In late summer and early fall, the routine is clear. Children return to school, and a few weeks later, parents are invited to open houses or back-to-school nights. Principals give brief presentations on school policies and procedures, and teachers introduce themselves and their curriculum for the coming year.

This ritual has been repeated for generations. Yet recently, parents may have noticed a new phrase being discussed—the “Common Core State Standards.”

Released in 2010, the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS (or just “Common Core”), are a set of voluntary national education standards for mathematics and English/language arts. Developed through collaboration among teachers, education researchers, school administrators, parents, and state education leaders, they define what students should master, by grade, to become successful adults. As of September 2012, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards for school districts. (The states that haven’t adopted the standards are Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia, and Texas.)

But why develop a common set of curriculum standards?

“The most important thing is that these standards were developed explicitly to prepare students for college and careers,” says Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of Something in Common: The Common Core State Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education. “They are the essential knowledge and skills in ELA and math.”

For participating states, the CCSS replace a disparate system where each state had its own academic standards, which varied enormously with regard to subject matter, intellectual depth, and rigor.

“In a lot of cases, the new standards are going to be more challenging than what students are used to,” Rothman says.

The CCSS were established not by the federal government but by a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers.

What Are the Common Core Standards?

The standards are complex documents with detailed descriptions of what students should know and be able to do in grades K–12. They specify skills and competencies, but don’t prescribe specific curriculum content or teaching methods. This leaves states and districts with greater flexibility in how they help students achieve mastery of the standards.

Despite the CCSS’ complexity, common themes emerge across grade levels. In English language arts, students are expected to read more nonfiction and increasingly complex texts; to improve their speaking and listening skills; and to cite evidence from texts to support arguments in written work. The ELA standards also address literacy in social studies, science, and technical subjects in grades 6–12.

In math, the standards focus on fewer topics in each grade but include expectations that students master the topics in greater depth. They clearly state how students’ math learning builds upon itself each year. They also define eight mathematical practices, or processes, essential for mathematics understanding, including the ability to reason abstractly, make sense of problems, and attend to precision.

Parents Need Patience as Standards Unfold

As the assistant superintendent of New Fairfield Public Schools in Connecticut since the Connecticut State Department of Education adopted the standards in July 2010, Barbara Mechler has been leading her district’s efforts to learn the standards and align teaching and curriculum.

Extensive professional development with the state’s teachers and administrators has been dedicated to the CCSS, which the district began implementing in full in September 2012—and so far, Mechler is impressed.

“I think the standards are really great things,” Mechler says. “They are rigorous. They have not only high expectations for students but they also necessitate students taking control of their learning.”

However, she counsels parents to be patient and supportive of their children as they adjust to the more challenging work. To keep parents informed about the transition, Mechler has given public presentations on the CCSS at school board and parent group meetings. The district also has extensive information about the standards on its website and has submitted articles to its local newspaper.

The success of the standards may start being measured in 2014, when new national, computer-based assessments aligned with the CCSS replace current state standardized tests, which have no uniformity across state lines, either in expectations or difficulty. But parents are advised not to be too concerned if their children’s test scores initially decline.

“That doesn’t mean students are doing worse,” Rothman says. “It just means the expectations will be higher.”

Learn More About the Common Core Standards

To learn more about the CCSS, visit the following websites:

  • Common Core State Standards Initiative: This is the official website of the CCSS.
  • The Hunt Institute You Tube Channel: This You Tube Channel from the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of North Carolina offers more than 30 short videos on the CCSS.
  • National PTA: The National PTA has developed four-page parent guides, in English and Spanish, that give an overview of the CCSS at each grade level.
  • Council of the Great City Schools: This national organization serving America’s urban public schools offers “Parent Roadmaps to the Common Core Standards” for grades K–8.
  • Edweek.org: Read recent news articles and commentaries related to the CCSS from one of the nation’s leading online education news sites.

Following are sample standards, by random grade levels, based on the Common Core:

Common Core State Standards for Kindergarten

Math:

  • Know number names and the count sequence
  • Understand addition as putting together and adding to, and understand subtraction as taking apart and taking from
  • Work with numbers 11-19 to gain foundations for place value
  • Identify and describe basic shapes

English Language Arts:

  • With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text
  • Demonstrate understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds (phonemes)
  • Speak audibly and express thoughts, feelings, and ideas clearly
  • Print many uppercase and lowercase letters
Common Core State Standards for 3rd Grade

Math:

  • Solve problems involving the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) and the relationship between multiplication and division
  • Multiply and divide within 100
  • Develop understanding of fractions as numbers
  • Solve problems involving measurement and estimation of intervals of time, liquid volumes, and masses of objects

English Language Arts:

  • Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events
  • Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly
  • Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences
Common Core State Standards for 6th Grade

Math:

  • Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems
  • Apply and extend previous understandings of multiplication and division to divide fractions by fractions
  • Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume fluently with multi-digit numbers and find common factors and multiples

English Language Arts:

  • Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text
  • Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
  • Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study
Common Core State Standards for 8th Grade

Math:

  • Know that there are numbers that are not rational, and approximate them by rational numbers
  • Understand the connections between proportional relationships, lines, and linear equations
  • Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving volumes of cylinders, cones and spheres
  • Analyze and solve linear equations and pairs of simultaneous linear equations

English Language Arts:

  • Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structures of each text contributes to its meaning and style
  • Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence; support claims with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text
  • Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation
Common Core State Standards for Grades 9-12

Math:

  • Use properties of rational and irrational numbers
  • Create equations that describe numbers or relationships
  • Understand solving equations as a process of reasoning and explain the reasoning
  • Prove geometric theorems
  • Summarize, represent, and interpret data on a single count or measurement variable
  • Use probability to evaluate outcomes of decisions

English Language Arts:

  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings
  • Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening
  • Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate
  • Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience
  • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain
Ashley Gaddis writes about education issues for the media and nonprofit organizations. She lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband and two children.