For uniformity's sake alone, the Common Core standards are a definite upgrade over the current standards. But a quick look over the standards shows that they are incomplete, at best. Although the standards nominally cover math, English, and "literacy in science and social studies," the standards for science and social studies say nothing about the actual content students should be learning. For example: under the Common Core standards, 11th and 12th grade students should be able to "analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured," and "interpret the meaning of words and phrases in a text." And indeed they should. But the standards say nothing about what kinds of primary sources students should be studying. The Constitution? A translated copy of Egyptian hieroglyphics? An authentic 1990s Ren & Stimpy cartoon? The Common Core standards provide a robust set of skill-based standards, but they almost completely ignore what content students are supposed to be learning in science and social studies classes.
The theory behind the skills-based approach is that schools should give students the capacity to engage with any text, rather than to pound home "rote" facts like "what does the Supreme Court do?" or "what is a covalent bond?" But a solid basis in content is an integral part of learning to read a wide variety of texts. If you don't understand what the Supreme Court does, or if you don't understand the First Amendment, you're not going to be able to understand articles like this one criticizing the Court's recent decision striking down campaign finance laws. Similarly, if you don't understand the concept of global warming, you're sure not going to understand this article about the "beleaguered global warming panel." And these are basic articles that one would hope any "college ready" high school senior would be able to make sense of.
Were the Common Core standards supplemented with adequate content-based instruction, they could indeed leave American students "college ready." But recent history suggests that states and schools are loathe to insist upon robust content standards on their own accord. When standards are skill-based, schools focus on skills--leaving students in the dark about the most basic facts. A recent study showed, for example, that fewer than half of 17-year-olds can place the Civil War in the proper half-century, nearly a quarter cannot identify Adolf Hitler, and a third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion.
Ending the race to the bottom is a good thing, and the Common Core standards may well do just that. But if we're really concerned about ensuring that state standards are adequately preparing students for college, any national standards must insist upon at least a baseline of basic content knowledge.
UPDATE: A blog post at CommonCore.org (which is, confusingly enough, not affiliated with the Common Core State Standards group that released the standards) argues that the new standards do an admirable job of importing content into a skills-based curriculum. The author's essential point is that the new standards allow space for--and in fact, encourage--a content-rich curriculum. It's a more optimistic take than what I've written here. Let's hope schools follow through and use this as a vehicle for delivering core content.