Common Core

The phase in of the Common Core State Standards is almost complete across New Jersey. Be sure you understand how these standards are different from our previous ones and what needs to happen to ensure their successful implementation.

by Amy Fratz, NJEA staff

Why the emphasis on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts and mathematics? What is so special about them? After all, we have had standards in New Jersey since 1996 and many veteran teachers have been through numerous revisions to the soon-to-be-defunct Common Core Curriculum Standards.

Despite the adoption and revision of state standards, instruction varied greatly from district to district and even from school to school. Why this disparity? Because the previous standards did little to identify what matters or provide coherence and clarity. They did not provide reference points for teachers and students. And because of these shortcomings, the old standards failed to establish a common language for professional learning communities (PLCs).

The Common Core addresses these deficiencies because of the manner in which the standards were constructed. The teachers, parents, administrators, researchers and content experts who created the new standards started at the end. In other words, the CCSS identified what students needed to know, and be able to do, to be college- and career-ready, and then worked backwards through each grade. This resulted in a progression of standards that illustrate the integral role each grade level plays in preparing students for college and careers.

The CCSS were developed through a state-led initiative and were built on the positive features of previous states’ standards, evidence from international comparisons, and national reports and recommendations.

Achieving college and career readiness

Being college and career ready means that a student graduating from high school has the English and mathematics knowledge and skills necessary to be eligible for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses without having to be enrolled in remedial coursework. This will allow him/her to participate in a postsecondary education or training experience, including study at two- and four-year institutions, leading to a postsecondary credential including a certificate, license, associate degree, and/or bachelor’s degree.

The promise of the CCSS to prepare all students for the future that awaits them after graduation is both energizing and demanding. Implementing the CCSS requires that everyone—from classroom educators and instructional coaches, to principals, to central office staff, to parents—supports student mastery of these new expectations. However, it is important to note that the standards alone will not increase student achievement. When the implementation of the standards is aligned with district policies, educator training, resources, materials, and tools-- and educators are given time to adjust their practice to the new standards--students will benefit.

This may be difficult, but the CCSS should not be viewed as one more thing educators have to do. The successful adherence to and implementation of the CCSS will have a significant positive impact on our students.

Common Core implementation and shifts in instructional practice

Moving from the previous state standards to the CCSS requires fundamental shifts in the way teachers teach, the way students learn and are assessed, and the way leaders lead. Every educator working to meet the CCSS’s demanding requirements—and the assessments that will measure them—will recognize that they have to apply significantly different educational strategies and resources. Most notably, effective implementation of the standards demands an increased emphasis on differentiated instruction. 

It may be tempting to peruse the new standards simply looking for the “new” skills that need to be taught. Instead, educators need to take the time to delve deeply into the standards to determine how they will change their strategies, especially with regard to the higher-order knowledge and skills and writing components of the standards.

The CCSS encourage educators to think across grades levels. This helps teachers understand not only what students must know and be able to do in their current grade, but to also see how students’ acquisition of mathematics and literacy skills has progressed through previous years of schooling, and what they still need to learn.

Both the English-language arts (ELA) and mathematics standards demonstrate coherent progressions through the grade levels. These progressions allow teachers to understand how the standards taught in their grade level relate to the standards in other grades. If the CCSS are well implemented, teachers will be able to recognize how their daily lessons and unit plans foster college and career readiness. In addition, the vertical and horizontal alignment and progression of the standards provide a basis for educators to engage in further regular professional conversations with colleagues.

It is important to note that the Common Core State Standards are not a curriculum. They are statements of the knowledge and skills that students need to master to be prepared for college and/or the workforce. The curricula developed by educators based on the standards will guide teachers to assist students to acquire and master those skills. Teachers will use the standards-based curricula to develop instructional strategies and techniques centered on the individual needs and learning styles of their students.

As the standards are put into practice, it is important to understand the major instructional shifts that exemplify the key areas of focus for teachers and administrators. These shifts should guide all aspects of the implementation process including student learning, professional development, assessment design (both summative and formative), and curriculum development.  

The English-language arts/literacy standards

ELA/Literacy standards require that students read and comprehend appropriately complex literary and informational text independently. There is also an emphasis on students reading increasingly more informational and nonfiction texts at every grade level. Traditional reading instruction has relied more on literary and fictional text with only about 10 percent of classroom time being spent on reading informational text. However, by sixth grade, most students engage in reading informational texts such as science, social studies, and math texts.

