Getting to the Core of Common Core

Arts and Education, Featured Article, Growth and Development
Students answering teacher question

Over the past few years, nearly every parent in the country has heard the term “Common Core,” accompanied by a deluge of both criticism and praise from the media. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as they are officially known, anger those who object to the idea of a national curriculum for public K-12 education on the ground that it would constrict state- and local-level self-governance. At the same time, proponents hail the initiative as the definitive cure for an ailing U.S. education system that cannot seem to keep up with the rest of the world academically.

What are the Standards?

The CCSS are, in fact, not a national mandate or a federally funded program; they are a state-led effort headed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Representing governors and state election commissioners, these organizations collaborated with researchers, teachers, parents and education experts to develop a definitive list of what students should know at each grade level in the areas of mathematics and English language arts.

“What you find [in the standards],” says Chad Colby, director of strategic communications and outreach for the nonprofit advocacy group Achieve, “are basic expectations for students in reading, writing and mathematics.” Each grade’s standards build upon the previous year’s, with a focus on developing critical thinking skills (like defending one’s opinion of a novel with examples from the text) and acquiring essential knowledge (like how to add fractions or multiply exponents).

The purpose of this highly connected roadmap of skills and knowledge, says Colby, is to ensure that “all students graduate from high school with the core academic knowledge and skills necessary for success in college, careers and life.” The standards do not dictate what methods and materials a district, school or teacher should use to achieve these educational goals, though a CCSS appendix includes “exemplar” texts that can be helpful in determining how to translate the reading standards into learning objectives.

What’s the Purpose of CCSS?

Without a common core of standards across the states, students in different parts of the U.S. receive varying levels of instruction, leaving some of them unprepared for what comes after high-school graduation. “ACT data have long indicated that far too many students are graduating from high school ill-prepared to succeed at the next level,” says Ed Colby, director of public relations for ACT (the nonprofit organization best known for the test of the same name). “Our extensive curriculum research has shown a consistent gap between what our schools are teaching and what our colleges are expecting incoming students to know. The Common Core State Standards were developed to help rectify those issues by focusing on the essential skills that students need to know to be successful in college and in the increasingly competitive global economy.”

Despite some of the negative publicity the standards have received (mostly focused on the assessment part of the process, which is still under development), an impressive number of education organizations endorse them, including the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the National Education Association (NEA, the professional association and labor union representing more than 3 million public education employees). “The Common Core State Standards have the potential to be a game changer for students across the country if they are implemented well,” says Donna Harris-Aikens, NEA director for education policy and practice. “NEA members are supportive of the CCSS and excited about the potential to focus on helping their students master critical concepts that are key for their educational success.”

Likewise, regional advocacy specialist Lee Ann J. Kendrick of the National PTA says that “the standards raise the bar for students across the country by increasing critical thinking, reasoning and overall rigor. National PTA firmly supports the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, as we believe that every child deserves a high-quality education that will prepare him or her for college or to compete in the global economy.”

Resources for Parents

As the CCSS are implemented in school districts, “educators will be working closely with parents to help them understand [the standards],” says the NEA’s Harris-Aikens. “Parents will need to watch for information on the standards from their schools and, when in doubt, should ask their child’s teacher about Common Core and specific ways they can help support the transition at home.”

“There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about the Common Core State Standards,” says Kendrick, “so National PTA has included a CCSS section on our website to educate parents about the standards. It is important to note that the standards are widely supported from governors to the business community.  National PTA has also compiled a PTA CCSS FAQ document for more information.”

Adoption and Implementation

Because the CCSS is not a mandate, states have had the freedom to choose whether to participate. So far, 45 of the 50 states along with the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have signed on. Whether the remaining states will choose to adopt CCSS in the future remains to be seen. The fact that there are still some holdouts “is evidence that states had a choice,” points out Achieve’s Colby, though like many he believes that “unfortunately, politics have become part of the discourse.”

As the difficult work of creating effective assessments and implementing CCSS in each school district continues, advocates are convinced the effort will be worth the investment. “Each state has unique challenges,” says National PTA’s Kendrick, “but it is important not to back away from demanding the highest expectations of our children.” The result, CCSS proponents say, will be significant for both families and for the nation as a whole: better educated students who upon graduation from high school are well-equipped to enter the job force or go to college with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

To learn more about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, visit

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