Like most enterprises in nineteenth-century America, rail-roads in the early 1800s were local affairs. The first trains served mainly to carry goods between towns that canals did not reach, so each region of the country built its own rail lines. As a result, rail gauges— the width between rails—varied widely. The tracks laid between Richmond and Memphis, for instance, used a five-foot gauge, while the gauges of the Erie and Lackawanna lines in New York were six feet wide. Those in the mid-Atlantic, such as the Baltimore and Ohio, used the gauge that was standard in England: four feet eight and a half inches wide. These variations made it exceedingly difficult to connect rail lines, which in turn effectively curbed the use of railroads to conduct commerce across regions.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln recognized that this balkanized rail system also hurt something else: the war effort. He wanted to transport military materiel and goods across the country by rail. So he proposed a standard track width of five feet for the planned intercontinental railroad. He later amended his proposal to four feet eight and a half inches, to match the gauges of the largest eastern railroads, backing a plan urged by rail barons who wanted to expand their lines and their industry. This standard gauge made it possible to connect lines, and led to an explosion of railroad building. The number of track miles tripled, to 90,000, between 1860 and 1880, and then more than doubled, to 190,000, by 1900. With that expansion came the growth of whole new industries that could only be born through interstate train travel—for example, the auto industry, which depended on steel from Pennsylvania, rubber from Ohio, and coal from West Virginia, all shipped and put together in Michigan. Lincoln’s idea of a common standard helped make the United States the world’s largest industrial power.

In some ways, the American elementary and secondary education system is undergoing a transition similar to what the American rail system underwent around the time of the Civil War. For decades, each state has set its own expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. These standards might reflect the tradition of local control of education, but they have made it difficult for students to move from state to state; students transferring from fourth grade in, say, Indiana, might face a different set of expectations when they arrive in fifth grade in Illinois. And, by fragmenting the educational marketplace, these varied standards have impeded the kinds of innovations that might otherwise come with economies of scale—in testing, textbooks, and teacher education.

A profound change is quietly under way. Over the past couple of years, under the leadership of national organizations representing state leaders, nearly every state, with little fanfare, has adopted common standards for student learning in English language arts and mathematics. These standards—known as “common core standards”—spell out the knowledge and skills all students are expected to acquire in order to be prepared for college and careers by the time they graduate from high school. For example, the standards state that by the end of the third grade students should be able to distinguish their own point of view from that of a narrator. By the end of high school, students should be able to “[a]nalyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth- century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.”

While that last bar might seem high, the idea is that students need to be able to perform this kind of task in order to succeed in college and the workplace. And now, for the first time, nearly all students in the United States will be expected to meet that same standard, regardless of where they live. By setting common expectations, states have made it possible for students everywhere to graduate from high school similarly prepared for post-secondary education and work.

At the same time, the states have also opened the door for a flood of innovation in educational products and techniques. Educators in one state who have come up with a dynamic new way of teaching can now share their knowledge with educators throughout the country, without having to fear that their insights will be utterly lost in translation. Colleges of education can work together across state lines to redesign and improve teacher education, because the teachers they ed-ucate will be teaching to the same standards. And textbook companies can develop new and better products, taking advantage of digital technology, because they can sell to a near-national market. These materials will replace the widely loathed and ineffective products that were produced by cobbling together expectations from each of the states publishers hoped to sell to.

Perhaps most importantly, the standards are making possible new assessments that could radically transform instruction and learning. The assessments are being built by two consortia of states, which can pool resources to create better tests than states could develop on their own. As a result, the consortia plan to develop challenging and innovative assessments that measure the full range of standards, such as the ability to think critically and solve problems, rather than the narrow skills covered by conventional “fill-in-the-bubble” formats. And because of the strong influence of tests on instruction, these assessments are also likely to encourage a tremendous shift in teaching and learning in nearly every classroom in the United States. Humble standards can lead to great innovations.

Most countries have some form of educational standards. In the United States, the idea began to take off in the late 1980s. At the time, advocates believed that students would learn more if states spelled out specifically what all students should know and be able to do and aligned all aspects of the education system—teacher preparation, curriculum, testing—to those expectations. That way, all oars would be rowing in the same direction.

