Questions and answers about Common Core

From staff reportsJune 4, 2014 

Legislative action follows months of debate across the nation about Common Core, some of it based on misinformation. Here are answers to frequently asked questions:

Q. What exactly is Common Core?

A. A set of common standards for K-12 education aimed at providing a consistent and rigorous road map for what students should learn in math and English language arts from kindergarten through high school. Proponents say the goal is to be able to compare performance from state to state and to ratchet up the difficulty level so that U.S. students can compete better globally.

Q. What does that mean in the classroom?

A. In mathematics, teachers focus on fewer, more fundamental areas instead of on covering a laundry list of techniques. Students are expected to master key concepts and operations and to understand how to apply them in real-life situations. In language arts, half of reading should be nonfiction and informational texts in elementary school. Nonfiction will grow to a 70 percent share by 12th grade. Literacy should be developed in other disciplines such as history, science and social studies. Students should also show mastery of several types of writing – argument, explanation and narrative.

Q. Is this a federal takeover of the education curriculum?

A. No. The federal government did not write the standards, nor does it mandate that states adopt them. Common Core actually was spearheaded by a bipartisan, state-led effort by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant competition did spur many states to reform curriculum and embrace Common Core. “It’s totally false that the Common Core is a product of the federal government or President Obama,” North Carolina Superintendent June Atkinson told The News & Observer last year.

Q. Then why are some conservatives opposed to it?

A. In the past year, Common Core has become a target of tea party groups and conservative talk show hosts such as Glenn Beck. He has focused on what he calls “scary” and “insidious” data collection of scores and other information from children. “They now have control of your children,” he warned his radio listeners. Others, such as GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, call Common Core an overreach by federal education officials.

Q. Does everyone on the left like it?

A. Not necessarily. Some are wary of school reforms that focus on standardization. Others worry about the corporate interests, such as Bill Gates, who played a part in creating Common Core.

Q. Are all Republicans opposed to Common Core?

A. Again, not necessarily. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in particular, has staunchly defended Common Core. So has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Q. Does Common Core mean students have to take even more tests?

A. No, Common Core has not led to more tests. For decades, North Carolina has implemented state and national tests, regardless of the standards. Critics, however, argue that Common Core places too much of an emphasis on testing.

Q. How many states are using Common Core?

A. Forty-four, plus the District of Columbia signed on. But Indiana has now opted out, and the governors of Wisconsin and Louisiana are considering ways around it.

Q. What about North Carolina?

A. It was one of the first states to sign on to Common Core, and it won a $400 million Race to the Top grant in 2010. That was used in part to train teachers for the new standards.

Q. So teachers had special training?

A. Yes, teachers attended summer training sessions leading up to the introduction of the standards last school year.

Q. When did it actually show up in North Carolina classrooms?

A. Fall 2012, so we’re now at the end of the second full school year.

Q. Do teachers have flexibility in how they teach under Common Core?

A. Though opponents argue that the standards homogenize education in a way that limits the flexibility and creativity of teachers, supporters say Common Core is not a curriculum. The curriculum springs out of the standards, but teachers still decide how to teach their students.

Q. Why does the math seem so different under Common Core?

A. Because it is. The math standards move away from rote memorization and push students to think about why a particular answer is right. They also encourage students to pursue multiple approaches when figuring out a math problem. Some parents worry that the math standards leave out major topics in trigonometry and pre-calculus. Supporters argue that students will still learn algebra, geometry and advanced math, but that it’s built on progressions.

Q. I heard Common Core requires children to read books that are inappropriate for them. Is that true?

A. No. The only reading Common Core requires is the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Some confusion comes from an appendix to the standards that includes dozens of titles meant to serve as suggestions for teachers looking for age-appropriate reading material. Those titles include books that some parents say are inappropriate and “pornographic.” But again, they’re not required.

Q. Common Core doesn’t seem to have been properly tested before it started.

A. It’s true that the standards were not broadly field-tested before implementation, prompting many critics to call it a “flawed experiment.” Supporters of Common Core say that the standards are founded on data that identifies college and career-ready performance. They also say Common Core was drawn from the evidence and work of high-performing states and nations. The standards have been implemented in North Carolina for two years and have received mixed feedback from education experts and teachers.

Includes reporting from Reema Khrais, a Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting at WUNC. Parts of this were first reported on WUNC, North Carolina public radio ( http://wunc.org/post/fact-check-clearing-7-common-core-claims ). Other sources are previous stories from The News & Observer, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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