December 13, 2013

STATELINE: Q&A: Common questions about Common Core

Adrienne Lu

If you keep hearing about the Common Core but don’t know exactly what all the fuss is about (don’t worry, you’re not alone), Stateline provides some frequently asked questions and answers that should help.

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Common core in classroom: Amy Lawson, a fifth-grade teacher at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., helps student Melody Fritz with an English language arts lesson on Oct. 1. Silver Lake has begun implementing the national Common Core State Standards for academics. Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough in Lawson’s fifth-grade classroom. Now, students are being asked to think more critically — what, for example, might a character say in an email to a friend. “It’s hard. But you can handle this,” Lawson tells them. Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education for students and their teachers in grades kindergarten through high school.

AP photo

Want More Common Core Details?

Read the English Language Arts Standards here. Read the Math Standards here. Read sample test questions here. The Foundation for Excellence in Education, which supports the Common Core, offers examples of Common Core English and math standards compared to previous standards. Keep in mind that previously there were 50 different standards so the examples of old standards do not represent every state.

1. What is the Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards set out what students from kindergarten through 12th grade should know in English and math. The standards were created by the nonpartisan Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents the top education officers in each state, and the National Governors Association, along with Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit working to increase the number of students who graduate from high school ready for college and careers.

The Common Core grew out of a concern that Americans need to improve education to remain competitive in a global economy. In addition, Common Core provides continuity in education for students who move from state to state.

The English and math standards were voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia; Minnesota adopted only the English standards. Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the standards “embody the kind of learning in literacy and mathematics that all of us want for our own children.” Along with the standards, two groups of states are developing standardized tests which will be rolled out in 2014-15.

2. If the states chose to adopt the Common Core, why are people getting so riled up about them now?

In the vast majority of states, the Common Core did not require approval from state lawmakers, which means that in some places, lawmakers, educators, parents and the general public started to learn about the standards fairly recently. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in most states, boards of education or comparable state agencies or the chief education officer for the state approved the Common Core. Idaho, Kentucky, Maine and Washington were the only states where the Common Core required direct approval from legislators. Maine Gov. Paul LePage issued an essentially do-nothing executive order blustering about how states can still control their education policies despite being under contract with the federal government to implement Common Core, at risk of federal education funds and sanctions.

Controversies have popped up all over the country: Indiana has adopted legislation that “pauses” implementation of the standards, although some teachers are already teaching to the new standards. Michigan is once again moving ahead with the Common Core after some legislative confusion over it. Massachusetts, which is frequently heralded as a leader among the states in education, decided last month to delay a decision about a Common Core assessment until fall 2015, saying that requiring schools to test students on the Common Core that spring, as previously planned, would have been “too precipitous a transition.” And while some states are already using the standards, many states are fully implementing the standards for all grade levels just this year.

3. Was the Common Core mandated by the federal government?

The Common Core is not a mandate of the federal government. In fact, a handful of states (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia) have chosen not to adopt the standards. People may be under the impression Common Core is a federal mandate because President Obama supports it, quite vocally. In addition, the federal government poured $438 million of economic stimulus funding into developing standardized tests aligned to the Common Core and has strongly encouraged states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” in the competitive grant program Race to the Top and through No Child Left Behind, which outlines consequences for schools that do not meet goals.

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