A year ago, Ed Week reported that 62% of Americans had not heard of Common Core, including 55% of parents of school age children.  What exactly is Common Core, and how did such a large education reform come about without parents and other citizens knowing?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a document detailing education standards for math and literacy for grades Kindergarten through senior of high school.  You can read all the standards here.  Prior to CCSS, many states already had standards to guide education, but as part of the Race to the Top grant applications almost every state chose to adopt CCSS, making them national standards.  Currently, seven states do not use the standards; four never adopted them and three withdrew or repealed.  (Use this map on the CCSS page or this table on Wikipedia to find your state).

People assume official education representatives from all states developed CCSS by gathering finding commonality among their individual state education standards.  That sounds logical, but it is not the truth.  Instead, the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers drafted the CCSS.  

Still, it sounds like a state led project.  However, these two groups are not what their names suggest.  The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers both welcome officials with the respective titles from all fifty states, but those persons are not the only members.  In reality, both the NGA and CCSSO are lobbyist groups.  The NGA website announced the names of all the individuals involved in developing the CCSS; the list is not composed of governors, chief state school officers, or even state education commissioners.

Who is on the lists?  Mostly representatives for corporations working within the education field such as: Achieve, College Board, ACT, Gates Foundation.  Guess who’s missing?  Scholars of math and literacy as well as educators, specifically classroom teachers, early education educators, and special education educators. (See the work group list here and the validation committee list here).

The standards themselves are controversial.  Some believe the standards are too rigorous, others believe not enough, while still others find them just right.  But, perhaps the most concerning is that CCSS is a copyrighted.  (Here’s the public license).  If our states do not own the standards we have adopted, then how can the citizens’ voices lead revisions?

It’s important to note what CCSS is not.  Often, other complaints about education get mislabeled as “Common Core.”

  • CCSS is not a federally mandated curriculum.  Each state chose to adopt CCSS, even if the choice could be described as bribery through grant funds.  More importantly, standards are not curriculum.  Standards list of skills and knowledge; curriculum details how students obtain skills and knowledge.  Thus, the CCSS does not dictate textbooks, lessons, literature, or methods.  Now, this is not to say that there isn’t pressure to make certain choices through teaching to high stakes tests or the narrow choices of textbook publishers.  But, those inappropriate essay assignments or overly complicated math worksheets going viral are not included in or mandated by CCSS.  And this is good news.  This means these are poor local choices, which citizens can protest through their school boards and local government.
  • CCSS does none of the following: Mandate testing, collect student data, evaluate educators, or seek to close schools.  Reforms pertaining to these topics were part of Race to the Top (RTTT).  When states applied for RTTT grant funds, their applications detailed plans for: standards and assessments, using data to guide instruction, teachers and leaders, and turning around low preforming schools.  (This White House fact sheet provides more info on each).  CCSS adoption was only part of RTTT, and thus it is inaccurate to call all these reforms “Common Core,” even if they are interconnected.  Once again, states chose to apply for RTTT, thus choosing reforms in each of these areas.
  • CCSS does not teach science, history, social justice, or sex ed.  The CCSS are strictly standards about math and literacy.  The grey area arises in implementation.  CCSS literacy standards require more informational texts, and many texts on science and social studies topics are listed in Appendix B, which gives exemplar texts but does not mandate their use.  Furthermore, its common, though not required by CCSS, for elementary schools to only address science and social studies during literacy blocks because so much time is spent preparing for standardized tests.  Lastly, sets of standards on all topics have existed for many years.  Their existence does not equate adoption, but still they can be watched. The two non-CCSS sets of standards with the most attention are the Next Generation Science Standards and the Future of Sex Education Standards.
  • CCSS does not remove parental consent.  Search the internet proposes many reasons why schools want to exclude parents.  I’m not defending or refuting any of those claims today.  I am stating that challenges to parental involvement doesn’t stem from the CCSS document.  While some purchased tests have gag orders, CCSS gives no reasons for schools to hide materials like textbooks or completed classwork from parents.  However, schools may have logical reasons for restrictions.  For example, materials might remain at school to prevent costly replacements, or unfinished assignments might remain in class to ensure they assesses independent work.  Even with restrictions, parents can schedule a meeting to view materials and their children’s work.  A teacher or school’s noncompliance is cause for serious concern.

Knowledge of who drafted CCSS and what it does and does not include allows parents and other citizens to have informed discussions with teachers, administrators, school committee members, and elected officials.  Our children cause us the deepest emotions, especially in the times we seek to protect them from harm, yet the most effective arguments allow emotion and fact to work in tandem.