What is Common Core?

A father helps his son with homework.
The shift to CCSS and other rigorous standards empahsizes problem solving and analyzing. CaiaIamge/Tom Merton via Getty Images

One of the biggest reforms in US education is underway now - the switch to Common Core State Standards. Parents hear about it in the news, from their friends, from their children's school teachers, and from their kids. But, do you really know what Common Core State Standards are? How do these standards affect our children?

To get started, let's define what Common Core State Standards are:


The original structure of the American public educational system was formed at the local community level.

From the founding of the first US schools in Massachusetts in 1647, the local community decided what would be taught and how it would be taught in their schools. This meant that each community could custom tailor their children's education to the needs and wants of the local community in the future.  

Later educational reforms led to the formation of school districts and state educational boards. The ultimate authority over what children learn in school at what age was, and remains to be, determined by the local school districts or state boards of education. Because there are so many different guides on what should be taught in school and when there has been a huge variation throughout our nation.  This has led to a few problems:  

  • Children who move to different schools may or may not have learned a skill that is expected for their age and grade level by their new district.
  • There is a huge disparity between various districts across our nation.  While some school districts regularly perform well on national and international benchmark tests, other school districts flounder.  

    The "Common" in Common Core State Standards refers to the idea that at each grade level in each state kids will be learning the same basic skills. The end result is that when a child moves across the state or the entire nation that child will have learned the same basic skills.

    The states where children were reaching the highest standards were some of the prime models.

    So, if your state already had high standards, you are seeing little change. States that had lower standards are now getting to the same level as high standard states. While the initial shift can be challenging, you can take comfort in knowing that children in every state will learn the same skills in the same grades. 

    Your child will have the opportunity to get an equally challenging education no matter what state you live in. Colleges will no longer see some states as producing better graduates than others. Employers can rest assured that a high school graduate has good reading, writing, and math skills no matter which state they are from. Common standards level the playing field across the nation -- to a high level.


    The "Core" in Common Core Standards refers to the core educational skills of Reading, Writing, and Math. The Common Core Standards themselves only address literacy and mathematics. These are the foundational skills which are needed for success in other subjects like social studies and science.  Common Core State Standards do not directly address other subject areas. There are other standards that have developed converging skills that are taught in the Common Core State Standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards, but these other subject standards are not part of Common Core.

    You may see that these skills are being reflected throughout different subjects. Since core skills are taught to a greater and known depth at each grade level, teachers in all subjects can assume that kids have learned certain math or reading skills in previous grades. 


    How can a nationwide reform be called a state reform? State and local school boards are still the levels at which the standards are being refined and put into practice. States are free to adopt in whole, in part or even not at all the Common Core State Standards. Some states have adopted the standards while other states are reviewing the standards and tailoring in different skills that they believe are worthwhile in their unique state or district.


    The National Governor's Association and several state education departments were some of the main groups that helped create the standards.  The entire planning and adopting process were designed to be state-led.


    When used as an educational term, a standard is a particular skill or concept that is to be mastered at a particular grade level. For example, being able to multiply and divide numbers from 0 to 100 in grade three. Standards tell what skills and concepts to teach and when. Standards do not dictate how to teach, what materials to teach with, and specific strategies that should be used.  

    To summarize, the Common Core State Standards are a set of guidelines for state and local educational districts to teach specific skills and concepts at particular grade levels. By itself, that seems pretty simple. The shift to CCSS seems so massive because the  US public school system is based out of local districts.

    While the promise of high yet achievable standards in schools is a positive one, the change to the standards can feel challenging. Help your child rise up to the challenge by fostering a growth mindset. If you find your child needs additional help with the new challenging schoolwork, check out tips for math and reading.

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