Common state standards in math and English — a step forward?

By now, all but five states (Alaska, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Virginia) have adopted what’s known as Common Core State Standards for math and English, a common agreement of what students in the United States should know and be able to do in those subjects.

A Learning Matters blog post features differing views of what this major development might mean for the U.S. educational system — and whether the current system (each state having its own separate set of standards) really does lack focus. I thought you might find it interesting, and I’m curious to know what you’ve heard about this initiative and what questions you have about how it will work, in practice.

You can find a national PTA guide on the standards here, in English and Spanish. The website explains that each state is developing its own timeline for putting them into place. It might be years away in California, according to this FAQ published last year by the state Department of Education.

You know a topic is controversial when the proponents’ website includes a “Myths vs. Facts” section. The Common Core supporters emphasize that matters of curriculum and teaching materials will be left up to states and districts and say that “…since this work began, there has been an explicit agreement that no state would lower its standards.”

Last week, I talked to Harold Asturias from UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science about the new math standards. He said that new, online assessments being developed by the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, with federal funding, would place a much greater emphasis (as much as 60 percent) on reasoning and complex problem-solving in the upper grades. The current math exams, by contrast, consist of multiple choice questions.

Do you think the initiative will further the goal of preparing students for college and/or the workforce? What will it take for it to work?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Jim Mordecai

    I think common core standards is driven by the multi-billion dollar testing industry and the proponents of more tests to measure and label poor students and those who teach them.

    It is the latest education Trojan horse of the 1%. Core standard leading to core testing being the national curriculum.

    Can’t wait for Big Brother’s national test question on Occupy Wall Street and reading the multiple choice correct answer.

    Jim Mordecai

  • http://www.grumpythings.blogspot.com Sandra

    Do you think the initiative will further the goal of preparing students for college and/or the workforce?

    NO – test-centric environments of learning has over a decade of poor outcomes, more of the same will equal more of the same.

    What will it take for it to work?
    Get corporate interests out of the education policy-making would be a start.

  • Alan

    Or how about getting rid of unions ane entitlements as well? Oakland is pathetic.

  • On the Fence

    Financial gain, rather than educational gain, is the first thing that came to my mind, as well. Would new standards equal new text books, too?

  • Steven Weinberg

    One of the strongest forces driving the push for these new standards are companies interested in profiting from on-line learning. They want to be able to develop soft-ware they can sell throughout the country. The problem is that they will favor standards (and methods of testing those standards) that lend themselves to on-line instruction, which are often not the type of learning needed for success in life.

    As I said in my post, No Voice for Teachers, January, 2010, http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/2010/01/13/no-voice-for-teachers/: “only one teacher sits on the panel of 80 producing the national standards for high school graduation. The other positions are held by college professors, business leaders, and — most unfortunately — the companies that stand to profit by writing tests for the standards.”

  • J.R.

    I am against common core standards because constitutionally responsibility for education is left to each individual state. Obsession with testing mania is counter productive. Children need to learn how to find the answers, and to think critically about the material(context relationships and so forth), not just the answers alone. It has always been about the money, no matter who is doing the salivating(corporations,unions or government bureaucracies). We as a nation have had the problem of too many of our kids being ill educated, functionally illiterate and dropouts for decades and only in the last decade and a half has anyone done any serious attempt at intervention.

  • Gordon Danning

    I confess that I do not understand what the new standards have to so with the “testing industry” or “testing mania” or anything else that people have posted about. I suppose that if every state has the same standards, it is easier and cheaper for testing companies to write tests. However:

    1. The mere fact that event X is good for testing companies, or “corporate interests,” or whatever, is not evidence that it is bad for students, or for the public interest. Many things are good for both corporations AND the public interest, and many are bad for both.

    2. IMHO, education standards are good if they promote critical thinking, etc, as opposed to mere rote memorization. Katy’s original post quotes someone from UC Berkeley saying that the math standards do just that, at least in upper grades. That’s a good thing.

    3. Adopting standards means nothing if teachers and schools do not teach to them. For example, California has excellent social studies analysis standards (see eg page 40 here: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/histsocscistnd.pdf), but, based on my discussions with colleagues, I would bet that most social studies teachers are not aware that they exist.

    4. As to whether it is a good thing that all states adopt common standards, well, maybe. Having common standards (and, yes, common tests) does allow states to compare themselves with other states, in order to determine how effective their education system is. That is probably a good thing, overall, but only in the very long run.

    PS to JR: Didn’t each state voluntarily decide to adopt the common core standards? How is that decision any less an exercise of a state’s constitutional responsibility for education than a decision to the contrary?

  • ImaTeacher

    I’m a long-time OUSD teacher who was on the Core Literacy Task Force last year and we did take a pretty close look at the Common Core Standards. One feature of the CCS that I really like, as a teacher of both social science and English is the emphasis on developing literacy and writing skills across the curriculum. When I was on the World History and U.S. Document-Based Question Assessment Committee for several years, our rubric for scoring these assessments gave very little weight (comparatively speaking) to grammar, usage, spelling, and other writing conventions. Consequently, teaching effective writing has been almost exclusively to English teachers. (This may also explain why so many of my colleagues, and,in fact, my principal, have atrocious writing skills. Reading some of their emails, handouts and other materials makes me cringe)

    The questions raised in the above posting are good ones. In partial response to number 4, I actually believe that having common standards in all states may (maybe) raise the level of standards, although I could see it going the other way. But it doesn’t make sense that what a high school diploma represents (or should represent) should be different in Louisiana, for example, than in New York, or any other two states.

