Knowre Blog

Everything You Need to Know About the Common Core (CCSS)

Posted by Sam Cressman on 1/3/20 3:31 PM
Sam Cressman
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The Common Core is arguably the largest education initiative in the United States of the last decade. Since its official launch in 2009, very few if any education topics have received as much positive and negative discussion and feedback as the Common Core. 

With such a massive impact on education as a whole, let's unpack the Common Core to better understand its history and present effects as well as envision what both state and national education standards will resemble moving forward.

What is the Common Core (CCSS), and what is the Common Core's goal?

What are standards, and are standards the same as a curriculum?

Why and how was the Common Core developed?

How are students evaluated on the Common Core?

Is the Common Core working? What are criticisms of the Common Core?

How do Knowre (and other similar programs) enter the equation? What is blended learning, what is an online core supplement, and what is a learning gap?

What is the Common Core (CCSS), and what is the Common Core's goal?

According to the Common Core State Standards website, the Common Core is "a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics."

Or, worded differently

The Common Core is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.

The Common Core State Standards clearly aim to ensure that students after graduating from high school, regardless of location, should be prepared to enter either college or the workforce. The Common Core also aims to promote learning through a deeper understanding of Math and English rather than traditional rote memorization (ensuring that students better understand the "why" behind subjects compared to just knowing the "how"). Much easier said than done, right?

Although the ultimate goal seems clear and noble (however, success towards reaching this goal is still being debated to this day), it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of teaching/working without considering how the Common Core actually impacts the bigger picture.

Furthermore, when reviewing how the Common Core is defined, what actually are standards? How does the Common Core compare to a curriculum, and is the Common Core a curriculum?

What are standards, and are standards the same as a curriculum?

According to EdGlossary (the Great Schools Partnership),

Learning standards are concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. Learning standards describe educational objectives—i.e., what students should have learned by the end of a course, grade level, or grade span—but they do not describe any particular teaching practice, curriculum, or assessment method (although this is a source of ongoing confusion and debate).

Learning (or education) standards can vary based on subject and grade levels addressed but typically share themes such as learning progressions, educational goals, and actual content. 

Learning standards (in the context of the Common Core) represent what students should know and be able to accomplish at each grade level regardless of who is teaching them and where they are being taught.

According to the Common Core, the standards are:

  1. Research- and evidence-based
  2. Clear, understandable, and consistent
  3. Aligned with college and career expectations
  4. Based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills
  5. Built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards
  6. Informed by other top performing countries in order to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society

In theory, learning standards (or the Common Core, a collection of learning standards) promote consistency in education (location should not impact what you are learning and at what grade you are learning), accountability (enter "standard"ized tests), and equity. However, all of the prior statements can be and are constantly debated.

Furthermore, creating and housing these learning standards under one umbrella should help educators focus less on education theory (example: "what are the right educational objectives to be covering?") and more on providing students with the best content and instruction (example: "how can I best teach points on a number line?") to reach these predefined educational objectives.

It is important to note that the Common Core is not a curriculum but ultimately should guide curriculums. A curriculum can be defined as a course or grade roadmap that consists of both general and specific educational content that must be covered and understood by students to satisfy a standard. 

As the Common Core itself states, "the Common Core is what students need to know and be able to do, and curriculum is how students will learn it." When boiled down, curriculums are built to address learning standards, and collections of learning standards (like the Common Core) are used to assess the status of K-12 education as a whole.

Now you may be asking, "who decided (and decides) what students need to know and be able to do, and why and and how were these decisions made?"

Why and how was the Common Core developed?

Ultimately the Common Core was developed for one reason: accountability.

In the 1990s, there was growing sentiment that American education was falling behind relative to international education (a sentiment that is still widely observed and debated).

Included in this sentiment was a lack of consistency in education across states as well as a lack of accountability when evaluating education as a whole and specifically when comparing states to each other. How could Americans determine what in K-12 education was not working if they could not determine what (or in which specific states) K-12 education was actually working?

This led governors and business leaders in 1998 to found Achieve, a nonprofit education organization that is "committed to making sure every student graduates from high school ready to succeed in the college or career of their choice."

In 1999, Achieve quickly began working on its Academic Standards and Assessments Benchmarking Pilot Project (conceptualizing what we now know as the Common Core).

In 2001, Achieve partnered with the Education Trust, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and the National Alliance of Business to launch the American Diploma Project (ADP). 

The goal of the ADP was to "identify 'must-have' knowledge and skills most demanded by higher education and employers", or to prepare students in job-ready skills that employers (themselves as governors and business leaders) believed they would soon if not already be required to have to compete for jobs and contribute to the economy (as a side note, this led to an increase in blended learning).