It only stands to reason that we need to increase students’ exposure to informational texts and the accompanying reading and writing requirements at every grade level. The ELA/Literacy standards include expectations in reading, writing, speaking, and listening that emphasize the students’ ability to read complex texts and cite evidence in their writing and speaking, rather than relying on narrative writing based on their opinion and experience. In addition to reading more complex texts, there is also a push for students to be exposed to and understand more academic vocabulary.

The ELA/literacy standards for grades 6-12 also include literacy requirements beyond the English-language arts classroom that include expectations in reading, writing, speaking, and listening across content areas in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. These content area literacy standards are intended to supplement the content standards, not supplant them. If all of our students are going to be ready for college and career at the end of high school, it is not sufficient to address literacy skills only in language arts class. We must also take into consideration the texts in other content areas where students must apply these important skills. The inclusion of the literacy standards for other content areas should raise the awareness of a shared responsibility for all of our students’ literacy development. 

Highlights of the ELA/literacy standards in other subjects

  • Offer a greater focus on text complexity. The texts students read need to be of sufficient complexity and rigor to prepare them for the literacy demands of college and the workforce. The complexity of what students read is as important as how well they read it.
  • Share the responsibility for a student’s literacy development via a focus on informational text and, in grades 6-12, include literacy standards for history/social studies, science, and technical subject area teachers for them to address content literacy in their disciplines.
  • Focus on writing logical arguments based on claims, reasoning, and textual evidence. The writing skills include argument, information/explanation, and narrative with a greater focus on citing evidence from texts.
  • Integrate research and media skills. Students need to be able to research information and also be consumers and producers of media.
  • Include the acquisition of knowledge in literature and content subjects through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Common Core

Common Core shifts for ELA/literacy (from achievethecore.org)

  • 1. Building knowledge through content rich non-fiction plays an essential role in literacy and in the CCSS. In K-5, fulfilling the standards requires a 50-50 balance between informational and literary reading. Informational reading primarily includes content rich non-fiction in history/social studies, science and the arts; the K-5 standards strongly recommend that students build coherent general knowledge both within each year and across years. In grades 6-12, ELA classes place a much greater emphasis on a specific category of informational text -- literary nonfiction-- than in the past. In grades 6-12, the standards for literacy in history/social studies, science and technical subjects ensure that students can independently build knowledge in these disciplines through their own reading and writing.
  • To be clear, the standards continue to require substantial attention to literature throughout K-12, as half of the required work in K-5 and the core of the work of 6-12 ELA teachers. 

    2. Reading, writing and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational—the standards place a premium on students writing to sources, i.e., using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking questions that students can answer solely from their prior knowledge or experience, the CCSS expect students to answer questions that depend on their having read the text or texts with care.  The standards also require the cultivation of narrative writing throughout the grades, and in later grades, a command of sequence and detail will be essential for effective argumentative and informational writing.  

    Likewise, the reading standards focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information, arguments, ideas and details based on text evidence.  Students should be able to answer a range of text-dependent questions in which the answers require inferences based on careful attention to the text.

    3. Regular practice with complex text and its academic language--rather than focusing solely on the skills of reading and writing, the standards highlight the growing complexity of the texts students must read to be ready for the demands of college and careers.  The standards build a staircase of text complexity so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school.

    Closely related to text complexity—and inextricably connected to reading comprehension—is a focus on academic vocabulary: words that appear in a variety of content areas (such as ignite and commit, for example).  

    The mathematics standards

    Common CoreThe mathematics standards require a much greater focus by teachers and a deeper knowledge by students than our previous state standards. Students must calculate accurately, understand mathematics concepts beyond “getting the answer,” and choose among mathematical concepts to solve real-world problems.

    Mathematics education in the United States has covered a small amount of a lot of topics/concepts at each grade level. Many diverse topics, such as Numbers and Operations, Measurement and Geometry, Algebra and Functions, and Statistics and Probability, have been taught in first grade and continued to be taught in subsequent grades.

    Each year, teachers in every grade level have covered the same topics over again without having the opportunity to delve deeply into any one of them. This has created math instruction that many refer to as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”  Think of the diverse topics as long shopping aisles in the supermarket where teachers end up having to put something from every aisle into the curriculum basket at every grade level.

