Interpreting the Common Core Standards “Public License”

As a teacher with strong ties to the open source software community, I view the Common Core standards with a bit of skepticism. I see many benefits to having a common set of standards, but I also see some serious red flags in the ecosystem of educational resources that are being created around Common Core. If the Common Core Standards were released under a truly open license, I’d be quite happy with all of these resources. But the Common Core’s “Public License” is not an open license, and that raises some important questions about the resources being developed around these standards.

Open Licenses and the “Four Freedoms”

Truly open licenses are built around the “four freedoms“, none of which have to do with cost:

  • The freedom to use the resource for any purpose;
  • The freedom to modify the resource as you wish;
  • The freedom to redistribute the resource as you wish;
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified version of the resource to others.

Examples of truly open licenses in the software world include the Gnu General Public License (GPL), and the MIT license. In the media world, we have Creative Commons licenses which clearly manage and respect these freedoms. If someone releases an educational resource under a license that guarantees these freedoms, then they can accurately call their offering an “open resource”.

The Common Core’s “Public License”

So what does the Common Core’s license allow us to do? Here are two excerpts, taken directly from the license itself, which can help us answer this question:

  • The NGA Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) hereby grant a limited, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to copy, publish, distribute, and display the Common Core State Standards for purposes that support the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Let’s look at each of the four freedoms, and ask if this license grants us these freedoms.

  • Do we have the freedom to use the resource for any purpose?
    • No. We can only use the standards “for purposes that support the Common Core State Standards Initiative”.
  • Do we have the freedom to modify the resource as we wish?
    • No. The standards are protected by copyright, which means we cannot modify them.
  • Do we have the freedom to redistribute the resource as we wish?
    • No. We can only redistribute them, again, “for purposes that support the Common Core State Standards Initiative”.
  • Do we have the freedom to distribute copies of our modified version of the resource to others?
    • No. We can’t modify the standards, so we can’t distribute a modified version of the standards.

As my two-year-old son is fond of saying, “Holy mackerel!” The Common Core’s Public License does not give us any of the four fundamental freedoms of the open source/ open resources movements!

Does it really matter? Some open questions

When a resource is distributed without cost, it is tempting to ignore the four freedoms. The people behind Common Core have not sued anyone for infringement, as far as I know. But it seems pretty risky to build an education system on a resource that one group controls. Here are a couple specific questions to put this in context:

Common Core vs. Alaska Writing standards

An excerpt of the Common Core Writing Standards on the left, and Alaska’s Writing standards on the right. Alaska has “not adopted” the Common Core Standards.

  • The state of Alaska has not adopted the Common Core standards. Yet Alaska’s current standards are clearly lifted straight from the Common Core document. To see for yourself, look at page 58 of Alaska’s English Language standards document and page 45 of the Common Core English Language standardsAre Alaska’s standards legal?
  • I want to create a student-friendly version of the Common Core standards. Rather than develop a companion to the standards themselves, I want to use the organizational structure that Common Core has developed and basically rewrite the standards document in language that is friendlier to students. Is this legal?
  • A company or organization wants to build a tool that allows teachers to develop curriculum efficiently, using the Common Core standards as a way to structure the curriculum. What happens if the Common Core decides this tool does not “support the Common Core State Standards Initiative”?

I ask these questions because teachers and schools need to have control of the resources we use. We need to have publishers supporting our work, rather than continuing to perpetuate a system where teachers and schools are constantly racing to keep up with newly-published standards and curriculum resources. We need to aim for continuous improvement, but that needs to be at a pace that we determine, not the pace that a company or external organization determines.

The license under which major educational standards and resources are released is critical. These licenses tell us who is in control of the current education system. If we are not in control, then I have a fundamental problem with widely-used resources such as the Common Core standards.


About ehmatthes

Teacher, hacker, new dad, outdoor guy
This entry was posted in education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Interpreting the Common Core Standards “Public License”

  1. RMattson says:

    You raise and Interesting issue related to common core standards. I have thought for some time, although haven’t explored the CCS that the intent with the CCS was not merely to help students/children learn and teachers to teach but to allow for control and the making of money by a few businesses, groups and individuals. Your analysis/post suggests that my suspicions may have been right. What a shame that they are not truly open-source in nature. Your idea of a student version is such a great idea… but your hesitation based on the restrictions inherent in the CCS seems understandable. Let’s hope somehow your analysis and my beliefs about CCS turn out to be wrong.

    • ehmatthes says:

      Thanks for the reply; it’s always good to know I’m not alone in my thinking about an issue like this.

      We have a plan if we determine that building on the work CCSSI is not appropriate. We will start building a set of standards that are open from the outset. We will fill in the content as the need arises for each class we are about to teach. If we can get a small group of people to seed the content, then we can share the framework more widely. We will end up with a set of standards that is fully open. Then we will have the opportunity for continuous revision, which is sorely needed in education.

  2. Reblogged this on The Arctic Conservative and commented:
    Here is an Alaskan Teachers View of the Common Core Standards and the “4 Freedoms.”

  3. Please feel free to post your Common Core information on our facebook page, This is something we would be happy to have as a featured post.

    The Parnell Administration has been arguing they do NOT have the Common Core. Now, clearly we do, and the state had to prove they were identical to be admitted to the consortia. You might want to check out the articles at and at

    • ehmatthes says:

      I agree with you in that it is really silly (to use a kind word) for anyone to argue that Alaska is not using the Common Core standards. I don’t mind the state using elements of the Common Core standards, because some of them are much better than Alaska’s previous standards. But I’d like to see some honesty around what they are doing.

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