  • J.R.

    Simply put, politicians are the ones who are driving this forward without any thought whether these standards can or will be implemented in every classroom(if they cannot, they are not going to do much good). As of right now with standards as they are, only some educators follow state standards, and or pacing guides for that matter. Some teachers leave out quite a bit of material(although post-NCLB teachers 10 years or less rarely deviate much from curriculum standards they are too scared of non re-election). Some deviation from standards is necessary and good(many kids learn differently), but far too many teachers deviate far too much and leave out or skip crucial concepts all for the sake of time. Parents who are attentive can tell whether or not their kids have progressed throughout the year or not, or were simply given easy busy-work just to pass the time. There is no mechanism in place for accountability of standards or rigor which leads to capable citizens.

  • J.R.

    A sizeable number if not clear majority of people in the USA for the last three to four decades have been left functionally illiterate, with poor writing and or math skills by a education system(with exceptions of course) that has given lip service to it’s primary mission “to educate our children well”. Well, at least they are comfortable in retirement.

  • Gordon Danning


    Your perspective re: writing is interesting; as a social studies teacher, I (and many colleagues with whom I have spoken re: this topic) feel that it is social studies teachers who have carried the burden of teaching effective writing, because English teachers seem to spend all their time teaching grammar, etc, and little to no time teaching students to draw inferences from facts in order to create persuasive arguments, which I see as the key to effective writing.

    This is actually a key failing of the District — never getting English and social studies teachers together to discuss expectations re: writing.

    PS: One reason that the social studies district writing assessment looks at things other than grammar, spelling, etc, is that the assessment was originally conceived as a counterpart to standardized tests that already test those skills.

  • Makeitgoaway

    Cut the bull. I am a long time AP teacher (not in Oakland). The College Board publishes course goals which are national standards. We backward plan to reach them. I do not teach to the test, but I certainly prepare activities to engender high- level thinking skills necessary for success in an AP course with multiple ways to grade my students. Each summer I get a breakdown of my test scores, and I can compare them to the national average. That shows whether I am being effective, and allows me to fine tune if necessary. if I cannot do my job, I should not be teaching Advanced Placement. We have the same challenges as most teachers in diverse California high schools, because we have open enrollment policies at my school, and allow specially abled students to take our classes too with learning modifications. the only difference is that we have higher standards, and the administrator can instantly see if we can do our job.

    This is about being professional. Every teacher should have to answer to national standards. Currently they do not. The College Board is a huge organization which makes big bucks off of tests and testing and is about to spread to China. But experienced teachers write and vett the questions and essay prompts.

    By the way, cheating scandals like what happened at Skyline last year do happen in other parts of the world. At the College Board convention in SF this summer, we were told that in Korea, a student cut through a door and eventually a ceiling to steal the AP exams.

  • Livegreen

    So what’s the answer to a lack of standards, esp. when it comes to admission to University? The SATs and other competing national testing companies. Not like the involvement of the testing industry was eliminated, just transferred.

    Let’s face it: we don’t want standards because we’re too afraid of the results they might show (as international testing in subjects like math and geography regularly shows, based, I assume, on some international standards that representatives of numerous other countries, I assume, were somehow able to agree to.

    Must have been the U.N. Obviously another left wing or right wing plot…

  • Livegreen

    Makingitgoaway, Thanks for your elaboation about the College Boards. My statement from outside of the academic field is overidden by your more in depth info. Obviously we need a way to also evaluat students not going on to college & not taking AP classes.

    If problems exist with how the standards are formulated or politics gtg intothemix, then corrections need to b made. But that doesn’t mean we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. eg. have 50 different standards for evaluating our students.

    Gee, nobody will figure out how to make money off of that, will they?

  • ImaTeacher

    Gordon, do you really believe that English teachers do not teach writing and only teach grammar? Of course, we teach writing; many different types of expository writing, including persuasive or argumentative essays, including citing evidence. What history teachers focus on that overlaps but may be somewhat outside the English teacher’s domain would be historical thinking and historical analysis.

    BTW, I have found the level of my writing of many of my colleagues, including history teachers, to be pretty dismal, which casts doubt on their ability to actually teach writing. I’m not saying that they might be critical thinkers, but they are not good at translating that into effective writing, although I believe that clear writing is a result of clear thinking, so there is a bit of a conundrum there.

    As far as teaching grammar; yes, high school English teachers teach grammar because we HAVE TO, just like high school math teachers sometimes have to teach basic arithmetic. I don’t particularly relish teaching grammar, and I always teach it in context, in terms of how to clarify what students are attempting to communicate by improving the grammar and syntax. However, mostly what I teach, in terms of writing, is writing a thesis statement, and supporting it with meaningful evidence that leads to a conclusion.

