, and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was the essential criteria. Student performance measures of all schools funded by the government were to be open to the public. Students could choose to go to another school if their school did not meet the standards. If a school failed to meet progressive standards, consequences would follow and intensify year-by-year. If failure continued for five consecutive years, it could have been turned into a private or charter school. Even though the law was strict, states still could decide their own education content to achieve this mission.

3. Race to the Top, RTTT, 2009

RTTT is an education policy of former Democratic President Barack Obama. RTTT designed several competitive programs for states to win grants. RTTT complemented the roll-out of CCSS. Nationwide high-standard curricula and assessment of CCSS were developed to correct critiques from states. Some states lowered their standards to escape the penalty of not meeting AYP thresholds. One notorious case was Mississippi; it claimed that most students reached proficient and good standing in 2005, but it fell to the bottom in a nationwide test in the same year.  

The Promotion of the Policy

Education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the U.S. This situation makes a national education policy to implement in states almost impossible. CCSS was initiated formally by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation strongly supported CCSS with funds. The Federal government was not formally involved in the reform to avoid violating states’ rights in education. Instead, the federal government used two strategies to facilitate states’ adoption. First, states could waive the punishment for not meeting the standard of AYP. This standard was set in 2002, and states should achieve it by 2013-2014 under NCLB regulations. Most waiver states adopted CCSS. Second, states could gain grants by points calculated from RTTT criteria. These strategies did promote CCSS successfully. The peak number of CCSS adoptions reached 45 states and the District of Columbia. 

For K-12, goals of CCSS are designed in two subjects, English language arts (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) and math. In grades 6-12, the goals of language extend to other subjects, Social Studies and Technology Science. Assessment was an essential element of CCSS to monitor student performance and teacher accountability. Two online assessments were scheduled, SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

In the beginning, CCSS received popular and bipartisan support for different reasons. Teachers like universal standards to follow and be able to discuss with colleagues. However, tying CCSS with assessments for accountability and testing pressure became the biggest challenge to the reform. The backlash spread wider and stronger and public opinions turned suddenly against CCSS. The backlash won in both courts of Indiana and Oklahoma. These two courts declared that states should not comply with federal government regulations in education. However, the win was just in appearance. States changed the title of the standards, but the content still corresponds with CCSS. This compromise allows states to both avoid the stigma of CCSS and receive grants from the federal government. 

As assessments drew near, this resistance turned into concrete actions. Some parents and students joined opt-out movements to resist tests. By 2014-15 more and more states chose not to adopt the assessment. The increasing backlash led to the Every Student Success Act (ESSA) signed by President Obama in December 2015. ESSA re-addresses the authority of education lies in states, not in the federal government. States have the right to decide their own curriculum and assessment. 

Pennsylvania Case Study

 The researcher chose a school district in Pennsylvania to conduct a case study. Exploring a well-implemented school district could inform practical experience at the school-level. Pennsylvania adopted CCSS in 2010 and implemented it in 2013. The title of state curriculum standards is PA Core, but the content is correspondent with CCSS. Regarding assessment, Pennsylvania uses Keystone and PSSA exams which have been used in the state for years but not SBAC or PARCC. 

The Federal government has to avoid interfering directly with state education affairs. On the other hand, school districts have to obey state education policy. First, states have legal authority in education to require school districts to implement state policy. Second, the state assessments and AYP requirements force schools to align instruction with state goals. 

I talked with practitioners of school districts in Pennsylvania to know the implementation from the perspectives of superintendent, principal, director, and teacher. The project found two school districts in the state adopted curriculum standards differently. The quality differences between two school districts reveal two key elements, money and human resources, are the mediation of reform quality. The transition of general curriculum standards into concrete content requires high level of professional competence and a long period of time. 

School district A organized a team to transit curriculum standards into content. The team members were the superintendent, curriculum directors, coordinators, and curriculum writers. Coordinators, recruited from teachers of the school district, were paid for the task and released from their teaching. The main task was to design a series and procedure of goals and materials for each grade level of the school district. The content included materials and assessments that needed to align with PA Core, match the Keystone Exam and interconnect between grades. Six phases were designed to complete the transition. The first three years were mainly the transition from goals to content, and the later three years were the revision of the curriculum after practice. On the contrary, school district B had a lower education budget. School teachers had to take charge of the curriculum transition themselves. The superintendent judged if their curriculum fits PA Core. Ironically, the superintendent did not like in-service training to update his knowledge and was laid off in the end. 

