The implementation of the Common Core learning standards is one of the most hotly debated issues of the last couple of years. Whether you’re pro Common Core, firmly against it (and have a T-shirt to prove it), or are completely confused about what it all means, here’s a quick study guide to get you up to speed. But don’t worry — you won’t be tested.
What exactly is Common Core?
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led educational policy initiative, which is intended to be a set of well-defined teaching and learning standards in mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) for public school students in grades K–12. It determines what children need to learn, and sets uniform and consistent standards for public school students, regardless of where they live.
Is Common Core a national curriculum? Does every state have it?
No, it is not. Adoption of Common Core is voluntary by state. However, many opponents say that calling the standards “voluntary” is misleading because states that do not adopt them are denied much-needed federal funding. New York State adopted the standards in July 2010. But last February the State Board of Regents voted to delay Common Core graduation requirements for five years — from the original 2017 to 2022.
What on earth does Bill Gates have to do with Common Core?
The Microsoft founder poured more than $200 million into getting Common Core off the ground. Many people believe that without Gates’ backing, the educational initiative would not have been possible.
So what is all the ruckus about?
Advocates believe that it is time for more rigorous educational standards, that our current education system is outmoded, and that all students in the U.S. should be taught by and expected to learn by the same standards. Those who oppose the standards see Common Core as an inordinately complicated, convoluted, and ill-conceived system whose attempted roll-out has been rushed and chaotic and whose implementation is unrealistic and problematic. Common Core, opponents say, is too reliant on standardized testing and, some believe, standardized testing is too reliant on Pearson, the company which supplies the tests, and which has become, said education historian Diane Ravitch in a recent speech to the Modern Language Association, “the ultimate arbiter of the fate of students, teachers, and schools.”
Many teachers are concerned about what they see as a lack of freedom in curriculum planning and personal teaching style, and fear being evaluated based on their students’ Common Core test scores. Parents worry that the ostensibly “one size fits all” set of standards will adversely affect their children’s grades — and, more important, their ability to learn at a designated pace — because they are too rigid and too difficult.
Will individual schools and teachers still design their own curricula?
Yes. “The teacher is a creator of curriculum,” says educational consultant Katie Cunningham, Ed.D., assistant professor of education at Manhattanville College, “and the standards can inspire teachers to find innovative ways to meet student needs.”
What learning materials are mandated in the standards?
Common Core ELA content standards stress greater emphasis on challenging texts and increasing the level of text complexity. There is also more emphasis on nonfiction informational text than in the past, as well as increased attention to comprehension. The ELA standards are organized into four overlapping “strands”: Reading, Writing, Language, and Speaking/Listening. Content includes classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare; other content will be determined locally and by state.
The math standards are intended to give students a foundation in and an understanding of whole numbers; addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; fractions; and decimals. One of the goals of Common Core math content is to teach students in middle and high school to apply mathematical thinking and reasoning to issues in the real world.
What about Catholic schools?
Some Catholic schools are choosing to adopt the standards; some are not. Judy Marro, a teacher who currently works as a substitute at St. Columba in Hopewell Junction has two children in local Catholic schools. “As a parent, I see a big difference in my son’s high school grades. The school is not on Common Core, and his grades throughout the year — in chemistry, math, and English — are excellent,” she says. “But the Regents exams do reflect Common Core changes and since he’s never been taught it, his grade on the test suffers. It’s not fair to the high school kids to be tested on it when they’ve never been exposed to it.”
As for her eighth-grade daughter. “Parents can’t help their kids anymore because we don’t understand the material. Especially the math,” says Marro. “I feel the Catholic School System had such a strong foundation and going to Common Core is throwing it all out.
At Albert Magnus High School in Rockland County, teachers have been implementing Common Core with algebra and geometry for the last two years. “I think students have been reacting to it favorably. We have been offering extra classes at exam time to reinforce the learning,” says Principal Joseph Troy. “It is demanding on the faculty, though. They have had lots of extra work preparing for Common Core.”
What about other local private schools?
“We don’t use the Common Core,” says Dr. Douglas North, Head of School at the Albany Academies. “I’m all for raising standards but I wouldn’t use an educational system that is centered completely on testing and a narrow range of questions. I’d rather open minds than narrowly focus them on questions that who knows if they’ll even be on the test!”