Common Core: What It Is… And Isn’t

They aren’t a list of inappropriate books or reading assignments. They aren’t worksheets. They aren’t homework. They are a list of what a child should be learning at a certain year.

Guest Post by Deia Sanders, Master Teacher and Instructional Coach


I recently read an editorial in an educational journal that said “CCSS is not a curriculum. There is a difference between standards and curriculum, and people who don’t understand the difference should not be leading public debate on the topic.” I couldn’t agree more. But the fact is that elected officials with no educational experience, as well as concerned citizens, suddenly have huge opinions on a set of standards that appear to be based on everything except the standards themselves. To help clear the air, let me explain what the Common Core Standards (CCSS) are, and are not.

Standards—Educational standards are a list of what students should learn or be able to do at certain grade levels.

That’s it. They aren’t a list of inappropriate books or reading assignments. They aren’t worksheets. They aren’t homework. They are a list of what a child should be learning at a certain year. Every teacher in the country will not be teaching the same thing at the same time or use the same materials because of the CCSS. What they will do is state what children should learn, such as in Kindergarten, the students should be able to “identify the front cover, back cover, and title page of a book.” Or in 5th grade, a student will “use parentheses, brackets, or braces in numerical expressions, and evaluate expressions with these symbols.” How a teacher teaches and the materials a teacher uses are left up to schools, teachers, and districts.

We had standards before the CCSS and every teacher in that state taught by the same standards. Each district might have organized them differently, but at every grade level, students should have been learning the same thing. The difference back then was that we had so many standards to teach that weren’t well organized, so as a teacher, we had to teach a lot of material without much time. I know for me, I could spend about three days teaching a standard, one day testing, and one day reviewing. There wasn’t time to go deep into a lesson, so I found myself teaching students to memorize steps and do tricks rather than find a true understanding of what we were doing. Teaching is changing under the CCSS not because the standards say that we should teach differently but because the teachers have more time to teach and link topics together.

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In math, we now have fewer standards, allowing teachers to go deeper into the material. Rather than getting to a standard and teaching one method, a teacher can link it to previous standards, and kids can explore and practice. Teachers can give different activities for different levels of learning, using hands-on activities, pictorial representations, and solving using different algorithms that build on previous skills and lay the foundation for higher mathematics. Students will have a conceptual understanding because they had time to build this. The CCSS also raise the bar so that by high school, math students will take Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II that are equivalent to math classes one to two years ahead of our current standards. When research shows that 62.2% of students who took the previous trigonometry classes ended up graduating college, I am excited that all of our students will take the equivalent of that in Algebra II, which will raise our college success rate even higher.

For language arts, a big shift is that our students become researchers. Rather than be given a word and select the meaning from a list, they are given text to read and asked what the word means in that context. They aren’t just asked the main idea of a story or article; they are asked to identify reasons in the text to explain why it’s the main idea. There is nothing that says they will use a certain article or book to do this. Those decisions are made by a team of teachers in our district—teachers who live here, know the kids and families of our community, and choose what is appropriate for them.

The “Nation’s Report Card” recently came out stating that for the first time in years our nation’s finally “edging up” in reading and math scores/performance. Tennessee was one of the top three performing districts with growth in both math and reading. Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Kevin S. Huffman credited much of that state’s score gains to its ratcheting up of academic standards, which included the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Many of our states are several years into the implementation of the CCSS, and it shows to be working. It’s not magic, it’s hard work. But if it’s finally giving our children academic growth rather than the years of decline we’ve been seeing, I don’t understand why we would want to abandon something that’s finally working.

I encourage you to read the standards at and see that they aren’t controversial and don’t tell teachers how to teach or what they should use to teach. The changes in teaching are because we can finally teach deeply and for mastery rather than cover a standard and move on.

I get that there are legitimate concerns about the implementation timeline, teachers having to learn new standards and materials, and students adapting to change; there always are when standards change. They are very real challenges. But do we really want to keep doing the same old thing just because change is hard? Standards change about every five years in education, and that change is always difficult. This change is big, and we need to overcome the challenges and communicate the differences. What’s sad is that the current backlash is from false information about what the standards are or are not, which is unfortunate. It’s keeping people from having informed conversations about what’s truly happening in education. Suddenly raising the bar for students has become debatable to some people, which may leave our children to fall back to inadequate standards and destined for a future below the status quo.

It basically comes down to this. Some parents expect more out of their kids than others. I like to think we have high standards for our three girls. I can go in public and quickly see that there are people who have low standards for their children. But I also go places with parents who have higher standards, and I want to implement those for my family. I don’t have to discipline or teach my kids in the exact same way, but I might want to try something similar because I do want the same results… for my kids to perform better.

Now look at the United States. We had educational standards for our kids. You can look at some places and see we are doing better than them. But you can look at others who are outperforming us and see that we’ve got room for improvement. Thus we have the CCSS, an improvement to the current standards. These are things we want our kids to know and do. Most things we were already doing or doing at different grade levels, but some things we raised the bar on and need to do differently. We don’t have to teach everyone in the exact same way, but we are striving for the same results. For our kids to perform better.



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