Research & Commentary: Common Core English Language Arts Standards

Published September 23, 2014

Common Core State Standards, a grade-by-grade set of requirements for what elementary and secondary school children should know in each grade in math and English language arts (ELA), have been said to establish “rigorous” and “internationally benchmarked” standards that should improve student ability in these subject areas.

These standards were implemented in every state except Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia. More recently, public outcry and additional research over the standards have caused dozens of states to consider pausing or repealing these standards. Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have all voted to repeal the standards.

The English language standards play a vital role in directing the content all K–12 students will study and will thus have a major impact on how students learn language skills, vocabulary, and knowledge of the human condition.

The standards aim to improve “college and career readiness” by aligning with the reading framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which provides a growing emphasis on informational texts. Beginning at fourth grade, students are required to study 50 percent literary texts and 50 percent informational content, and that split rises to 70 percent informational and 30 percent literary by the end of high school.

Although some conservatives contend this will result in an abandonment of literature in ELA classes, the actual standards say ELA classes “must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.” In other words, the split applies across the curriculum, so a high school senior is likely to see little else but literature in his or her ELA class.

However, such percentages, like the premise that emphasizing informational texts will improve college and career readiness, are completely arbitrary and not backed by any substantiated research. Instead, under Common Core ELA, students are more likely to study less-challenging literature because the guidelines are vague regarding the specific texts teachers should instruct.

Legislators should repeal Common Core, replacing it with standards modeled after those of high-achieving states such as Massachusetts. They should also recognize the supposed need for government-created standards is dubious. A free market has its own standardizing mechanisms. Reformers can foster a free market in education by allocating funds toward individual students wherever they go to school and by providing schools greater autonomy while increasing accountability.

The following documents provide additional information about Common Core.


The Common Core: A Poor Choice for States
In this Heartland Institute Policy Brief, Heartland Research Fellow Joy Pullmann reveals major weaknesses of Common Core, providing a host of footnoted evidence. Pullman says the program represents a major centralization of control over curriculum, contrary to the American tradition of decentralized control and funding. Instead of being “world class,” the standards represent a significant step back from what experts say are the standards the nation’s students really need. Additionally, they are tied to large expansions of data collection on students and the erosion of privacy rights. 

How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk
In this September 2012 paper published by the Pioneer Institute, Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, and Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, examine the Common Core ELA standards and find they deemphasize the use of literary studies. This prevents students from developing the language and critical thinking skills necessary for college readiness. 

Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards
Neal McCluskey, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, examined national curriculum standards in this February 2010 Policy Analysis and found setting high standards and getting students to achieve them is very difficult. McCluskey also writes successful education reform will require going in the opposite direction of the top-down approach taken by national standards, by moving toward a free market system that produces a mix of high standards, accountability, and flexibility that is essential to achieving optimal educational outcomes. 

How Well Are American Students Learning?
A series of data analyses from the Brookings Institution finds no link between high state standards and high student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” says the latest report. Based on every state’s experience with standards and corresponding tests over the past 30 years, the study authors see no evidence indicating Common Core will improve student achievement. 

Reading, Writing, and Regulations: A Survey of the Expanding Federal Role in Elementary and Secondary Education Policy
In this August 2014 working paper published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Rhodes College economics professor Courtney Collins documents how federal involvement in education has increased over time and explains how the recent developments of programs such as Race to the Top and Common Core have accelerated that process. 

Dumb Versus Dumber in Common Core Debate
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist and resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, opines both Common Core supporters and opponents have been perpetuating misleading claims. He charges opponents with stating Common Core will supposedly reduce the reading of literature in English classes in favor of nonfiction texts, when actually Common Core requires a split between fiction and nonfiction to be applied across the curriculum, not just in a single English class, so theoretically an English class can still include heavy literature reading. He charges Common Core supporters for claiming Common Core is not a curriculum, “as though there were a hard and fast distinction between requiring all students to know specific things at a set time and requiring they be taught them in a certain order.” Ponnuru says the real problem is Common Core is unlikely to increase student learning, primarily because state standards don’t correlate with student achievement. 

Report: 46 States to Limit Classic Literature in Schools
The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News covers a report published by the Pioneer Institute examining Common Core ELA standards, which found the standards place an undue emphasis on informational texts, which the authors argue is a strategy that isn’t affirmed by substantiated research or the approval of English teachers.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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