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Lesson 6.1

Great Expectations:
How Do Common Core Standards Work?

Forget the hype. Here’s how the Common Core standards actually work.

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Educational standards describe what students should know and be able to do.

Standards come in two flavors, as expectations for what gets taught (content standards) and for how well students learn (performance standards). When someone refers to "fourth grade math standards" they are speaking of shared expectations about what the content of education for fourth graders should accomplish. When they talk about "reading at an 8th grade level" they are referring to how well a student that age is expected to perform.

It is easy to confuse a "standard" with the curricular materials and approaches that schools, teachers, or publishers use to teach the standard. This confusion blossomed into the political realm in 2014 as school communities struggled to choose and use new books, materials, lessons and tests that matched new "Common Core" standards adopted by many states.

Back to the Future

The story of performance standards probably begins in China. In the Sui Dynasty, written exams were made part of the selection process for civil service positions, introducing the idea of “merit” to the process and reducing the power of local authorities to appoint their relatives. Though the Sui dynasty proved short-lived by standards of Chinese history, the idea of setting specific expectations as part of a centrally-designed selection process stuck.

It may seem as if standards have been around forever, but the current US approach to standards is actually rather new. The exam system of Sui-dynasty China was designed to sift a large body of applicants to find exceptional candidates. The standards system that we use today is meant to clarify expectations and provide guidance for all students.

Which came first, the standard or the test?

The state uses standards to guide the design of learning materials and standardized tests. Ideally, those tests help educators determine what students still need to learn to perform up to expectations. The traditional uses of testing were rather the reverse, as Nicolas Lehman describes in his book The Big Test. Historically, tests were developed as a way to quickly and efficiently sort the test-takers, for example identifying students who were “college material” or the best candidates for jobs.

The modern "standards movement" in the U.S. emerged partly as a response to the 1983 publication of "A Nation at Risk," an influential report that criticized American competitiveness and strongly advocated for higher universal expectations in U.S. education. Within a few years of its publication, content standards in many subjects were being hammered out by expert panels. The national tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were expanded to enable state-level comparisons

In 2000, George W. Bush advocated as part of his campaign for president that every student should be tested every year, using tests that reflected each state's standards. Passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 (a re-named, expanded version of the legislation previously known as ESEA) ushered in that change and lots of others.

All Together Now

Prior to 2010, each state set its own standards. Some, like California, had comparatively high expectations. Other states had low standards. In a few cases, states actually lowered their standards in order to avoid looking bad in national rankings. In 2010, the Federal “Race to the Top” competition highlighted the mess and prompted a national alignment of standards. Suddenly, state standards had more in common than virtually anyone had imagined possible.

Facts galore
were such a bore.
Teach us more,
Common Core!

California joined the vast majority of states in adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts and in mathematics. In 2013, the state adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as well.

Standards have the power to change what happens in classrooms because they influence textbooks and learning materials. The state of California expects school districts to make sure that the materials they use are aligned with the standards, and to that end it recommends textbooks that districts ought to use for grades K-8. Teachers plan their lessons to ensure that students acquire the knowledge required by the standards. State tests evaluate student performance based on the standards.

Making sure teachers are covering the standards can be challenging. How can a district know that the content taught in each fourth grade math class "covers" the standards expected of fourth grade math?

One answer is to provide teachers, quite literally, with scripts. "Scripted curricula," briefly popular in the early 2000's, specify exactly what to teach on each day, and provide wording for teachers to use in explaining concepts. This approach to curriculum has both its admirers and its critics. Generally, a scripted curriculum appears to reduce the disadvantages of being assigned to an inexperienced teacher and support consistent explanations from one class to the next. But these curricula often proved dull for teachers and students, and experienced educators tended to ignore them.

Common Core in California

For some states, adopting the common core standards significantly increased grade level expectations. This was less true in California, where the prior standards were already quite demanding.

However, this is not to say that the Common Core standards are just like what California had before. The Common Core standards place less emphasis on memorization of detailed lists of grade-level trivia. Instead, the standards place greater emphasis on "habits of mind" that students need to develop as they interact with content. (If "habits of mind" doesn't seem like enough jargon for you, you might enjoy these: In English language arts these habits of mind are often called "capacities" and in mathematics they are referred to as "principles." You're welcome.)

Another major difference is that the Common Core standards explicitly aim to prepare students for college and career by the time they leave high school. The idea was to begin with the end in mind (college and career readiness) and then map back to kindergarten.

Let There Be Politics

The shift to Common Core standards demonstrates that it is possible, though politically difficult, to spur changes in America. The Common Core Standards were developed as a project of the states, through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. For years, the project was stuck. There was broad agreement that the Common Core Standards were better, but where would the money come from to get the job done?