    Conversely, top‐performing countries in mathematics (such as Singapore, Finland, and China) show a much different picture of mathematical instruction when the math skills and concepts were mapped by topic placement in grade levels. Instead of focusing on the same topics year after year in the early grades, only a few topics are introduced and studied in depth.

    The mathematics standards have fewer topics at each grade level with an increased emphasis on greater depth of study with coherent progressions between topics. At the elementary grades, the standards concentrate on the development of foundational mathematical concepts, with a focus on the deep understanding of numbers, operations, and algebraic thinking.  As students progress through the grades, the topics become more complex, building on the foundation of understanding from their earlier years.

    The math standards include both content and process standards. The content standards include the mathematical knowledge and skills students need to learn. The process standards identify the mathematical ways of thinking students need to develop while learning the mathematics content and are described as eight Common Core Mathematical Practices. The link between the content standards and the Mathematical Practices is essential. Teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators must have a firm knowledge of these practices as they describe the expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students.

    The standards mandate that eight principles of mathematical practices be taught:

    1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
    2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
    3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
    4. Model with mathematics.
    5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
    6. Attend to precision.
    7. Look for and make use of structure.
    8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

    Implementation of the mathematics standards should not be viewed as “new names for old ways of teaching math.” Taking the time to align the CCSS to the previous standards in order to figure out where various topics have moved is not a quality use of professional time. Effective implementation of the CCSS is more than moving topics around. It requires an understanding of the three core shifts.

    Highlights of the CCSS in mathematics

    The mathematics standards:

    • Include a focused and coherent set of standards that provide students the opportunity to achieve proficiency in key topics that are introduced in early grades and built upon in successive years. By focusing on central concepts necessary for the study of more advanced mathematics in later years, students gain greater depth of understanding.
    • Focus on arithmetic and fluency with whole numbers at early grades by providing students with time to master topics by developing procedural fluency as well as conceptual understanding. Students who achieve fluency with essential math facts involving whole numbers will be better able to focus on more complex skills and algorithm.
    • Include fluency with fractions and decimals.  Mastery of conceptual and procedural knowledge about fractions is essential to success in algebra. Developing an understanding of fractions as numbers and representing fractions on a number line diagram begins in grade three. Skills and concepts of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions continue through grade five. Extended work with fractions and the concepts of rational numbers and proportional relationships continue through grade seven.
    • Stress algebra readiness by grade 8.
    • Include real-world applications using modeling. Students apply the mathematics they have learned to solve problems that arise in everyday life, society, and the workplace throughout all grade levels. The “Standards for Mathematical Practice” emphasize this skill and provide specific suggestions for modeling real-world situations using mathematics.

    Common Core shifts for mathematics (from achievethecore.org)

    Common Core1. Focus strongly where the standards focus--rather than racing to cover topics in today’s mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, teachers use the power of the eraser and significantly narrow and deepen the way time and energy is spent in the math classroom. Educators should focus deeply on the major work of each grade (see sidebar below) so that students can gain strong foundations: solid conceptual understanding, a high degree of procedural skill and fluency, and the ability to apply the math they know to solve problems inside and outside the math classroom.

    2. Coherence: think across grades, and link to major topics within grades--the standards are designed around coherent progressions from grade to grade. Principals and teachers carefully connect the learning across grades so that students can build new understanding onto foundations built in previous years. Teachers can begin to count on deep conceptual understanding of core content and build on it. Each standard is not a new event, but an extension of previous learning. 

    Instead of allowing additional or supporting topics to detract from the focus of the grade, these topics can serve the grade level focus. For example, instead of data displays as an end in themselves, they support grade-level word problems.

    3. Rigor: in major topics, pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and application with equal intensity--the standards call for conceptual understanding of key concepts, such as place value and ratios. Teachers support students’ ability to access concepts from a number of perspectives so that students are able to see math as more than a set of mnemonics or discrete procedures. 

    The standards also call for speed and accuracy in calculation. Teachers structure class time and/or homework time for students to practice core functions such as single-digit multiplication so that students have access to more complex concepts and procedures.

    Finally, the standards call for students to use math flexibly for applications. Teachers provide opportunities for students to apply math in context. Educators in content areas outside of math, particularly science, ensure that students are using math to make meaning of and access content.

    >> Resources for the Common Core