These days the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are the topic of impassioned discussion among educators, parents and education observers across the state and across the nation. At kitchen tables, in corporate boardrooms, on the sidelines of soccer games, in the staff lounges of schools, and among officials at all levels of government there are talks about the implementation of the Common Core standards and the testing associated with the standards. Rarely has a set of academic standards triggered such interest, much less the level of discord – sometimes emotionally charged – that the Common Core has.

What are the Common Core standards and why are they controversial? How will they affect New Jersey schools? What should board members know about them?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) – the testing program associated with CCSS – are initiatives developed in response to the learning and organizational challenges schools across our state and nation confront on a daily basis.

These initiatives are examples of the type of education reform that is sometimes seen as an initiative of one political party or the other. But ensuring that our public schools are fulfilling their responsibilities and preparing all students for successful futures is a universal belief that no political organization can claim as its own.

In New Jersey, the educational policies of our nation’s Democratic President, our state’s Republican Governor and the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature have many more points of agreement than distinctions. There are politicians on both sides of the aisle who support and oppose the current educational reforms.

However, despite the fact that the Common Core Standards have been at the center of lively public discourse in the education community, there are still several misperceptions circulating about the topic.

In fact, a Spring 2013 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that “almost two out of three Americans have never heard of the Common Core State Standards.”

According to the poll, of those Americans who had heard of the Common Core, many erroneously believe that the standards are based on a blending of state standards that the federal government is insisting that all states adopt, and that there is a plan to create standards in all academic areas. That’s wrong on both counts.

To dispel such misperceptions, it’s useful to examine some basic facts about the Common Core.

What are academic content standards?

Standards are the “what” of education while curriculum and instruction are the “how.” Academic content standards are public statements about what students should know and be able to do. When used properly, content standards help teachers ensure their students have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful by providing clear goals for student learning.

Educators should monitor each student’s individual progress toward mastery of the standards. Standards describe the goals of education or what knowledge students should have at the end of the unit of study or period of time. For example, by the end of first grade students should be able “to write an opinion essay in which they introduce the topic or book name they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide a sense of closure.” (CCSS W.1.1)

Some who object to the CCSS do so because they falsely believe the CCSS will force their districts to adopt a curriculum that is not reflective of their community’s preferences. Standards do not prescribe the instructional practices, the materials, or the texts teachers will use to help their students get to the learning destinations – that is determined by the curriculum. Standards also do not prescribe any particular curriculum or the instructional practices to facilitate achievement. The adoption of the CCSS does not usurp the local authority to write curricula, choose teaching materials, or hamper the creativity of teachers.

The CCSS indicate what students should know and should be able to do at the end of each grade in math and English language arts. Local boards of education will continue to adopt curriculum developed specifically for their districts as well as purchase the texts and supporting materials they deem most appropriate for their children.

What are the benefits of academic content standards?

Standards provide a focus for learning – all students must reach them. Teachers can determine student progress toward meeting the standards by reviewing formative assessment data.

Focus is one of the greatest benefits of standards; transparency is another. By reviewing the CCSS, all can see what the schools are aiming to teach at each grade level in math and English language arts and the content students must learn. Independent research confirms that when students are informed of what they are expected to learn, a significantly greater portion will achieve it. When written and implemented well, standards can be an important tool for equity. If all children, regardless of their birth circumstances, are required to meet the same standards, all schools must work to make children reach them.

Because standards provide a focus, they also create a yardstick for evaluating all aspects of schooling. For example, board members might ask:

  • It is, if it provides opportunities to meet the standards.
  • Will this field trip facilitate a better understanding of a concept? If it will, it is a worthwhile learning experience.
  • Is this Is this a good textbook? a valuable professional development workshop? If teachers learn techniques for helping students to meet standards, it is.
  • All resources, materials, schedules, personnel assignments, should be judged by this criterion: If we do this, will our students achieve the standards?

What is the Common Core State Standard initiative?

The Common Core State Standards initiative is a state-led effort that established a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics. Forty-five states plus the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted the CCSS. The initiative was led by the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers (CCSSO). The initial motivation for the development of the Common Core State Standards was part of the American Diploma Project.

Isn’t this a federal government initiative?

No, the CCSS program was not funded or directed by the federal government. It was a process approved, designed, and financed by governors and state superintendents from 48 states. Adoption of the CCSS is completely voluntary. Another myth is that the Obama administration and the United States Department of Education (USDOE) pressured states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. The CCSS initiative is a state-led effort. Recognizing the strength of having high standards for all students, the federal government only required that states demonstrate that they had adopted college- and career-ready standards for all students. The USDOE’s Race to the Top grant program does not name the CCSS or any other specific standards.

