Here Come the Common Core Standards

In Chuck Pack’s Geometry class, students learn how many rubber bands will provide the maximum amount of bungee jumping thrill for a Barbie doll, determining how far they can drop her from the ceiling to the floor before she makes impact.

“They’re collecting data, they’re using data to make predictions, they’re graphing their results, and they’re learning about slope and linear relationships,” says Pack, who teaches in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. “But the best part is that they persevere in this problem solving assignment. They don’t give up, because they really want to see if and how it will work.”

The Barbie Doll problem is a “Common Core Standard” in action. In fact, “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them” is the first of the new Common Core math standards.

What Is the Common Core?

Released in 2010, the Common Core is a set of curriculum standards, covering English, language arts and mathematics, based on what all American students need to know before entering college or the workplace. Fifteen school districts nationwide are preparing to launch a test of new standards as early as this fall. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia will fully implement the standards for the 2014-15 school year.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) led the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The groups worked with representatives from participating states, a wide range of educators – including Chuck Pack – content experts, researchers, national organizations, and community groups. The Common Core standards are also informed by the standards of other high performing nations, including Finland.

Their purpose is to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, no matter where they live, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.

They’re also designed to be much more rigorous than current standards and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that young people need for success in college and careers.

“Rather than reading drills, we’ll ask students to apply reading skills in a broader, ‘real world’ context,” explains says Barbara Kapinus, National Education Association Senior Policy Analyst, who facilitated NEA teacher member input and feedback for the development of the new standards. “Instead of asking kids to stand in one spot and throw basketballs into a hoop over and over again, we’re getting them to play as a team and score points in a real game, using not only their shooting or layup skills, but dribbling, passing, and all of the other skills necessary to play the sport well.”

So gone are the days of summary book reports – students will have to analyze the story rather than rehash the plot  – and no more teaching kindergartners only to memorize the hands on the clock to tell time.. Now they’ll learn numeracy – the relationships between the numbers, so they’re prepared to learn more complex relationships with higher numbers in first and second grade and beyond.

Real World Learning

Ricardo Rincon also helped develop and review the Common Core standards. Rincon is an elementary school teacher at Monte Vista Elementary in New Mexico, a school with a high population of English language learners (ELL).

“It was important to work and collaborate with other teachers on the standards because our knowledge and experiences with ELLs is different,” Rincon says. “As individuals, we can only contribute based on what we independently know, and our recommendations may only be meaningful to the students in the state we serve. As a team, our collective knowledge and experiences created a foundation for recommendations that could apply nationwide.”

Rincon was most impressed by how the standards got young students to begin developing skills they will continue to use well beyond high school.

“Knowledge-based responses will no longer be enough,” he says. “Students will have to move beyond understanding a concept – they’ll have to make it meaningful in their lives.”

Students will work in teams when learning concepts, Rincon says, and as part of the new standards, they will have to evaluate areas of strength and areas in need of improvement in their own work, and in that of the other teams. Evaluation and offering meaningful feedback is a skill many adults are still grappling with – the new standards will ask elementary school students to master it by the time they enter middle school.

In Oklahoma, and in most states around the country, educators and reformers alike have long complained that math standards are a mile wide and an inch deep. Chuck Pack was eager to take part in developing a new set of standards that are more in-depth and more rigorous.

“I currently teach 12 chapters in one year of Geometry,” he says. “In the Common Core, I’ll have six units that cover concepts more comprehensively.”

Like Rincon, Pack is impressed by the “real world” skills so many of the standards require, such as the standard that asks students to not only make sense of problems, but to persevere in solving them.

When some of his students see that a problem will take them more than a few minutes, Pack says they’ll cave. They’d rather lose a point than persevere. He often teases them that a single problem on one of his quizzes could easily take up an entire piece of paper.

“That’s reality. If your boss gives you a task to complete, I guarantee it’s not going to fit on one line,” he says. “So to make them work ready, we need to build into our practice as educators a way to give them rich problems that force them to persevere – problems that are so interesting they really want to solve them.”

Like bungee jumping Barbies, for example.

But Pack realizes it will be a slow, difficult process before he’s transitioned to the Common Core. While some states expect to have them in place by 2014, Pack says his district is introducing them gradually, one or two standards at a time.

“You can’t just flip the switch to the new standards,” Pack says. “The most challenging part, getting started, will begin this summer.”

Visit nea.org/commoncore for more resources on the Common Core Standards.