Comments on CCSS reform

  1. The U.S. has built an educator evaluation system which is advantageous to implementation of curriculum reform at school level. However, two core systems strongly challenge states’ adoption of education policy from the federal government. First, the federal government has primarily no education responsibility and right. Second, school district systems function independently. Federal government without primary rights in education has a historical background. Several state governments were formed before the federal government. Federal government interfered in state affairs as little as possible to seek power unification with state governments. Education, thus, was not the priority at that time. This still prevents the U.S. from setting nationwide standards in education. Under this circumstance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation became one of the major funders of CCSS during the early period of CCSS curriculum reform. However, most Americans revolted against the involvement of private corporations in education policy. The involvement triggered another backlash.
    School districts function independently in many ways based on the spirit of liberty in U.S., including education policy, personnel, and budgets. School districts of high socio-economic status (SES) have higher budgets to hire and train teachers to take charge of standards transitions on secondment. On the other hand, lower SES school districts can hardly control the quality of transitions. Tax-based budget systems result in SES as an essential factor of the transition quality. Variance in adoptive quality of the same education policy would be difficult to avoid even within one state.
  1. Policy makers prefer to just focus on the student achievement rather than solve the problem of inequity. Low SES school districts cannot keep up with curriculum reform. Besides, the government rewards those schools with good student performance and punishes those schools where students are not performing up to standards. Apparently, consequences that follow students’ performance is a fair system. However, SES would be the essential mediation of the achievement. A short-term grant is not enough to improve student performance in low-income school districts. The reward system tends to keep the low-income school districts in vicious circle. Student performance of all schools funded by the government must go public. Parents have the right given from NCLB to move their children away from their school districts if school performance is not good. Parents who move to other school districts usually care about education. In the long run, education reform is not able to improve the disadvantage of low SES school districts and might lead to lower achievement. Although NCLB was repealed in 2015, the harsh situation of low SES school districts might not be obviously revealed. The problem of inequity still remains.
  1. Assessment is an essential element of curriculum reform. It serves as a monitoring tool for student performance. However, it also caused backlash and led to ESSA which reaffirms the authority of state governments in education.

Lessons from the CCSS reform

Grade 1-9 curriculum reform was not quite successful in Taiwan in 2001. Most teachers still teach content knowledge but promote students’ ability. Lessons from CCSS provide some useful directions to implementation of 12-Years Basic Education Curriculum reform in Taiwan. The curriculum reform consists of three essential elements to success: goals, materials, and assessment. Materials are the concrete content translated from abstract goals. However, most efforts of our policy promotion focus on goals. Materials and assessment are important, but they are left far behind goals. 

Teachers rely heavily on textbooks as instructional materials in Taiwan. We could refer to the strategy of school district A to form one team from existing coaching groups of teachers to design at least one version of instructional materials of all subjects as samples for teachers and publishers. Teachers of Coaching Groups in Taiwan are well-experienced and always keep up with the latest education reform. They not only implement the new instructional strategies in their classes, but also give speeches to promote the practice to teachers across the country. On the other hand, assessments have just initiated. If the goal is important, assessment will be essential to measure the proficiency of students’ learning. Besides, assessment leads instruction. This is true both in Taiwan and the U.S. assessments. They provide a more concrete direction of instruction for teachers. 

Regarding the system, the centralized administration system in Taiwan is much more advantageous in implementation of education policy. However, annual teacher performance reviews in public schools are just a routine, and student performance is not taken into account, unlike teacher evaluations in the U.S. When it comes to implementation at the classroom level, the government cannot force public school teachers to exactly follow the reform.

Finally, a centralized or decentralized system has its advantages and disadvantages. Centralized systems set certain restrictions and regulations to protect resources and qualifications of low-income areas. However, too many one-size-fits-all government rules will restrict any possible development of a specific area. On the other hand, a decentralized system leaves lots of room for local development on the basis of their own resources. However, those low-income areas would hardly improve schooling and student performance because of budget and resource shortages. We could learn and take both advantages from both systems. The government should set only primary regulations to secure basic protections for low SES areas with few resources and reduce restrictions for high SES areas with multiple resources to develop uniquely.


  1. This essay was supported by the grants from both Senior Fulbright Research Grants, 2016-17 and Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan, R.O.C Subsidy for Short-Term Research Abroad for Technologists under Grant no. 105-2918-I-031-001. I am grateful to the two institutions.
  2. This essay includes some results from the article “James Feng-Chien Lee (2018). A Study on Adoption and Implementation of Common Core State Standards Curriculum Reform in the U.S.: The PA Case Study and Its Enlightenment. Educational Policy Forum, 21(3), 69-100.”

Managing Editor: Tiffany Huang

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Picture of Feng-Chien Lee 李逢堅

Feng-Chien Lee 李逢堅

Dr. (James) Feng Chien Lee is an associate professor in the Center for Teacher Education, Soochow University in Taipei, Taiwan. His research has been focusing on learning and instruction of middle school students. The topics are on learner identity, civil identity, social studies class and teacher-student discourse.

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