What is Common Core?

What is Common Core? This question is on the minds of millions of Americans right now, and unfortunately, reliable answers are hard to come by. However, once you cut through the clutter, the truth about the Common Core Standards is easy to understand.

The Common Core Standards: Just the Facts

There are 4 things you should know to answer the question “what is the Common Core?”:

It’s all about developing skills

What is Common Core? The Common Core Standards outline the skills that students should learn—for example, how to multiply fractions or identify the themes of a novel. The Standards are not curriculum; they don’t tell educators how to teach fractions, or which novels kids need to read in order to identify theme.

The Standards build on each other

What is Common Core? In the same way a piano student must first learn basic notes and scales before he can hope to play Mozart, the Common Core Standards outline fundamental skills that build on one another year by year and eventually guide students to master advanced skills.
To do this, the Common Core gets students started learning basic, building-block proficiencies. In kindergarten, for example, students are presented with “reading literature” standards like the one you see below:

Kindergarten Standard: With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.

This standard continues into the 1st grade and 2nd grade, and beyond, adjusting and adding skills year by year. By the 3rd grade, the standard grows to include more advanced skills, requiring students to continue telling stories and recounting details—things they learned in kindergarten—but also identifying the author’s message, intent, and point of view:

3rd Grade Standard: Retell stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.

This pattern of building on basic skills to develop more advanced skills continues in the Common Core Standards year after year, all the way to graduation. By the 9th grade, this key standard has transformed to become a college and career anchor standard that aligns with the foundational skills that students learned all the way back in kindergarten remain:

9th Grade Standard: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

So, when you ask, “what is Common Core?” you need to know that the standards build on one another until they culminate in the student who, by the 12th grade, has mastered the analytical, critical thinking, and problem solving skills to be fully prepared for success in college and a career.

The Common Core Standards are the same everywhere—more or less

That’s why they’re called the “Common” Core, as in created and shared in common. Every state that’s adopted the Standards (45 states, four territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity) will be teaching students from the same bank of 21st century skills. That way, students receive the same high quality of education no matter where they live, with the same robust goals so they can contribute to the workforce and global society.

However, that doesn’t mean all students are going to learn the same things. First, because the Common Core comes with an 85/15 clause, which allows adopting states to add 15% of their own, uniquely relevant standards to the Common Core and still remain Common Core compliant.

Second, because the Standards are not the same thing as curriculum. There are as many ways to teach reading and math skills as there are students in a class. With the Common Core, students will be taught the same skills, but they will learn those skills in thousands of different ways and from thousands of different local curricula, following whatever the local school system deems is best to meet their individual needs.

College and career readiness is the goal

What is Common Core? When the leaders and educators who designed the Common Core first gathered to collaborate around these standards, they started with a question: “What does a student need to know to be ready to succeed in college or a career upon high school graduation?” They answered this question by defining the skills that a college-and career-ready student would possess. For example, to be ready for college and a career, a high school graduate should know how analyze the structure of a text, write a function that describes the relationship between two quantities, or create a new solution to a real-world problem.

Once the authors determined the critical skills for college and career readiness, they backward mapped those skills from 12th grade to kindergarten. So, when a kindergarten student under the Common Core Standards begins her journey, that skill is the first in a long series of steps that are mapped out, each building upon the other grade by grade, until she graduates from high school prepared for success—and for a powerful and meaningful life beyond school.