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Common Core Standards will level the playing field

Standards-based education grew out of two major concerns in the 1980s: that U.S. students be able to compete in a global economy and that we close the intolerable achievement gap between minority and non-minority students. The newest iteration of education standards is known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Here’s an overview of what they are, what they are intended to accomplish and what they might mean for you.

What are Common Core standards? Were teachers included in their development?
Over the past few years, Common Core standards in English language arts and mathematics have been developed to bring clarity, consistency and, above all, equity to public education. The development of the standards was a state effort led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

AFT teacher members nationwide have worked both individually and collectively to apply their judgment and real-world classroom experience to writing the standards. Key influences from AFT teachers can be found in the grade-by-grade progressions in language arts, standards for literacy in history and science, and the development of narrative writing in high school.

The adoption of standards is a state-by-state decision. So far, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them and will roll them out over the next few years.

What’s wrong with my state’s current standards?
States have been developing standards for more than a decade, but the result is 51 benchmarks of varying content and quality. As AFT president Randi Weingarten puts it: ”Imagine the outrage if, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers had to move the ball the full 10 yards for a first down during the Super Bowl while the Arizona Cardinals had to go only seven. Imagine if this scenario were sanctioned by the National Football League. Such a system would be unfair and preposterous. But there is little outrage over the uneven patchwork of academic standards for students in our 50 states and the District of Columbia.”

Abundant evidence suggests that a common set of standards leads to higher achievement among more students. In fact, countries that consistently outperform the United States on international assessments have one set of standards.

What is different or unique about Common Core?
Generally, it has fewer standards at each grade level, allowing for more focused, deeper levels of understanding. These standards also set higher expectations for students than most previous ones. Finally, the standards were designed to help students become ready for college and careers.

Specifically, the new standards for English language arts call for students to read and respond to more informational texts, or nonfiction. The standards give equal weight to fiction and nonfiction, a sharp departure from current practice, in which literature dominates. Shifting that balance will give students more opportunities to build vocabulary and content knowledge, to become better at reading the informational text of our print and digital worlds, and to meet the demands of college and careers, where information rules.

What do these new standards mean for teaching?
These shifts do have implications for teaching. All educators will need to allow more instructional time for informational texts. Many students will need explicit instruction on how to read nonfiction—how its structure, vocabulary and other characteristics differ from narrative fiction, as well as what reading strategies work best with informational writing. Students may struggle with the more complex, unfamiliar content and text density of nonfiction—in effect, learning to read while reading to learn. Schools and teachers will probably have to expand their libraries to include more nonfiction.

To plan how you can maximize students’ ability to read for information, visit www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/spring2003/duke.cfm, www.reading.org, www.AdLit.org or 
www.readingrockets.org.

For details on the math standards, check out this terrific resource: http://commoncoretools.wordpress.com. The K-8 math standards were organized around the concept of progressions, which relate to how student thinking about a topic develops. Standards writers have posted explanations and examples of the math progressions, with each progression document including a cross-grade listing of all standards in that progression.

Standards for Mathematical Practice, or how students are expected to know math, are integral at every level. There are links here to other sites, such as the “Illustrative Mathematics Project,” that will help anyone developing curricula or assessments.

My state standards were pretty good, but the implementation went bad. How will the new standards be different?
The standards movement of the 1990s tanked because of too much testing, the narrower curriculum that resulted and a lack of essential supports. For Common Core to work, these trends must be reversed.

The AFT’s ad hoc committee on standards rollout makes 38 recommendations for an action plan leading to a comprehensive system. This advice addresses the design of the standards, as well as how to conduct the rollout in a way that will stick, including professional development for all staff, appropriate teaching tools and enough time to get the job done.

To find out more about the Common Core State Standards, go to www.commoncore.org. View the AFT committee’s recommendations on the standards at http://go.aft.org/standardsresolution.