RENEE CUNNINGHAM: What is Common Core?

CJ-0813-COL-Cunnigham-MUGThis is the first in a series of columns explaining Mississippi’s shift in public school education practices

The “Common Core” has been a highlight in the news, the halls of government and the newsfeed on Facebook with growing frequency as the school year it is to be implemented draws near.

Rumors abound about these standards being a governmental conspiracy and bloggers have nicknamed them “the devil’s spawn.” However, much of these accusations have come from outside of the education community, where little is understood about the technical workings of today’s classrooms.

As a professor in Ole Miss’s School of Education, and a former state level curriculum specialist at the time of the development of the Common Core State Standards, I may be able to offer some insight into the issues.

Let’s start with some definitions.

Standards” consist of a list of information, skills, or concepts (a.k.a. ideas) that students are to have mastered by the end of the school year for any given grade. Standards do not tell how a teacher is to communicate these ideas, skills or information, which is what a “curriculum” does.

Curriculum” is the set of lessons that, hopefully, presents the information, skills and concepts in a logical order, and providing time for students to practice the skills and master the content.

State level education offices, the Mississippi Department of Education here in Mississippi, does not provide curriculum, they provide teachers with standards.

Textbook publishers can provide curriculum, although most teachers these days work with other teachers in the school to develop curriculum themselves (which is what “planning time” is for- no longer is planning time used for a quick smoke and gossip in the teacher’s lounge). Curriculum is where the assignments for homework are designed, books for students to read are chosen and themes are developed that tie concepts together.

Standards have been a part of education for decades. Providing teachers with what students are to learn has been the primary role of government in education. Even so, these have been exercised at the state level only. The federal government has left what to teach up to the states.

The federal government has little to say about what happens in the state’s classrooms, until the state takes federal education dollars. It is then that a state does something that the federal government wants it to do. For example, the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation threatened to withdraw millions in federal education money if states did not participate in the testing structure we currently adhere to in schools today.

So, each state has been writing standards for teachers in their state to teach for the better part of a century. Through the 1980s, the standards consisted of long lists of fairly disjointed facts or skills. When I started teaching in 1988, I was shown the notebook (after significant amounts of dust had been scraped off) of the 4th grade standards. The math included 52 separate things I was supposed to teach. Fifty-two standards, 180 days of school- No Problem, right? The problem comes in implementation because lots of the items take longer than one day to teach for children to fully understand and be able to use effectively. The education world started screaming for change.

Our standards are a mile wide and an inch deep” was the battle cry. The complaint about the standards was true; we taught a little bit about a lot of stuff and nothing in depth. So, national teacher organizations, led by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), created recommended lists of standards for states to use as they created their own standards. These standards were built on the research supported and/or acknowledged by the group. For the first time, standards weren’t just a list someone in some office decided would be appropriate for each grade level. The idea of 52 disjointed standards is no longer deemed appropriate. Today, standards have to be based on the current available research for each content area.

The development of the Common Core State Standards is an interesting story, which will benefit anyone interested in having a substantial discussion about the value of the standards. “Tune in for the next installment.”


Dr. Renee Cunningham, Ed.D, is Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Mississippi. She earned her Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


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