Info 101 – Common Core State Standards and the Race to the Top

After taking more than a year to develop and built on a foundation of previously established college and career-readiness standards, the Common Core State Standards have now been released.

You should know that…

• The Standards were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association-along with input from numerous teachers, parents, school administrators, civil rights and business leaders-and are designed to replace the various uncoordinated ones currently defined by the states.

• Only Texas and Alaska did not participate.

• The Standards address English language arts (ELA), literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects, and mathematics, K-12.

• All are “1) research and evidence-based; 2) aligned with college and work expectations; 3) rigorous; and 4) internationally benchmarked.”

• The states are allowed to add up to 15% of their own standards to fill in any gaps.

If adopted nationwide, as hoped, every state-thus every district-will essentially be following the same curricular guidelines, thus enabling a child to transition smoothly from, for instance, a school in Oklahoma City to one in Philadelphia, without losing any ground or repeating much material.

Meanwhile, state applications are now being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education for the second round of the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant competition. In the first round, Pennsylvania came in seventh; only Tennessee and Delaware won that time. This time around, 35 states and the District of Columbia are trying again.

Initially, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made adopting the national standards an RTTT application requirement, but organizations such as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development were wary of such a mandate. As a result, adoption now earns a state extra points on its application.

Competing this second round suggests that these 36 applicants will likely adopt the Standards.

And it behooves all of us to read all of the Standards, which represent “what students should understand and be able to do by the end of each grade.”

You’ll find, for instance, that instead of a list of required readings, the English Language Arts Standards includes an appendix with suggestions for appropriate texts at each grade level. The exception: high school juniors and seniors must study the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and one Shakespearean play.

Meanwhile, you’d also discover, for instance, that third graders would be able to describe the characters of a story, sixth graders could compare and contrast various texts, while 11th graders would demonstrate a knowledge of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century foundational works in American literature.

And when it comes to writing, the standards indicate, for example, that a 5th grader would successfully write well-supported opinion pieces, while an 8th grader would be able to write arguments based on relevant evidence, and seniors would be able to convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly.

The Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies and Science/Technical Standards include:

• Identifying aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point or view and purpose.

• Analyzing an author’s purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, defining the question the author seeks to address.

Meanwhile, the Mathematics Standards include, for instance, the expectation that first graders could solve word problems that call for addition of three whole numbers whose sum is less than or equal to 20, while 5th graders could handle fractions with unlike denominators, 8th graders could use rational approximations of irrational numbers, and high schoolers could apply the Remainder Theorem.

Of course, adoption would force states to amend their standardized tests and curricula to mesh with the Standards. Is it worth it?

Founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. says, “This is a welcome acknowledgement that only a cumulative, grade-by-grade curriculum, focused on coherent content, can lead to the high level of literacy which the nation needs. In short, the Common Core Standards represent a fundamental and long overdue rethinking of the dominant process-approach to U.S. literacy instruction.”

Meanwhile, former Los Angeles Unified School District teacher and lecturer at the UCLA Graduate School, Walt Gardner is now an education contributor to major newspapers and magazines. He writes that “National standards are not a panacea for the ills afflicting public education, but they are a step in the right direction. There are always risks involved in an undertaking of this magnitude. On balance, however, I think they are worth taking.”

The bottom line: these Standards, developed, as they were, by experts, will provide teachers with flexible guidelines they can follow as they develop lesson plans that will meet the needs and interests of their students.

And that’s a plus, any way you look at it.

Natasha M. McKnight

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