What is the Common Core, anyway?


Ever since its implementation the Common Core has been a political football. In fact, you may have heard that Kellyanne Conway stated last winter that President Trump would repeal Common Core. With the topic periodically cycling through the news, I thought it would be a good time to explore what Common Core is and how it has changed education.

What is Common Core?

Every school system must decide the depth and breadth of its curriculum. The topics and skills that must be covered in a course during a school year are called standards. Since the 1990's standards were usually set on a state level. As well, some professional associations, like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, published their own standards.

The Common Core is a newer set of standards created by representatives from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. This type of endeavor was unprecedented in the United States as it represented a coming together of educators from across the country. While states were not required to adopt the standards, they were incentivized to do so; adoption was one of many criteria that the U.S. Department of Education used when awarding Race to the Top grants.

Why is "Common Core Curriculum" an inaccurate term?

The Common Core State Standard Initiative did not create a curriculum. Nor did the group give much guidance about how teaching and learning should look. Schools are free to use whatever books and materials they believe will suit their students best. In fact, as long as a principal permits it, teachers can even create their own materials — lesson plans, worksheets, assessments — to meet Common Core Standards.

Does my school use Common Core?

In 2010 through 2012 all but five states chose to fully adopt the standards. In several cases, states decided to use Common Core with their own additions. Then, from 2014 to 2016, some states repealed their adoption of Common Core. In the Washington, DC region Maryland and DC use the standards, but Virginia does not.

State standards apply to public and charter schools. Private schools can set their own standards, but some are governed by curricular requirements set by the organizations that accredit them.

Why did Common Core come about?

With the cultural developments of the past 20 years and changes in technology, education too is changing. As well, advances in neuroscience have informed educational approaches. With these shifts, educational standards from two decades ago were due for an update.

No single force drove the development Common Core. One of the many ideas that spurred its creation was a concern that children do not employ "higher order thinking skills" enough in K-12 education. These skills are the more cognitively demanding ways that one can process information, such as through analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Educators worried that too much focus was spent on teaching children to simply recall or understand information. Another recent force for educational standards reform has been a desire to ensure that schools focus on "21st century skills," including the use of technology, ability to conduct online research, and critical analysis of information sources.

A desire for accountability has also motivated Common Core creation and adoption. A perennial concern is that children rise through the grades and graduate from schools without requisite knowledge and skills. A shared definition of what children should know at the end of each school year is the first step in making sure that they are reaching age-appropriate goals. Ultimately, an education that consistently covers uniform standards creates adults who are well prepared to participate in our democracy and workforce.

How does Common Core differ from previous standards?

Prior to the implementation of Common Core, several forces were influencing similarity between states' curricula — textbook publishing, professional associations, and online information sharing. Common Core is, therefore, mostly a revision to rather than a complete rewrite of previous standards.

Common Core math standards reflect the goals of helping students understand concepts behind algorithms and strengthening problem solving skills. For example, students might investigate mathematical concepts using number lines, drawn models, and manipulatives before they learn the rule that they can apply to similar problems in the future.

English standards in the Common Core emphasize the importance of using a diversity of texts to improve literacy and reading comprehension. Students are also taught more about "close reading," both to find details within texts and to provide evidence for arguments. As well, the Common Core standards require students to learn more about the various purposes of written communications and how to address different audiences.

To show how Common Core has changed standards, below are some examples of state standards from Washington, DC compared to the Common Core standards.


Older DC State Standard for Algebra II and Geometry: Identify the sine, cosine, and tangent of an acute angle. Apply to the solution of problems.


Common Core Standard for Algebra II and Geometry: Define trigonometric ratios and solve problems involving right triangles. Understand that by similarity, side ratios in right triangles are properties of the angles in the triangle, leading to definitions of trigonometric ratios for acute angles. Define trigonometric ratios and solve problems involving right triangles. Explain and use the relationship between sine and cosine of complementary angles.


Older DC State Standard for English Language Arts: Produce legible work that shows accurate spelling and correct use of the conventions of punctuation and capitalization.

Common Core Standard for English Language Arts: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Spell correctly.

What are the Common Core standards?

Standards exist for English/language arts and math for every grade level from K-8. There are also standards grouped for the 9th and 10th grades as well as for the 11th and 12 grades. While there are far too many standards to list here, you can view them on the Common Core website.

Does there have to be so much standardized testing?

The Common Core State Standard Initiative did not mandate testing, and many states were already using standardized testing before Common Core. The U.S. Department of Education did, however, incentivize state-wide testing through the points they assigned in judging Race to the Top grant applications. As well, students throughout the country take the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test that allows nation-wide comparison of students' progress.

There are several uses for state-wide assessment. It is employed to create accountability structures for teachers and principals. It is also used as a means of comparison between schools and school districts. So many stakeholders want quantitative information about how well schools are educating children that it is hard to avoid the push for data. As long this interest in data remains, regular standardized testing will remain in high demand.

So what's next?

Expect to see challenges to Common Core. If past trends are any indicator, Republican majority states are more likely to dislike Common Core. This hostility is likely because of fears that the standards are part of a federal program to unjustly influence states. While Common Core was developed by representatives from across the country, many associate it with the Obama administration since his Department of Education encouraged adoption of the standards. Accordingly, those who disliked the Obama presidency are more apt to dislike educational reforms that he championed. As well, those unhappy with recent changes to standardized testing, teaching approaches, or school materials may blame Common Core, though the standards initiative may not have much to do with the sources of people's displeasure.

The reality is that writing and implementing new standards takes tremendous effort and not a little bit of time. It is, indeed, possible that U.S. Department of Education under Betsy DeVos's leadership may back away from its endorsement of Common Core for the reasons listed above. Also, states may independently announce plans to rewrite their standards. None of this can change the developments in culture and educational research that led to the creation of Common Core, however. This means that any new standards are unlikely to be a radical departure from Common Core. Nor will rejecting Common Core immediately change the curricular resources that publishers have developed in response to the newer standards. Therefore, any shift away from Common Core-influenced changes in classrooms is likely to be slow, regardless of political rhetoric.

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