Common Core For the Uninitiated

Among the best books I read in the last year was Why Nations Fail. (1)  One of its concepts is that throughout history there have been inventions so important that they changed everything thereafter.  Thus, they are disruptive innovations.  The printing press was one such as was the internal combustion engine.  For our age computers and the internet are disruptive innovations.

One tremendous change coming to public schools that would have, arguably, not been possible BEFORE the speed and world-wide connectivity of the internet is Common Core.  Common Core is a uniform curriculum in math and English language from kindergarten through grade 12.  Forty six of fifty states have signed on to use it.  They have agreed that a first grader in the state of Washington will learn the same items in math and language arts as a first grader in Mississippi.  An eighth grader in New Jersey will have the same expectations in reading and math as an eighth grader in South Carolina.  

“These new AND higher standards reflect what it requires to be literate in the 21st century,”  said P. David Pearson, a professor of literacy and culture at the University of California, Berkeley. “Your reading ability is not your score on a test or how many ideas you can recall from your reading.  It’s the ability to use the information you gain from reading to apply to and solve new situations or problems. That’s a huge change.”  (2)

This effort was only started back in 2009, not by the Federal government, but by the Council of State Superintendents and the National Governors Association.   Drafts for the Common Core State Standards for math and English language were developed and sent to the individual states for their revision and input three times.  The resulting common items of knowledge and skills that U.S. students should know have now been adopted by all but 4 states.  States not opting in are Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska.  Thus, almost all the states in the U.S. have the same expectations for what students will know coming out of high school.  The ultimate goal is to produce U.S. high school graduates who are college or career ready.  Common Core will allow each state to compare themselves to other states in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world who participate in the same international tests we do.

Two of the most discussed changes under Common Core are the emphasis on non-fiction reading and on analytical writing. (3)  In past years most of the reading materials, especially in younger grades, were fiction selections.  No longer.  By upper grades most of a student’s reading will be non-fiction. (4)  Teachers will include essays, speeches, articles, biographies, and other nonfiction texts in their students’ readings.

Previous writing, at least in elementary school, has focused on personal reflections, i.e. stories about the child’s life.  Not anymore.  Writing is used to reflect the student’s analysis of the text they have read with details used to determine if the writer achieved his/her purpose, to compare two similar types of writing, searching for clues to back up the author’s central idea.  For example, first graders might listen to a Dr. Seuss tale over and over to determine the central idea and search for clues that back up that idea. (5)  Not all literature teachers are happy with this change. (6)

As noted, there is a sharp increase in the level of performance expected of students.  Previously kindergarten students were expected to master numerals through 31.  That means recognize, write, put in order, count up from or down, etc.   Under Common Core kindergartners will be expected to master numerals 1 through 100.  That’s what is meant by saying that Common Core will be more rigorous.  In a recent talk I made about Common Core someone in the audience asked if that meant that the regular curriculum would be like an International Baccalaureate program.  I’m not sure that’s precisely true but does suggest the flavor of the change.

All of us probably now go to the web for much of our information.  Workers in most all occupations do so.  The tremendous speed and availability of obtaining information on anything via internet has made it more important than ever that we be able to not only understand what we read but also to determine the worth versus triviality of it.  This has led to an additional upgrade in the expectations.  The Core Standards for grades 6-12 are not limited to ELA and/or math teachers.  Teachers of history, science, technical skills are now being trained in teaching the literacy skills required to understand and evaluate their subjects as well. The standards call for these teachers to teach literacy skills such as analyzing primary- and secondary-source documents in history, and making sense of diagrams, charts, and technical terminology in science.

Just as under No Child Left Behind states are not required to use the same end of year assessments but it is likely that most will.  Participating states have aligned themselves into two groups who are even now in the process of developing tests to be ready by 2015.  South Carolina is part of a group called Smarter Balanced. (7) Tests will be computer based.  They will not be simply picking out facts to answer multiple choice questions or demonstrating computational skills.  Rather they will ask our students to use the thinking skills our 21st Century demand.

One likely result of this increase in expectations with the beginning the new curriculum and new tests is that our end of year test scores will drop for a year or so.  Since our current scores are not satisfactory to most of us that is an ominous prospect.  Since we will be changing substantially what is taught and how at a particular grade there must be at least one year as we switch over when the class being taught the new materials was taught the old information the year before.  Thus they will not have the background to master successfully the new information though there will be strong efforts to bridge the gaps.  If we begin to teach the new curriculum early then there will be a year when we are still using the old tests and the students will not have been prepared for them.  It is not a matter of teaching to the test but rather a change in what is taught.

Kentucky adopted Common Core early and tested early this year.  The test was not precisely the new one (which is not yet ready) but was developed based on the new Common Core curriculum.  Scores in reading and math for them dropped from the mid 70’s to the mid 40’s. (8)

In spite of these birthing pains, Common Core is a good phenomenon and all participating states will begin in 2014-2015.  It will challenge and stretch us mightily but today’s jobs demand it.  I hope you will continue to support our public schools as we take this huge new step forward.


Sources read in preparing this blog include:

(1)  Acemoglu, D. & J. A. Robinson.  (2012)  Why Nations Fail. New York: Crown Publishers.

(2)  Pearson quote

(3)  Teaching of reading

(4)  Greater emphasis on non-fiction reading

(5)  Greater emphasis on non-fiction writing

(6)  Pushback against decrease in fiction reading

(7)  Smarter Balanced assessment

Kentucky’s early scores 

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One Response to Common Core For the Uninitiated

  1. Robin Owens says:

    What is our district doing to prepare teachers to teach these new standards? I, particularly, worry about middle school and high school teachers, who need mastery of their content area, in addition to excellent teaching techniques. Is there any plan to assist teachers in “getting up to speed” with the new standards other than just communicating what the new standards are?