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What is the Common Core?

David Coleman speaks to a group of parents and teachers. David Coleman speaks to a group of parents and teachers. Aryn Bloodworth

Parents attending parent-teacher conferences this week may be hearing talk about the “Common Core” and wondering just what it is. At a Department of Education presentation in October, David Coleman, founder of the Grow Network and one of the authors of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), declared, “If you do this work [aligned with Common Core standards] then you’re ready for college.”

In short, the CCSS is not a curriculum but a set of standards defining the knowledge and skills that students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade need to master each year to be prepared for the next grade, and ultimately college or work. Creating common academic standards across the country was a state-led initiative, involving a coalition of governors and educators. The actual standards were developed by teachers, administrators, experts and parents.

Modeled after successful programs in the U.S. and abroad the Common Core standards are meant to provide teachers and parents with a shared understanding of what students are expected to learn. One aim is ensure that kids who move across city or even state lines end up in schools with the same information being taught.

What do all these programs mean?

It's hard to keep track of so many schools standard and curricula initiatives. Here’s a breakdown of the main programs related to Common Core State Standards.

NYS Core Curriculum – Established in 2005 for math and ELA, the core curriculum is aligned with the learning standards and has only a few specific recommendations.

Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) – Adopted by the Board of Regents for English Language Arts & Literacy and Mathematics in 2010. This is the New York state version of the CCSS.

Learning Standards of NYS – 28 standards, covering all subjects, that the state adopted in 1996.

In NYC, only 21 percent of students who began high school in 2006 were considered to be “college ready” in 2011. The CCSS demands that students do more research and evidence-based learning to prepare for the work that colleges and employers expect. Students will be writing more papers using many sources and reading more non-fiction than fiction. For example, the standards say that by 5th grade, students should be reading at least 50% non-fiction texts; by 12th grade, the split should be roughly 30% fiction and 70% non-fiction. Even math is more writing-focused, replacing traditional multiple-choice problems with text-heavy story problems.

Though the standards are not controlled by the federal government, some education advocates worry that that they are being dictated by test companies and federal agendas. NYC parent activist Leonie Haimson charges that parents had little say in their adoption. “I don’t think there is a huge consensus on these standards,” she explained. “I’m very doubtful about a pilot being imposed on so many million kids across the US. I would far more trust parents to say what are good standards for their kids and what work is good for their kids.”

According to some New York City teachers, Common Core standards are very similar to the New York State standards adopted in 1996. Xhenete Shepard, an assistant principal at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, doesn’t see the standards as a huge shift from the ideas they had before. “I see them as a common language and a way to articulate what we’re doing,” Shepard explained. “Teachers don’t think they’ve been doing a lot of this and it seems wildly different but in reality it’s not, they’re just set up in a way they aren’t used to.”

Shepard said that science teachers were already introducing more non-fiction and essays from scientific journals and asking kids to write using these sources. “It’s something science teachers typically didn’t do,” she explained. “Students need to access complex texts and to comprehend and apply these texts and write a clear essay on their opinion.”

To date, the English and math standards for grades pre-K through 12 have been adopted by 45 states. The New York State Board of Regents adopted them in July 2010 though schools will not teach them in every class until 2012-2013 and state tests will not be fully aligned to the CCSS until 2014-15.

To prepare sample lessons that align to the standards, NYC piloted a program in 100 schools in 2010-11. These “instructional bundles” are available on the Common Core Library for teachers and parents. This year NYC public school teachers are aligning one unit each semester to the standards.

Common Core pre-k standards call for group reading activities. A post on GothamSchools this week showed Chancellor Walcott reading and acting out a story in a pre-k classroom, an activity aligned with the standards. Just as most teachers of four-year-olds will be reading to their pupils, the standards are often examples of what teachers should be doing anyway.

“I’ve looked at the Common Core enough to know that I can take what I’ve been doing and show how what I’m doing connects,” explained Adam Stevens, a social studies teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School. “Most of us with any experience are not really worried about it.”

The emphasis on writing in all subjects, not just in English, has some parents and educators concerned that struggling learners and ELLs will fall further behind, however.

The DOE counters that since local school districts will develop their own CCSS-aligned curriculum to meet the needs of their students, their instructional materials and professional development should ensure that all students get what they need to be college and career ready; sample lessons include examples of how to work with ELLs and with students with disabilities.

What does the Common Core mean for your child? You should expect more writing and reading in all subjects, even classes like math or physical education that do not traditionally require it. Since teachers will choose how to teach the standards, your child’s school is the best resource for specifics on what has changed in the classroom. And online parent resources can help you learn how to support these changes at home.

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 November 2011 16:16

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