Decoding the Common Core

“Angry” isn’t the only word to describe mothers and fathers who are coming into first contact with the Common Core. They’re confused. They’re anxious. They’re frustrated. And whatever their opinions are, they hold them very deeply.

But just what is the Common Core, and why is it causing tempers to flare and frustrations to rise? We spoke to education experts, teachers, and parents from around the country to get real answers about the classroom changes that are sweeping the nation.

What is the Common Core and where did it come from?

The development of the Common Core standards began in 2009 as a joint effort between the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, who preside over education policy in each state. Their mission was to make sure all students throughout the country were getting the same access to quality education while also raising the bar for everyone so our kids would be better prepared for college and the workforce. What they came up with, officially called the Common Core State Standards Initiative, is basically a set of national benchmarks for the math and English Language Arts (ELA) concepts students need to know at each grade level. It’s not a national curriculum, a preset syllabus, a list of required reading, or prefab lesson plans that have to be doled out to every classroom. It’s up to each state to determine whether it wants to adopt the Common Core—43 have adopted all the standards so far, with Alaska, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia opting out—and how to interpret, implement, and assess it.

That doesn’t sound so bad. Where is all the outrage coming from?

Few people actually disagree with the overall goals of the Common Core, but the creation and implementation have caused a great deal of controversy. First of all, although the standards were created with the help of a seemingly unending list of academic, nonprofit, and governmental organizations, some people feel there wasn’t enough teacher involvement. Some educators were also upset by the lack of time, training, and resources given to them to implement the changes, many of which required a complete overhaul of lesson plans and curricula. The teacher uproar trickled down to the parents, who got a bad taste in their mouth about the change from the get-go. Both parents and teachers were also upset by the amount of testing needed to ensure the standards were being met.

Why were the teachers so concerned about implementation? How different are the standards from what was taught before?

“Common Core is looking for a deeper kind of learning,” says Lucy Calkins, the Robinson Professor in Children’s Literature and founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College. For the ELA portion, “It’s looking for students to synthesize information across different texts, to examine the perspective from which something was written, to marshal evidence in support of an argument, and to weigh the validity of that evidence—not just write a straight, simple piece,” Calkins says. Students are expected to read more complex texts with more sophisticated vocabulary and be able to make arguments based on evidence from the texts. For kindergarten through fifth grade, the standards require a fifty-fifty split between fiction and nonfiction reading materials, such as stories from around the world, the country’s foundational documents, and classic works of American literature.

In math, students are still expected to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of whole numbers and fractions. In addition to calculation and computation, though, they’re expected to know how math applies to everyday life. “You see more of what you’d call word problems,” says Marcy Singer-Gabella, professor and associate chair of the department of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University. “They create a situation and then students have to analyze what’s there and figure out the right equation to use. So they have to do more writing—they have to show their work and justify their solution.”

That sounds rigorous, but my district was already excellent before Common Core was introduced. Should I be worried that my high-achieving school will be “dumbed down” to the lowest common denominator?

Quite the opposite, in fact. “What you see for the high school standards is that they look about two years harder than what we had previously been expecting, particularly with regard to reading complexity, text complexity, and math concepts and skills,” Singer-Gabella says.

That trickles all the way down to elementary school. “What was expected in first grade is now expected in kindergarten,” says Peggy McNamara, Ph.D., chair of general teacher education at Bank Street College of Education. “I think that some kids, because of preschool, start kindergarten being ready for things that kids were not necessarily ready for prior to this. But that’s one of the issues we’re having with Common Core as educators and parents—that so much is being expected of younger kids. The ‘pushing down’ doesn’t just go for lesson plans, either. Standardized testing is being introduced earlier, with diagnostic tests starting as early as kindergarten.”

Speaking of standardized testing, how does that factor into the Common Core?

The subject of standardized testing and the Common Core is so fraught that even some of those who find no fault with the guidelines themselves find their support wavering when the testing is factored in.

Rigorous standardized tests are being used to determine whether each child has met the benchmarks for his or her grade, but they’re so new that there’s no proof they actually work. “We don’t have tests that are validated yet,” says Singer-Gabella. “We don’t know that they’re testing what they’re supposed to test, and we don’t know whether the scoring is reliable—that two scorers would give the same grade when they look at the same test.” The growing pains for the standardized tests wouldn’t be such an issue if no stakes were attached. But Common Core standardized testing has already been used to evaluate teachers and schools. This leads some to believe that the implementation of Common Core standards was too rushed.

Regardless of whether it’s being implemented well or not, the Common Core will be a part of my child’s education. What’s a concerned parent to do?

A good way to begin is by separating the fact from the frenzy. “Start by reading up on the Common Core standards,” Calkins recommends. “That way, you understand the standards for yourself, rather than people’s interpretations of the standards shouted from a megaphone.”

Once you’re familiar, if you’re still unclear about what the standards mean, it’s best to go to the front lines. “My advice is that parents talk with the teachers,” McNamara says. Ask questions like: What are the main changes my child can expect this year? What are her strengths and weaknesses? What can I do at home?

If you still have concerns after talking with your child’s teachers, don’t stay silent. Burris notes that parents are powerful when it comes to education policy. “Parents should be very vocal if they are uncomfortable with the work they see coming home or if their children have a negative reaction to the tests,” she says. “Every child has the right to an excellent education, and I believe that parents should have input through their local communities as to what that education looks like.”