A Simple Guide to the Common Core Conundrum

A primer for the confused among us.

Common Core: It’s a hot-button issue rivaling only Obamacare and same-sex marriage legislation in its ability to make tempers flare, brows furrow, voices rise—and politicians sweat. But why? That’s what parents, teachers, and taxpayers have been trying to figure out since the inception of the controversial state-led educational policy initiative nearly four years ago. Recently, Common Core has been in the news more than ever, with new issues, protests, questions, and legislation cropping up with increasing regularity.

If you don’t know exactly what Common Core is, you’re certainly not alone: Even those of us with children in the public school system, those of us who try to keep up with each new development, are confused. Amid the confusion is a growing tension between proponents and opponents, which begs the question: Is common ground possible with Common Core?

The simple answer is: It’s too early to say. And that’s partly because Common Core is rife with complexities, subtleties, and, some would say, double talk. The first order of business is to understand what Common Core is. So, if you’ve found yourself drowning in a sea of semantics, abstruse rhetoric, acronyms, and initialisms, fret not. Here, we separate the wheat from the chaff and give you the “need-to-know” basics on this volatile, complex conundrum. 

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What is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, or Common Core, is a state-led educational policy initiative spearheaded and coordinated by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and funded by grants from the Gates Foundation and other philanthropic organizations. Common Core is intended to be a set of well-defined teaching and learning standards in mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) for American public school students in grades K through 12. The rigorous Common Core standards for each grade build upon what has been learned in the previous grade—therefore, a student must meet the expectations of one grade in order to be able to understand the next.   

In plain English, this means that Common Core determines what children need to learn, and sets uniform and consistent standards for public school students, regardless of where they live or how their specific curriculum is designed. The “core” of their curricula—that is, what students are taught and what they need and are expected to learn—is the same, whether they live in Tupelo, Mississippi, or Scarsdale, New York.

When and how was Common Core developed?

Common Core began taking shape in April 2009, when the NGA and the CCSSO collaborated to create the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, not to be confused with the CCSSO), and, in June 2009, work groups and feedback groups comprising educators and researchers were created to begin working on standards for mathematics and ELA. In November of that year, a rough draft of the Common Core State Standards was released to the states, followed by a public draft in March 2010, and the final version in June 2010. New York State adopted the standards in July 2010.

Is Common Core a national curriculum?

No, it is not, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website (www.corestandards.org). There are federal restrictions in the US on the adoption of a national curriculum. Common Core is state-led, not federally mandated or implemented.

Does every state have Common Core? If not, why all the ruckus?

No. Adoption of Common Core was and is voluntary by state. However, many opponents say that calling the standards “voluntary” is misleading because states that do not adopt them are denied much-needed federal funding, as was the case with Race to the Top. According to National Review, “Lawmakers have tied $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to the adoption of standards similar to those found in a significant number of states, and they’ve made the adoption of Common Core a major factor in securing a No Child Left Behind waiver.”  What this means in a nutshell: States can “trade up” from NCLB, which many saw as a colossal failure, to the increasingly tangled web known as Common Core.

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Why are advocates and opponents of Common Core at odds?

Advocates believe that it is time for more rigorous educational standards, that our current education system is outmoded, and that all students in the US should be taught by and expected to learn by the same standards. Those who oppose the standards see Common Core as an inordinately complicated, convoluted, and ill-conceived system whose attempted rollout has been rushed and chaotic and whose implementation is unrealistic and problematic. Common Core, opponents say, is too reliant on standardized testing and, some believe, standardized testing is too reliant on Pearson, the company which supplies the tests, and which has become, said education historian Diane Ravitch in a recent speech to the Modern Language Association, “the ultimate arbiter of the fate of students, teachers, and schools.” 

Many teachers are concerned about what they see as a lack of freedom in curriculum planning and personal teaching style, and fear being evaluated based on their students’ Common Core test scores. Parents worry that the ostensibly “one size fits all” set of standards will adversely affect their children’s grades—and, more important, their ability to learn at a designated pace—because they are too rigid and too difficult. 

Will individual schools and teachers still design their own curricula?

Yes. “The teacher is a creator of curriculum,” says educational consultant Katie Cunningham, EdD, assistant professor of Education at Manhattanville College, “and the standards can inspire teachers to find innovative ways to meet student needs.” 

The New York State Education Department has an online resource (www.engageny.org) that details optional curricular materials, including modules and units that can be “adopted or adapted,” for mathematics and ELA. 

