Explaining The Common Core Education Standards

Feb 26, 2014

Rhode Island lawmakers are slated to consider a bill Wednesday that takes on one of the  most contentious issues in public education. The bill calls for a commission to study the Common Core Standards, a new set of national standards for K-12 classrooms.

Rhode Island teachers are already using the standards, and they will soon give students a new standardized test to go with them, but a growing number of critics charge the standards are stressing students out.

2013 Common Core worksheet used in a Barrington elementary school.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

So, what exactly are standards, and what are they supposed to achieve? To answer that question, I stopped by the Brown University office of John Papay, an assistant professor of education.

"Standards are what policy makers say should be taught in schools," Papay explained, adding that sometime around the mid-1990's, the idea of standards started gaining traction.

Policy makers like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics got together to write guidelines that were supposed to help teachers in public schools.

"So policy makers decide what in a third grade mathematics classroom, what are the types of things we think should be covered, and those are the standards for that year," Papay said.

The standards set out specific learning goals for every grade level, things like learning to recognize letters or count to 100. It’s kind of like learning to play an instrument like the piano, at least that’s how Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan puts it. You have to break down learning into distinct parts.

"You can’t imagine that people learn to play the piano by doing just anything they feel like on the instrument," Ball said. "It’s actually pretty important to break down what the components are of competent performance and that includes both dexterity and skill but it also includes some kinds of understanding."

Understanding of how the instrument works, for example, and the different sounds it can make. Take the cello and my producer John Bender. Before he could launch into a piece by Bach, he had to learn the scales. When you start reading you learn the ABC's, and when you learn music its Do Re Mi, and with time and practice you’re off and running.

Deborah Ball, who specializes math education, says all teachers break learning down into smaller parts, but until now there were huge differences in the way that happened across the country.

"So that means if you’re a little kid and you move from town to town or state to state it’s as much as 80-90 percent different," Ball told me.  "Which, from a math education point of view, is really kind of crazy. I mean it’s as though saying kids in Idaho don’t need to place fractions on the number line but kids in St. Louis do. It makes literally no sense."

To solve this problem, the National Governor’s Association decided to create a set of national standards to guide teachers around the country. The group hired a pro-standards advocacy organization called Achieve to spearhead the effort, and the result is called the Common Core State Standards.

Who actually wrote the standards is a little bit unclear. Critics like to say it was Bill Gates, whose foundation has poured more than $170 million into efforts to write the standards and put them in practice around the country, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. But Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist says it wasn’t Bill Gates.

"No," said Gist. "There were two organizations that came together and decided to do this work. It was the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And the actual authors were content experts, education experts, there were teachers, and others involved it was a very inclusive process."

That process included an elementary school teacher from Pawtucket and an expert on early elementary education from Brown University, among others. Gist believes the result is an improvement over the standards Rhode Island has been using for the past decade.

On the math side, they feature fewer concepts but more in-depth understanding, and on the reading side, they include a strong focus on critical analysis of text and literature.

"There’s a much deeper expectation for students to be able to engage with the piece in a way that involves much more critical thinking and requires them to take evidence from the text, and that’s the difference." Gist said.

Sounds good, right? Not so fast.

Critics say the standards place too much emphasis on nonfiction, and they point out the math standards never get to calculus, which is important for students interested in science and engineering.

Another controversy is that the new standards come with new standardized tests, which will be administered twice a year, replacing the annual NECAP. These tests have not yet been used in any classrooms, and that’s part of the reason State Representative Gregg Amore is calling for a pause. He says the state should convene a commission to take a closer look at the test and the standards.

"I have been inundated by phone calls and email from parents who tell me their first, second, third grader is coming home disgusted, crying, upset, having no fun in school," Amore said.  "What has changed?  By and large the teachers have not changed. What’s changed is the standards."

Barrington Parents Tad and Amy Segal say they see that stress in their own children. And another thing they’re worried about, where is the art in the Common Core?

"In fact, I had the teacher even say that unfortunately we don’t have a lot of artwork on the walls, we don’t have the time for it anymore," said Amy Segal, describing a recent parent night at her daughter's elementary school.

The Common Core Standards focus on math, reading, and writing, and Rhode Island is one of a few states also starting to use the science standards. The state has its own standards for art education, but that’s less of a priority in many schools because it’s not part of annual standardized testing.

The Common Core has already entered classrooms in Rhode Island, and the state has spent more than $12 million, mostly in federal grant funding, to prepare teachers and principals. State officials say they plan to move forward with the effort, but a grassroots movement of parents and other critics has started to gather strength, and they’re hoping the general assembly will be more sympathetic to their concerns.