Unlike in other countries, where national ministries of education promulgated academic standards, the setting of standards in the U.S. began in a hybrid fashion, with national organizations developing nonbinding statements of what students should learn in each subject area, and states adopting their own standards for their students, sometimes—though not always—based on the national documents. These efforts were spurred by legislation enacted during the Clinton administration, which gave grants to states to pursue standards setting and then required states to set standards as a condition of federal aid. By the end of the 1990s, all but one state(Iowa) had developed standards.

The result of this effort was mixed. Mathematics performance for nine- and thirteen-year-olds rose substantially between 1999 and 2004, a period when standards were in place, after being flat throughout the 1990s, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal testing program. Reading scores for nine-year-olds went up as well. But scores for seventeen-year-olds remained flat in both subjects.

The results varied across states as well. In Massachusetts, for example, the proportion of fourth graders who performed above the “proficient” level on the NAEP mathematics test doubled between 1996 and 2005; reading performance also rose substantially during that period. But in California, reading performance barely budged, while mathematics performance improved.

There are several reasons for this mixed record. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, the former director of the U.S. Institute of Education Sciences, now at the Brookings Institution, has argued that the standards made little difference in education performance. Looking at the quality of state standards and states’ NAEP mathematics scores, Whitehurst found no correlation between the two. Tom Loveless, Whitehurst’s colleague at Brookings, used this data to suggest that common core standards are unlikely to make a difference either.

But the lack of correlation between the quality of standards and student performance might be expected, because standards, by themselves, do not produce higher levels of learning. For one thing, the standards varied in quality from state to state, and in some cases the state standards were either long lists of topics, too many topics to cover in a single year, or expectations that were too vague to provide much guidance to teachers. Teachers tended to continue what they had been doing rather than try to use standards to design new courses of study. In part, the poor quality of many of the standards resulted from the process of setting them: states tried to get buy-in from as many people as possible, so the standards either ended up watered down to please everyone or reflected logrolling (I’ll take your standard if you take mine).

At the same time, in many states, the other pieces of the puzzle—new textbooks, professional support for teachers—did not materialize, so teachers lacked the support they needed to change their practices. Thus, even in states with standards that were considered strong, such as California, a lack of resources limited their impact.

Tests also played a major role in affecting the influence of the standards . In theory, the tests should have measured what the standards expected, but in practice that didn’t happen. The assessments tended to measure what was easiest to measure—relatively low-level knowledge and skills, rather than the more complex abilities the standards called for. And as testing grew in importance, with significant consequences attached to the results, teachers quite naturally placed more attention on what was on the tests than on what was in the standards.

National standards could have alleviated much of the variability in state standards, but the idea became hotly contested politically in the 1990s. Under George W. Bush, the federal government issued grants to national organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences, to develop standards in key subject areas; states were expected to refer to these national standards in developing their own. But some of the national documents, particularly one pertaining to U.S. history standards, sparked fierce battles. The National Endowment for the Humanities had issued a grant to a national organization based at the University of California, Los Angeles, to develop the standards. But the day before they were scheduled to be released, Lynne V. Cheney, the wife of Dick Cheney and the former NEH chair who had issued the grant, took to the Wall Street Journal to denounce the standards as a monument to political correctness. The U.S. Senate followed suit, voting 99 to 1 for a nonbinding resolution denouncing the new history standards.

The Republican-led Congress also killed an agency created by the Clinton administration that would have assessed state standards against the national benchmarks. A later proposal by Clinton to establish a voluntary national test in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics also died amid opposition from Republicans, who feared the nationalization of what had traditionally been a state and local function. The national standards movement appeared dead.

Nevertheless, the need for national standards became more and more apparent. First, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) made the many variations in state standards all the more conspicuous. That law, enacted in 2002, required all students to reach “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014, but left it up to states to create their own standards and tests and determine what constituted proficiency. The law also required all states to administer the NAEP, the federal testing program. Results soon appeared showing that in some states nearly all students reached proficiency on state tests, while only a handful reached that level on the NAEP; in other states, the proficiency levels on the two tests were similar. These findings showed clearly that standards varied tremendously among the states, and suggested that some states were setting standards too low.