Mirjana Lezaja, a first-grade teacher at the Thomas A. Edison School in Port Chester, used the math modules, but found the pace was too fast for her students. “The modules are scripted,” she says, noting that “sometimes teachers feel they need to do exactly what’s on the script. But you need to go with how it works for you and for your students.”

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Indeed, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, teachers know what works best for their pupils, which “is why these standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.”  

“My greatest concern,” says Shannon Varekamp, a parent of middle-school students in Croton-on Hudson, “is that the vocabulary used is different in math and ELA, so the students may understand a concept, but if they don’t know the vocabulary, they cannot explain it.” 

What learning materials are mandated in the standards?

Common Core ELA content standards stress greater emphasis on challenging texts and increasing the level of text complexity. There is also more emphasis on nonfiction informational text than in the past, as well as increased attention to comprehension. The ELA standards are organized into four overlapping “strands”: Reading, Writing, Language, and Speaking/Listening. Content includes classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare; other content will be determined locally and by state. 

The math standards are intended to give students a foundation in and an understanding of whole numbers; addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; fractions; and decimals. One of the goals of Common Core math content is to teach students in middle and high school to apply mathematical thinking and reasoning to issues in the real world. 

What are some specific differences between Core-based math curricula and the previous standards?

“The biggest difference is depth over breadth in mathematics,” says Lisa Rodriguez, curriculum coordinator for Bedford Road School, Pleasantville’s elementary school. “Also, what was formerly done in grade five is now being taught in grade four and so on. The types of questions are deeper and involve greater ability to comprehend the written material.”  

What are some specific differences between Core-based ELA curricula and the previous standards?

“The biggest change in ELA is the amount of nonfiction being taught—50 percent,” Rodriguez explains. Another of the more dramatic shifts in ELA, she says, is in the more comprehensive types of questions students need to answer. “The ‘wh’ questions are out,” she says, “replaced by questions that involve evaluating text and synthesizing it. Students are expected to answer with text-based answers and do close reads,” and though “suggested texts are available, each school makes its own decisions.” 

For instance, the Code of Hammurabi is one of the ELA suggestions for first-graders, but BRS is not using it. Some nonfiction reading materials used at the school will include trade publications, National Geographic, and other texts, depending on the topic being taught.  “The content is far more sophisticated and opinions without back-up texts are not acceptable answers anymore.” 

Meera Rajani, a fourth-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in New Rochelle, embraces the shift towards more text-based critical thinking, but, says, “This requires identifying and often adapting texts for our students. And students need repeated practice and exposure.” 

What’s the status of Common Core implementation?

One of the major points of contention—up until this past February, at least—among New York State and Westchester teachers and parents was the quick rollout of Common Core, which many saw as rushed. Patty Nashelsky, a Rye Neck parent who supports the new standards, likens the original rollout timeline and implementation process as “driving through a snowstorm at high speed.”

In February, to the relief of many New York State teachers and parents, the State Board of Regents voted to delay Common Core graduation requirements for five years—from the original 2017 to 2022.

However, to the dismay of teachers, Governor Cuomo balked at a proposal by legislators to impose a two-year moratorium on the use of Common Core standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, saying, “There is a difference between remedying the system for students and parents and using this situation as yet another excuse to stop the teacher-evaluation process.”  

When and how is Common Core being implemented in Westchester?

At Bedford Road School, “the Common Core Standards are already being implemented in grades K through six,” says Rodriguez. “We have rewritten our curriculum maps to align with them. We have already aligned our report cards, K through four, to the standards as well.” 

Do the Common Core standards determine how curricula are designed?

“The standards are the blueprint,” says Rodriguez. “We decide the how and what we will use to do this.” For instance, she says, “We are not adopting all the modules but are doing Math in Focus, a Singapore approach to math which aligns to the standards.”

Other than a time extension, how will the rollout be different and who will oversee the progress?

In February, Governor Cuomo announced the formation of the Common Core Implementation Panel, a group of parents, educators, legislators, and business and community leaders charged with reviewing the rollout and presenting recommendations in June. The 11-member panel includes New York State Senator John Flanagan, the Senate Education Committee chair, and Linda Darling-Hammond, EdD, a Stanford University professor who helped draft President Obama’s education plan during his 2008 campaign. 

What’s next for Common Core? Only time will tell. But don’t expect the controversy to die down anytime soon. 

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