In 2004, the ADP changed American education forever with the release of a groundbreaking report "Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts", which ultimately found that "employers' and colleges' academic demands for high school graduates have converged, yet states' current high-school exit expectations fall well short of those demands." EdWeek would later include this report as their 12th most influential report of the past decade.

Following reports such as "Closing the Expectations Gap" and "Out of Many, One", in 2009, the ADP partnered with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and launched the first version of the the Common Core State Standards. Furthermore, teacher organizations such as the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) also contributed.

In 2010, the ADP released the final version of the Common Core State Standards, and currently 41 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the Common Core for Mathematics and English language arts/literacy.

Although states were not required to join the Common Core, the federal government incentivized states to join in 2009 and 2010 by offering billions of dollars in grants from the federal stimulus package, one example being the Race to the Top Assessment Program (built to promote the creation of Common Core assessments) as well as certain exclusions from No Child Left Behind.

How are students evaluated on the Common Core?

As states have adopted Common Core standards, they also have a choice for standardized assessments between either creating their own state assessments or utilizing two federally-supported nonprofit groups, or consortiums: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). 

Currently, most states are opting to create their own testing standards. In 2019, 32 states use tests they designed or bought for themselves, 15 states administered Smarter Balanced or PARCC tests, and 3 states utilized hybrid tests (tests that combine Smarter Balanced/PARCC questions with their own testing questions). 

Although the vast majority of states (40) rely on the Common Core for standards, for various reasons, it has proven difficult to gain state support for standardized assessments. Moving forward, this may create difficulties for states utilizing both the Common Core and the consortium assessments as states creating their own standardized assessments can define success and failure on their own terms (potentially undermining the common standards altogether). 

Is the Common Core working? What are criticisms of the Common Core?

Many believe that it is still too early to properly gauge if the Common Core is working. However, many signs point towards it is either not working or still needs more time to develop.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American teenager performance in reading in math has been stagnant relative to international peers since 2000. Furthermore, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), American fourth and eighth graders are losing ground in reading.

Common criticisms of the Common Core involve promoting "teaching to tests" and "one size fits all learning" as well as an initial rocky rollout to teachers which included a lack of educational content created specifically for the Common Core as well as standards considered in some cases to be not specific enough.

However, Victoria McDougald of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (referencing a 2017 study "Is Common Core 'Working'? And Where Does Common Core Research Go From Here?") believes that it is still difficult to evaluate and we still need more time:

For starters, Common Core was not randomly assigned to states, making it nearly impossible to determine a direct, causal relationship between CCSS and student outcomes. Second, while the standards were developed in 2010, individual states adopted and implemented Common Core on very different schedules, with many states gradually rolling out implementation over several years, making it very difficult to pinpoint precisely when implementation actually “started.” It is also challenging to compare outcomes for adopter and non-adopter states, given that “states that adopted the standards certainly differed from those that did not”—and many adopters have since made revisions to the standards or dropped them entirely, further muddying the waters. And since research indicates Common Core isn’t always being implemented with fidelity in classrooms, it makes it even more challenging to assess the standards’ impact on students.

How do Knowre (and other similar programs) enter the equation? What is blended learning, what is an online core supplement, and what is a learning gap?

With most states adopting the Common Core and with the Common Core promoting standards that are "aligned with college and career expectations", classroom technology and 1:1 computing in the classroom have since flourished.

Although most math teachers still use textbooks, worksheets, and other physical classroom materials, the rise in classroom technology has resulted in the rise of blended learning (or instruction that combines physical classroom materials with online learning materials).

With classroom sizes seemingly always increasing and teachers being strapped for time and resources more than ever before, schools and districts have looked for online core supplements, or content-focused online learning programs created to supplement traditional core materials, to supplement their physical core-focused classroom materials and curriculums.

Assuming the online core supplement is aligned with the Common Core or core state standards (like Knowre), online core supplements allow teachers to prioritize big-picture lesson objectives and helping individual students who need it most (rather than focusing on creating new core materials or ensuring existing learning materials will satisfy core standards).

Furthermore, through technology, many online core supplements like Knowre have progressed to understand the individual learning gaps of students. A student learning gap is a gap between what a student actually knows versus what a student should know. Learning gaps can become apparent as students progress through curriculum but struggle on content that requires understanding prerequisite skills.

Since the Common Core aims to promote college/career readiness and deeper understanding of subjects, and Common Core students are assessed on what they know versus what they should know at each grade level, online core supplements aim to complement teachers by filling learning gaps (promoting deeper understanding) and/or making these learning gaps apparent for teachers to address and support.

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Topics: Education Policy, Formative Assessment, Math Instruction, Teachers, Schools