Love Them or Hate Them: How Common Core State Standards Can Prompt Meaningful Conversations

Teachers talking about common core

The Common Core State Standards were written in the late 2000s and publicly released in 2010. With the promise of having an agreed upon set of challenging and reimagined K–12 academic standards, the early days of the Common Core were like a honeymoon.

The honeymoon did not last long, however, as questions about the Common Core’s origins (who created the standards and why?) and purpose (was it created to replace local decision-making?) dominated public discussions of the new standards. This focus on the political aspects of the Common Core can obscure an important point: The release of federally supported K–12 standards has pushed important questions about teaching and learning into the spotlight.

Standards—even the Common Core State Standards—are, in essence, nothing more than guidelines about what students should be expected to know or do at a certain age or grade level. Without standards, districts and schools don’t have defined learning objectives to meet. By matching what is taught in the classroom to the standards in each subject area, students (and their parents and teachers) know what teachers should be teaching, what students should be learning, and the content on which students will be tested. Revising, rewriting, and revisiting standards can prompt meaningful dialogue about what those expectations have been, and whether or not they need to change in the future. 

A 2015 article in Slate magazine profiled eight different teachers from around the country and asked for their views on how the Common Core standards had impacted their work in the classroom. One teacher working in a New York City public school admitted that, at first, she and her colleagues felt “angry” about the Common Core standards. Suddenly, thanks to the new set of guidelines, she was being prompted to rethink what her students were capable of. With honesty, she described an uncomfortable process—but one she was willing to endure. For example, the teacher and her colleagues had always used a certain fictional book with seventh-grade students to address the topic of slavery in the United States. But, under Common Core, they now use Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which this teacher describes as a “complex piece of nonfiction.”

“The difference between the two pieces is enormous, and what the students are expected to do is quite different,” admitted the teacher. At first, she believed her students would not be able to handle the change. She said her resistance was based on “deep-seated beliefs” about what her students should be doing or reading as seventh-graders. However, the push to change things up in her classroom thanks to New York’s adoption of the Common Core led her to this important realization: “In actuality [students] can do more than we often think they can.”

The careful reexamination of what teachers are asking of students should not be overlooked when political wrangles over the Common Core standards dominate national headlines. Many states have dropped the Common Core because state officials wanted to create their own standards. This echoes what happened in 2014 when Indiana became the first state to drop the Common Core, citing a desire to make decisions about education at the state and local level.

In a country as large and diverse as the United States, local control over education is, understandably, desirable. But throwing the baby (important conversations about what students are expected to know and do) out with the bathwater (Common Core) might diminish the space that standards provide for teachers to critically examine what opportunities and challenges they are providing for their students. In education, standards define the "what" while curriculum and instruction are the "how." In this sense, educators are still free to use whichever teaching styles and materials work best for the local population, as long as their students reach learning goals. 

Regardless of whether states accept the Common Core or develop standards of their own, the revising, rewriting, and revisiting process has the potential to prompt meaningful dialogue about learning expectations, and whether or not they need to change to keep students competitive as global citizens. 

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