Common Core Learning Standards: What Are They, Who Developed Them, and Why

Part One of a Four Part Series

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

As the 2012-2013 school year started, a new set of educational standards adopted by the New York State Board of Regents became the new normal for every school across the state. Implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards, or simply Common Core, ignited a firestorm of controversy and backlash which has not let up since. Despite the notoriety, however, many people still don’t really know a lot about this new educational dictum—who developed these standards; what they are and what they require from schools, teachers, and students; why—and how—were these new standards adopted. This article, the first of a four part series, will attempt to answer some of these and other questions raised by concerned parents and teachers.

At least as far back as the late 1980s and early 1990s, an educational reform movement that demanded educational accountability, including a common core of knowledge that all students would be expected to master as well as mandatory testing as part of the assessment process, took hold across the country. By 2009, a joint initiative by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) came together to develop a common core of standards as a way to address perceived deficiencies in contemporary education and the lack of college and career readiness demonstrated by many high school graduates. The NGA convened a group of educators to work on the standards; 45 of 50 states participated in the initiative.

By June 2010 the NGA/CCSSO released its copyrighted Common Core Learning Standards, with the proviso that the copyright would be waived for any state education department desiring to adopt the standards statewide and in their entirety. States would, however, be permitted to make additions or supplements to the standards in keeping with an SED’s assessment of its particular needs. New York State, a participant in the Common Core Initiative, adopted the original set of standards in July 2010, and in January 2011, the State Board of Regents approved the entire set with some specific additions.

Although Common Core was not directly developed or mandated by the federal government, its adoption across the nation was heavily influenced by the federal “Race to the Top” grant program. Philanthropists such as Bill Gates, and various associations that work closely with the government, such as the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Incorporated also helped created the Common Core infrastructure.

On top of that, the federal government provided incentives for states to join the program. In order to be eligible for the federal funds, states were required to adopt “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments,” a condition most easily fulfilled by implementing Common Core.

The standards themselves are currently divided into two parts: The first covers English Language Arts (ELA) and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technology; the second, Mathematics. In its introduction, the New York State P-12 Common Core Learning Standards document states that a standard was included only “when the best available evidence indicated that its mastery was essential for college and career readiness in a 21st century, globally competitive society.” The document goes on to state that the standards are intended to be a “living work;” they can be revised over time as new and better educational evidence emerges. Moreover, the focus of the standards is on results, not means; there is no mandate given as to teaching methods or techniques.

The ELA portion contains five “strands” or categories: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language. The Common Core contains 34 anchor standards pertaining to achieving grade-level goals for each strand. Additionally, the New York Board of Regents added standards for grade-level expectations in the areas of cultural diversity and student inquiry. The Common Core does not contain any required curriculum, although it does contain a few required texts or types of texts.

The reading standards for literature in grades K-5 require the inclusion of stories, dramas, poetry, fables, folktales and myths all from diverse cultures. The reading standards in grades 11-12 are even more specific: at least one play by Shakespeare play and one play by an American, as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

In the area of Mathematics, the standards follow traditional pathways: Algebra, Geometry, Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry. The standards define “what students should understand and be able to do in their study of mathematics” at grade-specific levels. Again, the core does not set a particular curriculum other than to establish the pathways. It does, however, set standards in mathematical practice for such skills as problem solving, reasoning, strategic competence, conceptual understanding and procedural fluency, to name a few.

Part two of this series will cover the specifics of both the ELA and the Mathematics standards, as well as the initial implementation of the Common Core and its reception by educators, parents and students. Subsequent articles will also cover in-depth critiques of the Common Core, its impact on New York State education, the use of assessment tools including high stakes testing, and a look to the future. For further information about Common Core, readers can also visit the State website at www.nysed.gov, the New York Common Core website at www.engage.org or the national website at www.corestandards.org.