NCLB also sparked criticism of the tests that states were using to measure student performance. Teachers and others complained that too much time was spent preparing students to fill in bubbles on low-level tests. There was more interest in creating higher standards and better measures that would promote higher-level classroom activities and higher levels of learning.

The rise of globalization also made it clear that higher standards were needed, and that boundaries between states were becoming less important. What did it matter if Alabama and Massachusetts each set its own standards when students from both states were competing against students from China and India? The results from international assessments that began to be issued in the early 2000s, moreover, showed that U.S. students performed well below their peers from other countries, lending greater credence to the idea of high national standards. For example, in 2003, U.S. fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-first of twenty-eight industrialized nations in mathematics on the Programme for International Student Assessment, a test administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The PISA results are particularly significant because that test measures students’ abilities to use their knowledge to solve real-world problems, the kind of higher-order abilities students are expected to have in order to succeed in a global economy.

Yet while the need for national standards grew more evident, those with scars from the political battles of the 1990s realized that the effort had to take a different tack. Perhaps the most important leader calling for a new approach was James B. Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina and the head of an education policy organization in Durham. Hunt called a meeting of education leaders in the summer of 2006 in Raleigh to consider the idea of building common standards from the ground up: states would come together to build them, rather than allowing national organizations to impose them from the top. This was followed by a similar meeting in Washington later that year, convened by Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based policy and advocacy organization. The move toward common standards was under way.

To keep the effort at the state level, two organizations of state leaders, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, took the lead. The groups called a meeting at an airport hotel in Chicago in April 2009 to announce the effort and to release a memorandum of understanding, under which states would commit themselves to the initiative. Under the memorandum, states would agree to take part in the development of the standards, but would not necessarily have to adopt the product when it came out. Forty-eight governors and state education chiefs (all but those from Alaska and Texas) signed the agreement. State leaders said they recognized that they could achieve a better product if they pooled their resources rather than work separately.

The process was designed to differ significantly from the standards-setting efforts of the 1990s. Perhaps most importantly, the leaders set the goal of developing standards that would ensure that all students who graduated from high school would be ready for college or the workplace. To that end, the standards setters based their decisions on evidence of what knowledge and skills were essential for post-secondary success. That criterion helped minimize some of the political compromises that had weakened state standards.

The writers of the standards, who included some of the nation’s leading subject-area experts, were guided by a simple mantra: “Fewer, higher, clearer.” That is, they wanted to produce a document that was leaner than many state standards and would provide the focus and coherence that many of the state standards lacked. They wanted standards that would surpass the expectations embodied in many state guidelines—and that, in fact, would be as high as those embodied in the standards of high-performing nations like Finland and Singapore. And they wanted standards that would be clear, so teachers could understand the goals students would be expected to reach and redesign their classrooms to help students attain them.

There is some debate about whether the standards writers achieved all of their goals—for example, a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the common core high school mathematics standards, which were supposed to be leaner and more focused, included more topics than many state standards did. But the common core state standards, released on June 2, 2010, at a ceremony at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Georgia, in many ways represented a sea change in American education. The standards set out bold expectations that, if realized, would raise the level of learning for many young people. All students would be expected to understand content deeply, but also be able to apply their knowledge to think critically and solve complex problems.

For example, one of the most significant departures from much current practice in the English language arts standards is the expectation that all students would be able to read and comprehend complex texts. Evidence cited by the standards writers showed that the level of complexity of materials used in entry-level college classes and the workplace had increased in recent years, but that the language used in high school materials had grown easier over time. The common core standards expect all students to demonstrate that they can understand harder and harder texts every year.

The standards also place a great deal of emphasis on the ability to reason from evidence. The standards writers found that many teachers expect students to rely on personal experience or opinions in showing how they respond to writing or write papers on their own. Many essays required for school, for example, are personal narratives with no audience beyond the teacher—“How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” But college professors and employers expect young people to be able to marshal facts in support of a position, and so the standards expect all students to be able to draw on relevant evidence, cite it appropriately, and use it to make a case—and to write effectively and correctly while doing so.

