Understanding the Common Core

Confused about Common Core State Standards? You’re not alone.

A new survey finds that approximately 62 percent of Americans have never heard of Common Core. Even those who are familiar with the standards admit confusion.

These findings emerge from the 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll, which measures the public’s attitudes toward public schools and initiatives such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

Given the confusion, we thought a primer on the Common Core might be helpful. Below is a completely unscientific—and no doubt incomplete—gathering of what people are saying, writing, and thinking about the Common Core.

The basics: The Common Core Standards are an attempt to align curricula across states so students graduate with a shared set of knowledge that better prepares them for college-level work. They are designed to improve critical thinking and reduce reliance on rote memorization. Spearheaded by the National Governor’s Association, the standards apply to the English language arts and math—for now; science standards are in the works). The standards have been adopted by 45 states, though some are now considering retracting their “yea” vote.

The debate: The movement has met resistance from a variety of pundits and politicians, whose complaints center, sometimes in the same breath, on autonomy and control (something like, “I don’t need controls but everyone else does.”). From an education research angle, New York University’s Diane Ravitch leads the movement against Common Core. Ravitch, a liberal, has a strange bedfellow in the Tea Party, which also is resisting the Common Core. According to the Tea Party, the standards infringe on state’s rights; its opposition is perhaps also because the Obama administration has encouraged adoption of the standards through Race to the Top awards and waivers from No Child Left Behind. Business leaders and many editorial boards across the country tend to like the standards because they impart a shared knowledge base and improve high school graduates’ career-readiness. Here’s a handy cheat sheet to learn more about the debate.

What educators think: The opinions are varied, but many teachers and their unions are worried that the year is too short to cover the standards and, like “teaching to the test” under No Child Left Behind, the pressures will snuff out creative teaching and learning experiences. In addition, Common Core will introduce new teacher evaluations; 17 states have moved forward with them this year. A survey in February found that nearly half of the teachers felt unprepared to teach the standards. For more, Mind/Shift contributor Amanda Stupi has gathered thoughts from educators. Education Week offers thoughts as well, like this from algebra teacher Allison Crowley of why she thinks the standards will help students move from being the equivalent of GPS-dependent navigators to finding their way without a map.

Costs: Frankly, who knows? That’s the big question floating out there. The Department of Education has spent $330 million to develop new student assessments that align with the standards, which will start deploying in 2014. Here’s a map of each state’s adoption progress. The Pioneer Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Boston, approximated the potential costs of the CCSS implementation process at $15.8 billion across participating states over the next seven years. But really, no one has a good handle on this yet.

One thing is for certain: there will be more lingo to remember: GBL, CBL, or PBL? Edutopia’s Matthew Farber defines all the acronyms used to describe creative ways of meeting Common Core Standards.

Published September 19, 2013