According to the CCSS organization, the standards are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to begin credit-bearing entry-level courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce. The standards are clear and concise to ensure that parents, teachers, and students have a clear understanding of the expectations in reading, writing, speaking and listening, language and mathematics at each grade level.

Why do we need the Common Core standards?

There is a greater interdependence among nations as economies globalize. Competition for acceptance in colleges and professional schools, as well as for jobs, is more intense than ever; and our students are competing with men and women from across the globe, as well as with each other.

But there is evidence that our student’s aren’t measuring up. For at least two decades, companies of all sizes and types have reported that the cost of training new employees is significant and is increasing. A study, Are They Really Ready to Work? from a partnership consisting of The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management concluded that 81 percent of graduates from high schools in this country are neither prepared to take college classes for credit nor have the skills employers required.

High standards that are consistent not only within a state but across states, provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations that are aligned to the expectations that post-secondary education institutions and businesses have for students and workers.

Standards also promote equity for all students regardless of their zip code or the circumstances of their birth. The standards also provide a framework for life-long independent learning. That is a skill and personal trait that is of increasing importance in our information-age society where schools are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist. If the CCSS are implemented with fidelity, all students, no matter where they live, will be well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad both today and tomorrow.

Exactly how were the CCSS developed?

The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.

The draft standards were evaluated by national organizations representing groups that included teachers, postsecondary educators (including community colleges), civil rights groups, English language learners and students with disabilities. Additionally, nearly 10,000 responses were received when public comment was solicited for the standards.

The CCSS were developed through processes that included a comparison with standards identified as the highest, most effective models from states across the country and nations around the world. These are model standards that provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. The CCSS made careful use of a large and growing body of evidence that included scholarly research, surveys to determine the skills required of students entering college and workforce training programs, assessment data identifying college- and career-ready performance, comparisons to standards from high-performing states and nations, and an analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) frameworks in reading and writing for English language arts. There was also a review of the findings from Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) and other studies that reported that the traditional U.S. mathematics curriculum must become substantially more coherent and focused in order to improve student achievement. The Common Core Standards define the knowledge and skills students should have during their K-12 education.

Teachers have had a significant role in the development of the standards. In 2009 the National Governors Association convened a group of educators to work on developing the standards. The CCSS drafting process relied on teachers and national consultants with expertise in standards. The National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), among other organizations, were instrumental in bringing together teachers to provide specific, constructive feedback on the standards

Since one of the CCSS project goals is to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, receive an education based on these standards, the NGA Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers copyrighted them to ensure that the standards remain consistent throughout the nation

What impact do the CCSS have on teacher practice?

Teachers will continue to develop lesson plans that are based on the most effective instructional strategies. The CCSS do not mandate the specific curricula, the texts or supporting instructional materials, or the instructional practices that teachers will use to help students meet the standards. However, selected teaching strategies will have to facilitate a deep understanding of the subject and the skills learners need to apply the content taught.

What impact do the Common Core State Standards have on local board of education control over curriculum?

There has been some confusion regarding the Common Core State Standards and curriculum; the CCSS are not curricula. The curriculum identifies the specific path that the teachers of a district will take to meet the standards. While the standards reference specific forms of content, they do not identify the specific content students should learn to meet the standards. To be useful, the standards must be complemented by a well-developed and content-rich curriculum that is adopted by the local board of education. If there were a single path, a single instructional strategy, a single text or other process that guaranteed student achievement, most educators and boards of education would review them for adoption. But there is not one single path to reach a standard. The decisions regarding the most appropriate curriculum and associated texts and materials continue to be the responsibility of the local board of education. For example, although the English language arts CCSS emphasize the use of informational texts and provide recommendations regarding the types of texts that can be used; neither the standard nor the recommendations constitute a curriculum.

The differences between standards and curricula are important. In sum, standards provide goals while the curriculum provides the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year road map for reaching those goals. The standard is the bar that students must meet to demonstrate understanding. The curriculum is the training program coaches use to help students get over the bar.

What do the Common Core State Standards mean for students?

The standards provide clarity and consistency in what is expected of student learning across the country. This initiative helps provide all students with an equal opportunity for an education, regardless of where they live. The Common Core State Standards will not prevent different levels of achievement among students, but they will ensure more consistent exposure to materials and learning experiences through curriculum, instruction, and teacher preparation among other supports for student learning. It is important to remember that no state in the country was asked to lower expectations for their students when adopting the Common Core State Standards.

Do the CCSS mandate data collection requirements that will violate student privacy rights through data mining?

