Teacher’s Guide to the Common Core Standards

Feeling a bit anxious about Common Core? You’re not alone. Nationwide, nearly 3 million teachers are in the process of transitioning to teaching the Common Core State Standards – and nearly all of them are experiencing some anxiety as they try to figure out how to best teach these new standards to the kids in their charge.

In many ways, the standards themselves were borne of anxiety. American students were falling behind their international peers; U.S. students’ math, language, science and social studies scores just didn’t stack up to the scores of students in other countries. Worse yet, increasing numbers of students were graduating high school, but finding themselves unprepared for college or the job market. Many students arrived on college campuses in need of remediation programs, and few young adults had the critical thinking, analysis and problem-solving skills prized by today’s employers.

Part of the problem, educators and policy makers realized, was that schools were still using yesterday’s tools to prepare students for a world that had changed dramatically over the past generation. The Common Core State Standards were designed to better prepare students for life, education and work after high school.

There are more than 1,000 Common Core State Standards (for grades K-12). That’s a lot for anyone to learn! So consider these seven basic facts a quick-start guide to Common Core.

1. Common Core is not curriculum.

The Common Core State Standards are a set of learning expectations. They describe what students should know and be able to do at various grade levels. The standards do not tell teachers what to teach, how to teach it, or what materials to use.

Educators will need to interpret the standards to figure out how to best teach the skills students will need to demonstrate mastery of the standards – and the methods and lessons used to teach those skills probably will vary from school to school, teacher to teacher and class to class.

For example, an English language arts literacy standard for first graders says that students should be able to write informative text that names a topic, provide facts about the topic and provides a sense of closure. The standard doesn’t specify what kind of informational text students must write, nor does it say what students need to write about. Some first grade classes may write blog posts. Others may develop brochures or create PowerPoint reports about their favorite animals.

2. Common Core emphasizes understanding.

Under Common Core, it’s not enough for students to know something. They have to know the why behind the something.

That change is readily apparent in the Common Core math standards, which emphasize conceptual understanding over algorithms. Most adults today learned about “carrying” and “borrowing” when they learned to add and subtract multi-digit numbers. Few probably fully understood then (or now) that the “1” they carry or borrow actually represents a group of 10. But that kind of conceptual understanding is essential to understanding how (and why) math works.  And when students understand math concepts (vs. simply being able to replicate math rules), they’re better able to use numbers and math to solve real-life problems.

3. Common Core allows you to dig deeper.

In the past, many educators described their curriculum as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Because they were required to cover so many different topics, teachers rarely had time to delve deeply into any one subject.

“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts.”
Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher and media expert

Because the new standards emphasize understanding over rote memorization, each grade level has fewer “things” to cover, so teachers and students have more time to examine concepts and ideas in greater detail. Instead of glossing over fractions quickly on the way to surface area, educators can take the time they need to help students fully understand what a fraction is.

And because the standards spiral, complex concepts are strengthened and reinforced throughout a student’s education. Under Common Core, students begin learning about both multiplication and fractions in third grade. In fourth grade, students are expected to apply and extend that knowledge as they learn to multiply fractions by whole numbers. In fifth grade, they’re expected to multiply fractions and whole numbers by fractions

4. Common Core emphasizes evidence.

Evidence is emphasized throughout the Common Core State Standards. One of the key anchor standards for reading, for instance, states that students should be able to read text closely to make logical inferences, and that they should be able to cite specific evidence in the text to support their conclusions. The Common Core State Standards expect students to be able to provide evidence for their statements, arguments, positions and opinions, whether students are expressing their thoughts or opinions via writing or speaking.

For teachers, this emphasis on evidence means that you’ll need to spend plenty of time teaching close reading skills. It means that you’ll have to help your students figure out the difference between statements and supporting evidence, and it means that you’ll have to develop students’ research skills, as well as their ability to analyze evidence.

5. Common Core offer opportunities for cross-curricular learning.

One big Core-related shift: a push toward the use of more informational texts in the classroom. Educational leaders recognized that most of the reading required in college and in the work force is informational in nature – and that few students had ample in-school experiences with informational tests. So the standards ask teachers to bump up the ratio of information to literary texts. In 4th grade, students should be exposed to a 50/50 mix of information and literary texts. In 8th grade, student texts should be 55 percent informational, 45 percent literary. By 12th grade, texts should be 70 percent information and 30 percent literary.

The push toward informational texts (and the use of evidence to support ideas) means that it makes more sense than ever before for teachers to collaborate across subject boundaries. The texts students read in science class can be an important aspect of their reading development. The skills they learn during math class can be applied during science experiments, and the papers they write to describe their experiments contribute to the development of their writing skills.

6. Common Core resources are readily available.

Because the Common Core standards are common – the same standards are being used in more than 40 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories[1] – the standards have resulted in a wealth of creative and collaborative lesson plans and learning activities. Feeling a little unsure about how to go about teaching a new standard? New York State United Teachers has some great video and examples of Core-aligned lessons. The Library of Congress has free Core-aligned lessons and activities. And virtually all of the lesson-sharing sites include lots of Common Core-aligned lessons and activities.

Beware of textbooks marketed as Common Core-aligned, though. A March 2014 review of four math textbooks marketed as Core-aligned found that most of them “fail to capture key concepts of the higher-level standards.”

Use lesson plans and textbooks developed by other people as jumping off points for your own creativity. You know your students and their needs better than anyone else.

7. Common Core takes time.

The Common Core State Standards are a big shift in educational direction. Don’t expect yourself – or your class – to master the standards in year. It will take time (and lots of trial and error) for you to figure out the best ways to convey certain concepts to your students. Some of your ideas will work better than others, and that’s OK.

Teaching the Core standards will get easier with practice. Remember: Your students are new to this new way of learning, too. As students gain more experience with Common Core, they’ll be better prepared for Core-related work and assignments also.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

[1]As of June 2014

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