Q: I am confused about the new Common Core State Standards. Our state has always had learning standards, but I'm told these new ones are national. What was wrong with the old standards?
A: Many states adopted learning standards following the 1983 release of President Ronald Reagan's "A Nation at Risk" report. It warned that our schools weren't adequately preparing kids for college or work.
Since education policy wasn't a federal responsibility, states were urged to devise their own curricula to improve teaching and learning. The result? A patchwork of well-intended efforts. U.S. students continued to perform poorly compared to other industrialized nations on many benchmarks, including college readiness.
Enter the Common Core State Standards movement: The goal of the CCSS was not to create a "national curriculum," but to define what students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college and future careers. Over the last several years, teachers, parents, subject area experts, as well as business and community leaders have all weighed in to help create the CCSS in English language arts and math (others will follow) and to clearly communicate what is expected of students at each grade level.
"CCSS is a huge shift," says Mary Dietz, a former school administrator and education consultant. "Forty-five states and three territories have adopted them. It's the first time the country has ever defined the knowledge and skills all students should have when they leave high school.
"In school year 2014-15, states will begin to assess student progress on them. The tests will measure, among other things, higher order thinking skills, so there will be fewer multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank items."
Education consultant Erin Power, commenting at edutopia.org, says the CCSS are organized in "an intoxicatingly simple, linear fashion that acknowledges that the work of a first-grade teacher contributes to the growth of a 10th-grade student. This connectedness between grade levels is a welcome departure from some previous state standards that jumped from topic to topic, addressing a particular skill one year, dropping it the next."
The CCSS don't tell teachers how to teach. They provide a framework of what students should know in a given subject at a given grade level, says Dietz. "For example, a second-grade English language arts standard states that students will: 'Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.' It's up to the teacher, school or district to choose the materials and methods used to teach that standard."
Parents should review the CCSS (go to corestandards.org) and ask administrators how they differ from what your state is using now, says Dietz. "Parents should also insist that the district offer training in implementing CCSS. What we're saying to teachers is: 'Here's the standard. You figure out how to teach it.' For some teachers, this is very freeing. Others will need ongoing support to expand their capacity and build their confidence."
For multiple perspectives, go to edutopia.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)