There are no data collection requirements of states adopting the CCSS. Standards define expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade. Implementing the CCSS does not require data collection. The means of assessing students and the data that results from those assessments are up to the discretion of each state and are separate and unique from the CCSS.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, the No Child Left Behind legislation amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; the Education Reform Sciences Act of 2002; and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) all prohibit the creation of a federal database with students’ personally identifiable information (i.e., information such as a Social Security number). It is also important to note that there are several legal safeguards when it comes to student academic data:

  • The Federal government is authorized to publicly report specific aggregate-level data only and not data specific to any individual.
  • Federal law prohibits the reporting of aggregate data that could allow individuals to be identified.
  • The federal government does not have access to the student-level information housed in state data systems.
  • Common Core is not a mechanism for federal data collection, nor does state implementation of Common Core and its related assessments require any data collection beyond the aggregate data authorized by No Child Left Behind.
  • Common Core and PARCC do not authorize the sharing of student data between states.
  • States that receive grants from the federal government are forbidden to report any student-level data to the federal government in return.
  • States were building data systems and collecting the necessary information to improve education within each state years before the federal government introduced grants to support this work.
  • The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) in 2009 did not encourage or require the use of SFSF funds for the development of Student Longitudinal Data Systems.
  • States have been building student-level data systems for over a decade to inform policy and practice; the average state reported meeting five of the Data Quality Campaign’s 10 Essential Elements prior to the first federal grant awards to states for this purpose. The systems provide educators with the information (e.g. cohort graduation rates, growth measures, early warning systems) needed to inform their practice. New Jersey’s student database,NJSmart, is subject to all Federal privacy laws. The Family Educational Rigths and Privacy Act (1974) mandates the confidentiality of student records.

Why are New Jersey’s students well-positioned to transition to the Common Core standards and the PARCC assessments?

Long before adopting the CCSS, New Jersey, unlike some states, had already been in a continuous cycle of reviewing and revising its educational standards to incorporate increased rigor and understanding.For years, state assessments have reflected the increased rigor of the New Jersey standards. For example, since the 1990s, New Jersey students have had to be able to explain the steps taken to reach the correct answer in statewide math tests. That, unlike simply filling in a bubble answer form, demonstrates true understanding of a concept.

Due to the existing rigor of the state standards and the associated assessments, educators believe that, although there will be a slight decline in the initial year’s PARCC scores, the students of New Jersey will fare better than students from states where standards were not as rigorous and assessments did not require an in-depth understanding of concepts.

Don’t some people say that the new standards involve too much testing and that teachers will have to “teach to the test”?

Building a house is based on the established building codes or standards of construction. Without those standards, prospective homeowners would have no assurances that their houses were safe or built to their expectations and to construction codes.

When a new home is being built, the local government’s construction, electrical and plumbing inspectors examine the completed work before the interior walls are erected to ensure that the work meets building codes or standards. If the electrical work does not meet the standards established by law, it has to be re-done until it does. Only after the work passes inspections are contractors able to “close in the walls.” This is similar to a formative assessment in education. There are two types of educational assessments: assessments for learning (formative) and assessments of learning (summative).

While teaching a unit of study, teachers should be determining how well each of their students are grasping the concepts being taught through a variety of formative assessments including quarterly assessments, quizzes, homework, and discussions. Before going on to the next topic (“closing the walls”), teachers should review the results of these formative assessments and modify their instruction to review concepts that were not fully understood before introducing the next topic of study.

Although some feel that teachers are teaching to the tests, in fact, teachers should be teaching to the standards established for the courses they teach. Standards provide an organized plan to ensure all students are prepared for the next phase of their schooling or to enter the workforce. Assessments should be designed to determine the success each student has attained in learning the content associated with a standard. In other words, the work in classrooms should be as it always has been – focused on teaching to the specific curriculum standard, goal and objective and determining how well students have learned it. However, to determine the specifics of what students have learned as well as the concepts of which they are not clear, educators must assess their learning. At the end of a unit of study, students complete a summative assessment to determine that which they learned. Examples of summative assessments include unit tests, reports and presentations. The two-part PARCC assessments that will be administered in early spring and late May/early June are also examples of summative assessments.

The CCSS and the associated assessments provide the same guidance to educators as building codes and inspections do for contractors and prospective homeowners. When applied properly, assessments will provide teachers, students and their families with the academic areas of strength and challenges of individual students.

Like all organizations and institutions, education has a responsibility to respond to new research, data and information. The Common Core State Standards initiative is an example.

Were the predecessors to the CCSS completely successful? Are the standards or assessments perfect? Of course not. Will there be analyses of the impact and effectiveness of these initiatives? Will there be revisions based on the analyses? Of course there will be.

However, it is indisputable that too many of the country’s high school graduates are not ready to begin either post-secondary studies or jobs.

Regardless if one is a supporter or detractor of the initiative, those who have taken the time to learn about the standards and the associated assessments sincerely care about the future of education in our nation and the successes of each child. There may be disagreements, but all want our country to continue to be the best nation to live, work and raise a family. That means our society has an obligation to ensure that the education our children receive will prepare them for success upon graduation.