The standards also make clear that reading and writing are not the sole province of English classes. The standards include literacy expectations in history/social science, science, and technical subjects. The standards writers recognized that understanding a historical document or a science journal article requires skills that are different from those needed to comprehend Romeo and Juliet.

The mathematics standards likewise call on students to be able to demonstrate that they understand mathematics and can use their knowledge to solve problems. Guidelines in the early grades expect students to be able not only to apply familiar algorithms but also to show that they understand what these algorithms represent and how to apply their understanding to the way mathematics is used in the world. For example, sixth graders are expected to “solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume.”

In high school, the standards place an emphasis on mathematical modeling: using mathematical thinking to analyze real-world situations and make appropriate decisions. Modeling represents the way mathematics is used in careers; workers don’t solve equations that are handed to them, they have to determine the appropriate procedure, gather data, and make decisions based on the best available evidence. The standards expect high school students to learn to do the same.

The standards gained wide acceptance in short order. A few states did not even wait for them to be released to adopt them; Kentucky did so in February, four months before they were final (although the state board of education reserved the right to review the final product). Within weeks of the release, thirty states adopted the standards, and by the end of 2010, forty-three had done so. A few more added their voices in 2011, bringing the total to forty-six states and the District of Columbia. (The Anchorage, Alaska, school district signed on in March 2012, becoming the first district to do so.) The federal government helped push the adoption process along through the Race to the Top program, but by most accounts states were eager to sign on to the effort. Although there have been a few attempts in states to reverse decisions to adopt the standards, all have failed as of this writing.

But adopting the new standards was merely the first step. The steps necessary to implement the standards in classrooms, and to support that implementation through new materials and training for teachers, have been and will continue to be far more significant. They will determine whether the common core state standards, like the railroad standards of the mid-nineteenth century, have the power to be truly transformative.

The most significant step has been the development of common assessments—you might know them as standardized tests—to measure student performance against the standards. Tests play a hugely important role in influencing classroom practice. But as the usually derisive tone of the phrase “teaching to the test” suggests, the influence of state tests has been, in many cases, negative. That’s because test development is expensive, and states have opted to build relatively cheap multiple-choice tests that fail to measure students’ abilities to think critically and solve problems. The common core standards make it possible for states to pool resources and develop tests that are much more ambitious than states could pay for on their own, and thus should drive classroom practice in a more positive direction.

The U.S. Education Department jump-started the development effort by awarding $330 million to two consortia of states that are creating tests that promise to be major advances from current practice. These tests, scheduled to be ready for the classroom in the 2014-15 school year, are expected to ask students to perform tasks, such as conducting research and writing lengthy essays, that will measure much deeper skills and competencies than do current tests. That, in turn, will encourage teachers to have their students conduct extended projects and write extensively—experiences they will need in college and the workplace. Although the effort holds enormous promise, the consortia are under extremely tight deadlines, and whether they will be able to carry out their ambitious plans remains to be seen.

Other cross-state innovations are under way. For example, a group of mathematics educators known as the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership has launched an effort to work with middle and high school teachers to revamp teacher preparation programs to ensure that new teachers are prepared to teach to the expectations of the common core standards. The partnership is lining up potential participants; the initial planning committee includes educators from eight states.

For-profit organizations are also getting in on the act. Pearson, one of the largest commercial textbook publishers, is developing a series of K-12 curriculum materials designed to align with the common core standards. The materials, developed with input from members of the teams that wrote the guidelines, will be delivered completely online, through devices like the iPad. They will include projects for students to complete, texts and digital materials to support students in conducting projects, and assessments to check student understanding. The firm has received support for this effort from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; as a condition of this support, some of the materials will be available to all schools free of charge.

Other firms are likely to follow suit. The fact that nearly all states have adopted the common core standards means that textbook companies no longer have to tailor their products to individual states or produce a hodgepodge of materials that reflect different states’ standards. They can sell to a nearly national market. At the same time, the availability of technology makes possible online learning resources, which are relatively inexpensive to produce and can now be used in any state.

