What are Common Core State Standards?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, more commonly called “The Common Core,” has ignited a national conversation about educational standards in the United States. After several years of development, a final version of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics has been adopted by more than 40 states and implementation has begun across the country.

The work of training local educators and administrators to align their teaching methods to the new standards and tests has proved difficult, however. Several states have delayed implementation of the standards, and national leaders have voiced concerns about the best ways to support the major shifts required by this new initiative.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, administrator or education activist, the key to an informed stance on Common Core is to learn as much as you can about the initiative’s origins, as well as the varying sides of the debate. Use the following links to navigate our introductory guide to the Common Core State Standards initiative:

Common Core 101: the basics

Discussions on creating a consistent set of national educational standards began in 2007, when the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) invited state education leaders to its Annual Policy Forum. The next year, CCSSO, the National Governors Association (NGA) and Achieve, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, created a report calling for states to collaborate on upgrading educational standards and applying them consistently nationwide.

This process began in part because educational leaders and authorities worried about a lack of consistency in educational standards from state to state. Common Core architects argued that creating a unified nationwide measure of career and college readiness would help raise the bar for all students and better prepare them for an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

The beginning of resistance

Some states resisted the insistence on creating new standards. Since the early 2000s, many states have worked hard to create their own standard-aligned tests and have experienced a steady rise in student test scores. Changing the bar would most likely create a new learning curve for schools in many states, where students new to the standards may not perform as well as they had on earlier, more familiar tests. Proponents of the new standards said the learning curve was necessary to improve students’ readiness for college and careers.

Work groups reviewed existing standards and created a set of standards now called the Common Core. These groups included educators, administrators, leaders from the NGA and CCSSO, researchers and leading experts in education. The groups also asked teachers and members of the public for input on the standards. By 2010, the CCSS Initiative published a final set of college and career-readiness standards for students in grades K-12.

An interdisciplinary approach to achieving goals, not altering curriculum

The final standards do not include actual curriculum materials. They simply represent a set of achievement goals for English language arts/literacy and mathematics knowledge divided by grade level from kindergarten to 12th grade. By design, implementation has been left to local and state educators and administrators; there’s no federal role aside from a few grant programs. From 2010 to 2014[1], 45 states, Washington, D.C., and four territories adopted both ELA/literacy and mathematics standards. Minnesota adopted the literacy component but not the math. Texas, Alaska, Nebraska and Virginia did not join the Common Core.

States have confronted widespread challenges in adapting their teaching methods to the new Common Core standards and tests. Because Common Core focuses strongly on content-rich nonfiction text, it stands to affect students in all grades and subjects. In some states, English language arts/literacy teachers are incorporating more science and social studies content into their classes, while science and social studies teachers are including more critical reading and writing in their courses. This interdisciplinary approach has proven benefits for students, but it requires a significant shift in the teaching practices, or pedagogy, of many teachers.

Shift in standards, shift in philosophy

Before Common Core came along, many states had their own standards and tests. Some educational leaders contended the inconsistency from state to state creates educational disparities. Others argued that without a consistent state-to-state measure of proficiency, data about U.S. student achievement was misleading. In contrast, some critics contend that a single set of standards for students nationwide will create the “lowest common denominator” effect.

Common Core’s creators maintain that the criteria used to develop the standards was based on scholarly research, surveys on skills required by colleges and career-training programs, student testing data, reviews of standards from high-performing states and nations, and findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Teachers are bearing the brunt of Common Core because they must adapt their teaching methods to suit the standards. Common Core articulates six distinct shifts in English language arts/literacy and mathematics courses. Teachers need to adjust their ideas about teaching skills and content, applying appropriate levels of rigor, and many more components of pedagogy. These areas require the most significant shifts:

English language arts/literacy

  • Balancing informational and literary text
  • Knowledge in the disciplines
  • Staircase of complexity
  • Text-based answers
  • Writing from sources
  • Academic vocabulary


  • Focus
  • Coherence
  • Fluency
  • Deep understanding
  • Application
  • Dual Intensity

In general, teachers must shift the burden of deep thinking and analysis firmly to their students. The standards push students to glean content and understanding from rigorous texts and complex problem-solving. Some teachers feel this limits their role in the classroom, or that they can no longer support students in the ways they know work best. Finding a balance between increased academic rigor and effective pedagogy is the goal of Common Core implementation. In some states, that is proving elusive.

