Common Core Standards Explained

kids in a classroom, common core standards
Common Core is a set of standards that describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject in each grade. (Image credit: Oksana Kuzmina | Shutterstock)

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a coordinated effort to prepare every child in the U.S. public school system for college or the workforce by ensuring that they reach certain expectations in English language arts and mathematics and can apply the attained skills to the real world. The standards describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject in each grade. They are designed to be academically rigorous, while attainable for students and practical for teachers to teach. So far, 45 of the 50 states have adopted Common Core standards for their public schools.

Origins in NCLB

The push for better teachers and education began with President George W. Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. No Child Left Behind required schools to test every student in grades 3-8 each year, with penalties and sanctions levied against schools with poor performance. In 2009, President Barack Obama took this a step further with the Race to the Top campaign, which gave monetary incentives to states committed to the improvement of education.

Standards-based education is designed to raise student performance across the country. The standards were developed by the states; the federal government was not involved in the development of the standards. The effort was spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, in conjunction with organizations such as Achieve, ACT and the College Board. These organizations used research and evidence benchmarked at the international level to create the standards.

Standards for each grade

The standards for Common Core are specifically spelled out at each grade. For English and language arts, the standards are based on a staircase of increasing complexity where students must be able to read at specific levels at specific grades. Reading comprehension is emphasized through classic and contemporary literature. Critical content for all students must be read, including classic myths and international stories, foundational U.S. documents, American literature and Shakespeare.

Writing skills are also emphasized, especially the ability to write logical arguments based on reasoning and evidence. Opinion writing is expected even in the earliest grades. As students develop their writing through the early grades, research skills are also developed, from short-form writing to longer form research pieces. The Common Core curriculum also focuses on speaking and listening skills, language abilities and an understanding of media and technology.

Math standards for K-5 are based on a solid foundation of whole numbers, including arithmetic. The idea is to help students eventually be able to apply these concepts to more demanding math and applications. Common Core also provides teachers with detailed guidance on how to teach some difficult math concepts, such as fractions, negative numbers and geometry. Emphasis is placed on the students' conceptual understanding to ensure that they'll be able to apply the critical information to higher levels. In the past, students would learn enough to get by on their tests, only to forget what they learned shortly thereafter.

In middle school, students learn geometry, algebra and statistics in order to prepare for high-school-level math. High-school math is entrenched in the practice of applying math to real-world issues and challenges, or teaching students how to think and reason in a mathematical way. High-school math standards are designed to prepare students for college and future careers in the real world, with an emphasis on mathematical modeling.


Common Core is not without its share of controversy, so much so that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, while a supporter of the standards, dubbed the name "toxic." Many states are rebranding the programs, rather than keeping the Common Core name, to avoid the wrath of the press and parents who associate Common Core with negative connotations.

So why the controversy? Despite bipartisan support, opponents say that the standards amount to a federal takeover of local education. Others criticize the emphasis on testing, while academics criticize the standards as weak, and others criticize them as too demanding.

Some critics point out that not all children want to go to college, and would like vocational classes to be considered sufficient for science and math course. They point out that the manufacturing industry is in need of skilled workers like pipefitters and welders, and these are not students who need to go to a four-year college. Many of these critics support legislation that would allow students to earn a high school diploma without taking Algebra II and without passing state exams.

Supporters have argued that though not every child needs a four-year degree, college-level skills will help children succeed at whatever path they take. Blue-collar workers still need strong academic skills to make sure that they don't get stuck at low-wage entry-level jobs, they say.

Despite the controversy, Common Core is designed to help students achieve a better education in the United States. Implementation will take place at the state level, so timelines will vary based on geographic location.

Further reading:

Common Core State Standards Initiative: official website

Council of Chief State School Officers Race to the Top

Live Science Contributor