Many innovations are taking place at the state level as well. For example, Kentucky, the first state to adopt the common core standards, has led the way in preparing teachers to work with the new standards, make changes in classroom instruction, and make expectations clear for students. The Kentucky department of education prepared an extensive analysis that compared the common core with Kentucky’s previous standards, and distributed it widely. Kentucky Educational Television also prepared online units for parents, teachers, and community members to explain the standards, and the Prichard Committee, a statewide organization of civic leaders, developed a campaign to explain the new guidelines and why they matter to parents and community members across the state.

The state department of education also built an online portal called Kentucky’s Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System, which will host lessons, tests, and curriculum materials. The system will also include podcasts produced by higher education faculty to help educate teachers about new instructional strategies designed around the standards.

In addition, the state has engaged its higher education institutions. The Council on Postsecondary Education, the governing body of colleges and universities, is working with the K-12 education system to develop assessments based on the standards to be used to determine placement in first-year college courses. And colleges of education are redesigning their teacher preparation programs to align them with the expectations of the standards.

The common core state standards still could face a number of challenges, and one of them is political. Despite the widespread adoption of the standards among states, the concept still faces opposition from a small group of critics who consider them—contrary to the evidence—a federal takeover of what has been a state responsibility. Legislatures in half a dozen states have considered bills to review the adoption of the standards, and the state board of Alabama, with a new composition, considered a bid to revoke their approval. As of this writing, all of these efforts have failed.

The opponents have something of an advantage, in that many of the leaders who spearheaded the common core effort are no longer in office. After the 2010 election, thirty new governors and twenty-five new state school superintendents took office. These new leaders had not signed the 2009 memorandum of understanding that put the standards effort into motion. But the failure of the repeal efforts thus far suggests that there is a strong base of support for the common core.

While that diffuse sense of enthusiasm for the standards has helped repel political attacks, in other ways the lack of a centralized governance structure may be a liability. Without an overarching authority, there is no system of quality control. Companies can produce products and claim that they are aligned to the standards, but there is no independent way to judge the validity of their claims. And what will happen when it is time to revise the standards, when new evidence suggests that topics might need to be added or taken out? Who will oversee that process? While states have led the effort so far, a more formal mechanism might be needed.

A third challenge is financial. It costs money to develop new tests, buy new textbooks and other materials, and train teachers—but the standards were adopted at one of the worst fiscal moments in American history. States are trying to upgrade their education system at a time when they are cutting budgets across the board. Moreover, states vary widely in the extent to which they are preparing to implement the standards. While most states have pledged some form of professional development for teachers, in some states these could end up being superficial. States are only beginning to engage their higher education institutions in the effort, which could delay changes in teacher education, and not all are like Kentucky in putting together resources for teachers and parents.

Yet the prospects are not, on the whole, bleak. For one thing, the fact that nearly all states have adopted the standards makes it possible to achieve some additional cost savings through economies of scale. Teachers in forty-six states should be able to share the same online courses in professional development to prepare them for the new standards regime, rather than having to reinvent the wheel state by state. (Offering the course online, by the way, saves still more money; in the past, “teacher training” meant hiring an instructor, removing teachers from their class-rooms, and hiring substitutes to cover for them for a few days.) As the efforts by the two state consortia to develop new assessments aligned to the common core standards have shown, cross-state development can produce a much better product at a lower cost than states could produce operating independently. Discussions among states about cross-state partnerships are now in progress.

Moreover, the expenses involved in implementing standards do not all require new money. States spend money every year on tests, textbooks, and teacher training; that money will now go toward materials and training related to the new standards, rather than to their existing standards. In the end, the common nature of the new standards is likely to be their most important contribution. Just as President Lincoln envisioned a transcontinental railroad that would tie the country together economically, the common standards can knit the country together educationally.

The result, if it is sustained, will be a major advancement for equal opportunity. Well before most other countries, the United States opened access to education and made universal public schooling common. With the advent of the standards movement, states began to define what that education should consist of. Now there is near-nationwide agreement on the matter, and the bar is higher than ever before. All students, regardless of their background or where they live, are now expected to learn what they need to know to be ready for college or the workplace by the time they graduate from high school. The tough part—living up to that challenge—comes next. But the foundation is in place.

Robert Rothman

Robert Rothman is an education writer and a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education. He is the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.