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Common questions on Common Core: About the new school standards

Apple-Common-Core-Part-1This year, in a major shift in public education, states across the nation have been implementing a new set of standards known as the Common Core. Common Core appears as a subject in national and local news media and is a constant subject of debate, particularly in conservative circles.

Despite all this attention, Common Core still remains a confusing topic for many people. In this three-part series MarylandReporter.com answers some basic questions about Common Core. The first part will focus on the Common Core itself and how it was developed, while parts 2 and 3 will look at the standards, how they are working in Maryland and what they will cost. Click here to see Common questions on Common Core Part 2: New requirements and tests in MD

The series was edited by associate editor Meg Tully and Part 1 was written by Margaret Sessa-Hawkins from MarylandReporter.com.

1. What is Common Core? Why was it developed?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are “a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA)”. These standards lay out a set of academic benchmarks that establish what every public school student in the United States should have learned by the end of each grade. Whether students have reached these benchmarks is measured by standardized tests.

Common Core was developed based on the premise that the United States was falling behind its international peers academically and that, to compete, the nation should develop a uniform set of academic standards. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state established its own standards for what students would learn. The CCSS expands on this by creating a set of uniform standards states can choose to adopt.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the most recent authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has been in place since 1965. Because ESEA was not rewritten by Congress as scheduled in 2007, NCLB remains in effect even as the Common Core State Standards are being adopted.

To continue receiving federal funding through No Child Left Behind, states had to ensure that 100 percent of their students had achieved proficiency in statewide assessments by 2014.

To date, no state has been able to meet this requirement. However, as of 2011, states have been able to apply for NCLB waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, which allow them to delay the year by which they must meet NCLB standards.

One requirement for receiving a waiver is that states adopt a set of common national standards. Another is that they implement a teacher evaluation program that uses student performance on standardized tests as a factor in evaluations.

2. Who developed Common Core? How much input did states, educators and parents have in this development?

Common Core was created by a coalition of groups; the three most prominent are the National Governors Association for Best Practices (NGA Center), a research and development organization specializing in public policy concerns facing the nations’ governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a nonprofit group made up of top state education officials; and Achieve, a nonprofit group which advocates for “college and career ready” standards in education. The actual architect of the majority of the standards is widely acknowledged to be David Coleman, who has since become head of the College Board.

Since the federal government is prohibited from funding any national educational curriculum, the initiative was supported by several charitable foundations. By far the largest donor has been the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which reported giving out roughly $200 million worth of grants associated with Common Core. Other organizations that substantially financed the initiative were the Carnegie Foundation ($47 million), the Helmsley Trust ($20 million) and the Hewlett Foundation ($15 million).

One of the main controversies associated with Common Core has been whether or not teachers were involved in its development. The CCSS website claims teachers played a “critical role” in the development process. Opposition groups have staunchly maintained teachers were barely involved.

While teachers were technically involved in the CCSS development process, the portion they were actually involved in was the review process. The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, said they provided “dozens” of teachers who were part of the review process. Although they do not list numbers, the National Education Association, another national union, also says they sent teachers to be part of review workgroups.

Additionally, there were two public comment periods in which the NGA and CCSSO say they received more than 10,000 comments on the standards. Ultimately the decision of whether or not to listen to or adopt suggestions made in both the CCSS review process and the public commentary period lay with the developers themselves. Thus, it’s not surprising that many feel teachers were not well represented in the process.

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