The Obama administration broke the logjam by making adoption of "internationally benchmarked" standards a requirement for states to compete for grants in the Race to the Top program. The movement to Common Core standards shifted almost overnight from impossible to inevitable. The competition offered a chance of funding to states that participated. The competition created an external reason for states to update their standards in a way that made them comparable to one another. Most states promptly began the shift to new standards.

The political fireworks over the swift adoption and implementation of the Common Core made for good headlines, but they added little understanding of the real content of the changes.

Read Them!

Ahem. The best way to understand the standards is to, well, sit down and read them.

Basic background information is available at the Common Core State Standards Initiative website. A good place to start for California-specific information is the Common Core page on the California Department of Education website

The National PTA has created short guides in English and Spanish that explain the standards for each grade level. Similarly, GreatSchools has prepared a useful set of videos about "milestones" for grades K-5.

Standards define expectations, the foundation upon which the content of education is built, from texts to tests. Are these expectations sufficient? In the next lesson, "Academic Rigor: Is School Challenging Enough?" we will explore the debate about whether expectations can be too high.

Next Steps

  • Parent Workshops and Back-to-School Events. Ask your school to create workshops or discussions at parent meetings to explain standards by grade level, and to show how students at your school are meeting those standards.
  • Share this lesson and resources with your PTA. Your PTA website, Facebook page and email system are great ways to help other parents learn more about the new standards and resources available. First step: Send this lesson to your PTA president to share. (We try to make it easy to share lessons by email or social media.)

Edited January 2020.


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Alisa Sabshin-Blek August 24, 2020 at 12:26 pm
Common Core has completely changed the way we understand math in out family. The benefits are amazing.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 10, 2019 at 9:10 pm
The mind naturally seeks to categorize, and my mind tends to group Common Core with “pod” housing developments, malls, and mass-produced clothing. Stamp them out all alike, roll humans through them, and process, process, process. I feel, I suppose, that Common Core is the antithesis of creativity. It is a kind of mass production, and that unnerves me.

My child has disabilities, so reading about “grade standards” and “expectations” especially chills me. But then, every child has unique needs, don’t they?
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 11:00 am
When our children were in elementary school (early 2000s), there was a certain appeal to the idea of scripted lessons. With teachers afraid of math, for example, you could ensure that they were explaining things reasonably well; of course, if they were just parroting (as I expect some would be), they would be helpless to follow up if there were questions. I continue to see a positive to having examples of how to explain, to provide ideas to teachers about to teach a concept or segment in the curriculum. But the rote aspect of using a required script is unappealing for a multitude of reasons even if I understand the frustration that probably led to the idea of a script in the first place.
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 9, 2017 at 10:08 pm
The change to Common Core standards prompted a wave of revisions in textbooks and other learning materials. There are many, many publishers of learning materials. In California, school districts make the purchase decisions: how do they choose? Have a look at the California Curriculum Collaborative for more information:
user avatar
Jeff Camp October 24, 2016 at 11:53 am
Californians strongly support Common Core standards according to a 2016 survey by Children Now. Support is particularly strong among African American, Latino and Asian households.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 14, 2016 at 7:58 pm
Neat Interactive Maps
The Center on Standards & Assessment Implementation --say that quickly three times-- provides interactive maps that give a snap-shot of what each what each state is doing
for ELA/Math Standards, Science Standards, Assessment, ESEA Waivers and Pre-K/K Assessment.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 16, 2016 at 2:17 pm
Textbooks: As standards among the states become more unified and as access to the internet becomes more universal, should course materials change? There is increasing potential to save a lot of money on textbooks through Open Educational Resources (OER). In 2016 Governor Brown proposed investments in this area.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 10, 2016 at 12:29 pm
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 13, 2015 at 1:17 pm
On, longtime education journalist Kimberly Hefling argues that "Common Core Won the War" and that at this point opposition to the standards is more rhetorical than real -- even in states that have officially rejected them.
user avatar
Mamabear March 22, 2015 at 7:10 pm
Good point from "All Together Now" paragraph above: "Standards have the power to change what happens in classrooms because they influence textbooks and learning materials."
I also would like to see parent homework help handouts or online resources. I learned math in the 1980s and struggle to assist my second grader. A bit embarrassing, but true.
user avatar
Rick Miller April 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm
I would also note that while California does have some of the most rigorous standards in the country, there is room for improvement. The common core standards do a much better job of aligning learning from one grade to the next and focusing deeply on essential content, rather than trying to teach everything with equal weight. All of this while maintaining the rigor of California’s standards and globally benching them to help ensure our students can compete in the new economy. We have a lot of work to do around implementation, but adopting the common core was an important and positive first step.
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