What is Common Core?

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One of the biggest reforms in US education is happening 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?  To get started, let's define Common Core State Standards


The original structure of the American public educational system originated 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 "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.


    How can a nationwide reform be called a state reform?  State and local school boards are still the level at which the standards are being refined and put into practice.  States are free to adopt at 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 process was 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 form 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 a pretty simple.  It is because the  US public school system is based out of local districts that this shift to CCSS is so massive.

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