New School Year, New Standards: A Primer on the Transition to Common Core

by • August 1, 2014 • 2014, August 2014, Big Kids, Cover Story, Education & Learning, Teens and Pre-Teens

The 2014-15 school year is marking something momentous. This fall kicks off the first year that California schools will officially be implementing the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Sure, you’ve heard of it. And, yes, you’ve also heard the reviews are mixed. But what is it, and how will it affect you and your kids?

The same standards for every American

To put it simply, Common Core is a new set of educational standards. It is incentivized with federal grant money for the states that voluntarily adopt it. 43 states have. In the past, educational standards have been set by the states and local governments, which left room for too much of a variation among states and their educational results when compared to one another.

The idea behind Common Core is to eliminate those discrepancies, so that no matter where a child lives, he or she is at the same grade level as all his or her peers. A child in third grade here in Orange County, California will now meet the same standards as a third grader in Louisiana, who meets the same standards as a third grader in Connecticut. This is different than any other national educational standards plan, simply because there hasn’t been one.

Where Common Core originated

Common Core is not an organization in and of itself. Officially, “the nation’s governors and education commissioners, through their representative organizations, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), led the development of the Common Core State Standards and continue to lead the initiative. Teachers, parents, school administrators, and experts from across the country, together with state leaders, provided input into the development of the standards. The actual implementation of the Common Core, including how the standards are taught, the curriculum developed, and the materials used to support teachers as they help students reach the standards, is led entirely at the state and local levels.”1

From rote learning to critical thinking – hopefully

So far, Common Core only addresses the standards for English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics for grades K-12, and hopes to establish a raised bar for students nationwide. It is not a curriculum, nor does the program claim to implement a specific curriculum, though it does suggest level-appropriate texts that satisfy the standards.

What it does claim, however, is to take even the best of the nation’s standards and move them to the next level. Common Core wants to create college-ready students, and thus career-ready individuals – individuals who can compete academically and professionally on an international level. How does it propose to do that? By taking a system that focuses pretty heavily on rote memorization in order to pass a test and turning it into a critical thinking endeavor instead.

It’s not enough to simply memorize sums and products of math questions, and students now need to be able to show how they arrived at a particular answer, however simple or complicated it may be. Ideally, if students can explain how they reached their answers, it means they understand the material.

There’s a catch

Critical thinking is an ever-important skill, and understanding material is a great common goal. But testing must still be implemented to measure the success of the initiative, which means this critical thinking method will be tested every year.

This is one point that those on the fence, or even in opposition of the Common Core initiative, use to explain what might be one of Common Core’s biggest flaws. It still keeps the public school system in a one-size-fits-all scenario. At the end of the school year, there is still a test. Schools still need students to do well on this test. Therefore, students will still need to memorize material for a test – a concept with which we are all very familiar, and one that seems counterintuitive to the concept behind Common Core.

Implementation: where the rubber meets the road

Those in the general public are not the only ones still trying to wrap their heads around what exactly Common Core is and how it will affect them. Though funding for the states comes from the federal government as incentive, Common Core is a state-led effort, which leaves the state and its districts to figure out how implementation is going to work. Many California teachers are trying to figure out how they will have to adjust their teaching styles and methods in order to follow suit with the new standards.

Those new standards require a lot more non-fiction than in the regular ELA diet, including a stronger knowledge and comprehension of the United States’ founding documents and other non-fiction texts. Traditional fiction will still appear in the classroom at the K-5 level, but in a 50-50 split with non-fiction, informational texts.

Because college and the professional setting after college relies so heavily on informational texts, that becomes the primary focus in grades 6-12. In the past, there has been more opinionated, experience-based writing required of K-12 students. Now, the groundwork has been laid to expect evidence-based writing, with the ability to inform and persuade at the top of the list. While traditional fiction will still be taught in the ELA classroom, college typically requires extensive reading and research of non-fiction texts. How to research across subjects is an ELA lesson, and non-fiction texts will primarily be used in courses that don’t traditionally utilize fiction (i.e.: science and social studies).

Math will change as well. Instead of a shallower approach spanning a multitude of mathematical concepts, the focus of each topic will become much narrower, but it will also go much deeper and be more thorough. The purpose is to form a solid understanding; a basis upon which students will build their knowledge as the years progress and as the mathematical rigor increases.

The academic grooming is for college graduation, not just high school. The information is aiming for success in a professional setting in the days after college.

Brace yourself

What can parents expect? Discussion – and not just among teachers, principals, and districts, but in their own homes with their own children. As the system shifts more into a critical thinking mode, kids will be expected to explain their thought processes. Listening to your children when they explain, and learning cooperatively with them, will help ensure a smoother transition to a new standard that shares the goal of college and career readiness.  M


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