The Common Core Curriculum: How does it add up?

Andy PorterIn 2010, governors and state school officials released the Common Core State Standards – a set of benchmarked recommendations meant to provide “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” 

Advocates of the Common Core point out that the curriculum in the U.S. is a hodgepodge in which each state sets its own curriculum guidelines.  They argue that this not only compromises our global competitiveness but it means that some kids are locked out of schooling that gives them the best possible life chances simply because of where they live. Even with a good many detractors, most of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, have adopted the Common Core in mathematics and English language arts (ELAR). 

But what does adopting the new standards mean for the states? If it’s true that current state standards are all over the map, what will the impact be – on students and parents, on teachers and schools – when states, districts, schools and classrooms make the move to a new curricular standard? 

Dean Andy Porter has begun to tease out some of the answers to those questions. Working with data compiled by the Council of Chief State School Officers, he and a team of Penn GSE doctoral students compared the Common Core curriculum with current state standards and assessments. What they found is that states need to be preparing for some big changes: in  both math and ELAR, alignment between state standards and the Common Core was only low to moderate. 

Concerned that their initial finding might have been a reflection of grade-to-grade differences between the two standards (e.g. if the Common Core calls for students to learn the Pythagorean theorem in the eighth grade, but your state teaches it a year later), the team took a deeper look. The team aggregated data across grades, but even after doing so, the differences remain considerable. 

The researchers found clues about where standards differed by looking at the expectations for student thinking – “cognitive demand” – that were embedded in them. In general, the Common Core tended to stress higher-order skills, most dramatically when it came to ELAR. For example, the Common Core placed far more emphasis on developing students’ analytical skills (approximately 30 percent of the standards) than did the states (less than 20 percent). State standards were weighted toward more basic skills, like performing procedures (following instructions, giving examples) and generating (organizing and expressing ideas). 

For the states, considerable discrepancies between their own standards and the Common Core mean that serious adjustments will be needed in what they expect teachers to teach – as well as how they assess what students are learning. “Adoption of the Common Core standards will represent considerable change, especially at grade levels,” says Porter. 

Of course, the change that’s coming could amount to little more than new window dressing on the same old house – will a move to the Common Core be a change for the better? “From our results,” Porter responds, “the answer is yes,” particularly for those advocating greater emphasis on higher-order skills. Those hoping for a more tightly focused curriculum may be a bit disappointed: by that measure, the Common Core is only slightly more focused in math and not at all in ELAR. 

Porter’s final note is cautionary. As a last step in their investigation, his team benchmarked the Common Core against international standards, and what they found will be surprising to many. The Common Core’s shift in emphasis to higher-level thinking skills is not consistent with curricular standards in countries that currently outshine the U.S. in international assessments – places like Finland, Japan, and Singapore don’t put nearly as much emphasis on higher-order skills as does the Common Core. 

They just want their kids to do the math. 

For more, read Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum, by Andy Porter, Jennifer McMaken, Jun Hwang, and Rui Yang, in the April issue of Educational Researcher.