Growing pains: argument and implementation

Thirty-nine states adopted the standards during the same year they were finalized and released. Six more joined in 2012. Once states officially adopt the standards, they must create an implementation process that includes training teachers and administrators and shifting materials and tests to align with the new standards. Several states began implementation in the 2012-2013 school year, but 2013-2014 has seen the most states attempt full implementation.

In early 2014, the New York State United Teachers’ Board of Directors withdrew its support for the Common Core given the challenges of successful implementation teachers are facing. Several other states have experienced similar difficulties — Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania are opting to delay implementation until more resources are devoted to effectively training teachers for such a massive shift, and Indiana pulled in late March 2014. In response to the New York union’s withdrawal of support, the National Education Association reiterated its commitment to the Common Core but called for a “course correction” as a result of “botched” implementation attempts.

Identifying the root of the Common Core controversy

The heart of the Common Core debate reveals significant rifts in American educational policy. Proponents of the new standards argue that successful implementation will be a move toward a more educated population better prepared for college success and the modern workplace. They cite evidence to support the shifts in teaching philosophy and rigor required of teachers, and call the standards a way to close the achievement gap between the United States and other top-performing nations.

Opponents worry about the lack of resources available for local teachers and administrators, and argue that educators know best when it comes to reaching their students. While Common Core is not a federal program, opponents are also concerned about the incentives that federal grant-making programs, like Race to the Top, offer states that adopt and implement Common Core. Opponents view the standards as a kind of de facto federal legislation that echoes the high-stakes testing focus of the federal No Child Left Behind program.

Implications on students in private schools and homeschool settings

Some Common Core opponents also fear the influence of the standards on homeschool settings and private schools. They argue that homeschooled students may face standardized tests aligned with the Common Core to complete college applications, and so even families who do not choose the new standards will still have to contend with them. In early 2014, the College Board announced a Common Core-aligned redesign of the SAT. Because the standards were designed with college readiness in mind, other standardized assessments such as the ACT, PSAT, GED and Iowa Test of Basic Skills will also shift in the coming years to reflect an increased standard of rigor that all students, homeschooled or otherwise, must meet.

Private schools are under no obligation to implement Common Core, even if the public schools of their states choose to do so. Some opponents fear that private schools will be obliged to implement Common Core so they can receive federal Race to the Top grants, which encourage a range of innovative educational practices, including more rigorous teacher evaluation and increased access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coursework. The funding is not solely tied to implementation of Common Core, but it strongly supports the idea behind the standards.

The long game

The difficult reality for proponents and opponents of Common Core is that a large shift in educational policy puts so many variables in play. States implementing Common Core must set clear benchmarks to measure their success and shortcomings while working to minimize the stress for students and teachers coping with a new approach to education and testing. It’s roughly the equivalent of changing the rules of baseball while the players are still on the field.

In December 2013, the Program for International Student Assessment released its educational rankings for 65 countries worldwide. While the debate about Common Core rages on, American students continue to slide behind their global peers, with average to below-average scores in every major subject area.

It’s clear we’ve reached a turning point in American education where educators, leaders, parents and thinkers must come together to produce significant improvements in student achievement. Common Core represents educational experimentation on a tremendous scale, and the difficulties in making it work are real. The alternative — the status quo — is equally daunting.

No matter which side of the debate you stand on, it’s inarguable that our country, our states and our schools have little time to lose in figuring out a framework that provides a better future for our students.

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