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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. They come in two flavors: content standards and performance standards.

The two flavors of education standards

Content standards

Performance standards

Defines what gets taught

Sets the bar for student expectations

When someone refers to "fourth grade math standards" they are speaking of a content standard: shared expectations about what is taught in fourth grade. When they talk about "reading at an 8th grade level" they are referring to a performance standard: how well a student in 8th grade is expected to read.

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.

This lesson demystifies the Common Core, but first it helps to take a step back. What are education standards, and why are they so important?

History of Education Performance Standards

The story of performance standards likely began 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. It was an important reform that reduced the power of local authorities to appoint their relatives.

The Sui dynasty proved short-lived by standards of Chinese history, but the big idea stuck: set specific expectations and use tests to measure against them. From college admissions tests in Korea to the bar exam in America, tests of academic performance under time pressure have become central to how the world thinks about meritocracy, as Nicolas Lehman describes in his bestselling book The Big Test. For better or worse, tests provide an efficient basis for weeding out candidates by rating and ranking them.

Creating Tests Based on Standards

Which came first, the standard or the test?

In the early decades of the history of the United States, education was not yet viewed as a function of government, or even as an expectation for all students. Over time, each state developed systems separately, creating a mish-mash of approaches and expectations, as discussed in Lesson 1.7. Schools differed massively from one place to the next. Standards weren’t a thing.

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. 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 state should have clear, measurable expectations for all students, and that those expectations should be raised in a gradual and predictable way. Every child should be tested every year against those rising expectations, with predictable consequences for schools that fail to meet them for all students. Congress passed this vision into law in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)

Teaching Common Core Lessons

The states began the No Child Left Behind era with varying expectations for their students. Some states, like California, had comparatively high expectations. Other states had low standards. Schools in each state were teaching similar things, but with different definitions of success and in an inconsistent sequence. Educators broadly agreed that it was weird for different states to have different expectations, but what could be done about it? Education is a state responsibility, not a federal one. Anyway, the NCLB law required states to gradually increase their expectations, and one school district after another was failing to meet them. Teachers felt blamed for failing to accomplish the impossible.

The Great Recession of 2008 dramatically undercut education funding, which forced teacher layoffs and put the rising expectations of NCLB even further out of reach. Congress passed a federal stimulus package (ARRA) to shore up education budgets. Times of crisis can be opportunities for change. The measure included a competion, Race to the Top, that offered states a way to compete for additional funds if they pledged to adopt educational standards aligned with a national consortium. It worked. Suddenly, state education leaders had an uncomplicated explanation for why they needed to update their old standards: for the money. Common Core was born.

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. After a sometimes-difficult transition, these standards now are well documented and in familiar use. In 2013, the state extended this set of essential standards by adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as well.

Standards have the power to change what happens in classrooms because they influence curriculum, including textbooks, learning materials, and tests. 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. Are some textbooks better than others? For all the hype, there is little evidence that it makes any difference, especially for math textbooks. Many teachers pick and choose their instructional materials from the internet, especially if they dislike the textbook. The web is awash in learning materials, including free resources such as OER Commons and paid resources such as Teachers Pay Teachers.

The wild marketplace of learning materials makes it hard to know what works. 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 clamp down. Some districts have gone so far as 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.

How are Common Core Standards in California Different

Unlike past educational standards, the Common Core standards are content standards, not performance standards. They define what students should be taught in each grade level, but not how to teach it or test it. Compared to past standards, the Common Core standards place less emphasis on memorization of detailed lists of grade-level trivia. Instead, the standards place greater emphasis critical thinking skills. (Jargon decoder: In English language arts these habits of mind are often called "capacities" and in mathematics they are referred to as "principles." You're welcome.)

The Common Core explicitly aims 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.

Have the Common Core standards "worked" in the sense of making students better-prepared for college and career? This is a question that will take time to work out. The old standards were clunky, narrow and inconsistent, so there is little reason to pine for going back to them. But as Lesson 1.6 established, change in education is slow. There is no evidence that adopting the standards has led to a sudden breakthrough.

The Politics of Common Core

The shift to Common Core standards demonstrates that it is possible, though politically difficult, to spur changes in the American education system.

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.

How to Read the Common Core Standards

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

Basic background information is available at the website of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. 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.

Edited January 2020.
Updated December 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: http://www.calcurriculum.org/
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. https://www.childrennow.org/about-us/press-releases/new-poll-support-common-core-remains-strong-california/
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.
http://www.csai-online.org/sos
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. http://lao.ca.gov/Publications/Report/3392
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 10, 2016 at 12:29 pm
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 13, 2015 at 1:17 pm
On Politico.com, 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. http://www.politico.com/story/2015/10/common-core-education-schools-214632
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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