    I do it in my history classes, too, but that is because if a high school students can’t write very well in their English classes, then they are not going to be able to write any better in their history classes.

    In general, though, then, you would support the Common Core Standards, because, at least in part, it supports the teaching of writing (as well as reading) across the curriculum.

    I wonder how many people who are writing to criticize have actually looked at Common Core Standards. I’m guessing not many. And *that* conclusion is definitely based on historical thinking!

  • J.R.

    I am not being critical of the standards themselves, I only question the proposed implementation os such standards. In short I believe this is all for show, and it won’t make much difference unless done correctly and fully.Few states are setting the bar high enough where state standards are concerned.


  • J.R.

    This district has a long history of not getting the job done educationally, but it does provide taxpayer subsidized jobs.


  • Gordon Danning


    I just know that many of the history teachers whom I respect have expressed frustration regarding the skills that English teachers tend to emphasize.

    But your overall point is valid — when has the District ever used professional development time to work on the teaching of writing? How many sites do so? When have we even had a discussion or tried to reach agreement on what constitutes good writing.

    Heck, we dont even have an agreement on what a thesis is, let alone how to help kids write a decent one.

  • ImaTeacher


    I’ve been to PD many times over the years that focused on the teaching of writing, but it has been for English teachers, so you are right in that teachers in other content areas may not have been exposed to the same training.

    I think, though, as pretty much any teacher can attest, kids’ failure to be able to do something does not always mean it wasn’t taught, or it wasn’t taught well. I think I’m a great writing teacher, and I have seen kids’ writing improve, but when kids are starting at “far below basic,” an improvement might only take them part of the way to “proficient.”

    Although since you teach AP classes, one would hope that kids in those classes would not be entering your class at the FBB level to begin with. But that’s what I’m faced with; and it doesn’t mean I’m not teaching good writing skills or many types of writing. It doesn’t even mean I’m only teaching grammar. It just means that I have to start where the students are, and when they’re years behind grade level when they enter high school, getting them to even a modest level of proficiency is really an achievement.

  • Gordon Danning


    Some of my AP kids have pretty low English skills, since they tend to be non-native speakers of English. But I don’t know how many actually test at FBB

  • Lisa

    YAWN………. union bashing…….. The fact is Oakland teachers are represented by Oakland Education Association….that has helped to keep teachers salaries at as the lowest of all Bay Area teachers. You should be thanking them.
    As for the Common Core….the standards are supposed to keep our students competitive with the nation….but making new standards and devising subjective ways of assessing these standards will not make our children understand and perform better. The only ones who benefit are the publishers of these tests, to the tune of Billions of dollars….more parasites in the public school system.

  • ImaTeacher


    Maybe we can agree that teaching anything, including writing, is an art, not a science. And unlike some content areas, there is, as you note, not even necessarily agreement on what effective writing might be. Having participated in many scoring sessions, in both English and history, I have seen countless times that there is often disagreement on what score an essay should get. I think it would be excellent for the district to convene more English/ Social Studies PD (to say nothing of more English/ Math, English/ Science and maybe English/ electives of various kinds.)

    At any rate, I do not know which implementation policy JR is referring to; I doubt he knows himself. The district has been slow to move on this, to be honest. My principal mentioned the CCS back at our first meeting around August 23 or thereabouts and we haven’t heard about it since. Unless it’s the lack of implementation that he refers to. But I will say I have taken a fairly close look at the Common Core Standards, and I haven’t seen anything to object to in terms of the objectives set forth.

    (Lisa: OUSD teachers are NOT the lowest paid in the Bay Area; you might want to do some additional research for ALL SEVENTEEN of the districts just in Alameda County; and then check out Contra Costa, San Francisco and some of the others. Nope, not the lowest paid. Which is not to say that we’re not in the bottom percentiles. However, as far as the OEA…well, I have friends who have been on the bargaining team, and quite honestly, the district is ruthless. And we are currently working under an imposed contract. Now, as to why this has been allowed to continue for nearly two years… that’s another question beyond the scope of this particular blog posting, which started out and should return to the Common Core Standards…)

  • Makeitgoaway

    I support Gordon and disagree with Imateacher…

    I take exception to your statement, “Kids’ failure to do something doesn’t mean it wasn’t taught.”. Teaching something means nothing unless the kids improved in a measurable way. I hear all the time that English teachers “taught” students how to write a thesis paragraph, topic sentences, MLA style, and how to support their arguments, but I see little evidence of it in my class. Thus, I must engage in the laborious task of making sure they know it. That is quite different. I think high school English teachers are tasked with reading and interpreting novels, end up assigning silent reading because students will not do the work at home, or have to spend class time reading the books in class to make it accessible, and thus have much less time to teach writing than they had before. As a result of the failure of students to read the material, the type of writing assigned in most English classes does not adequately prepare students for college, but instead consists of short reflective pieces, posters, and group work, with reading and vocabulary quizzes, showing the “movie” in class, coupled with teacher led discussions- all of which allow students to be passive. This is why you teach something but it isn’t “learned.”.

    Please don’t take this as an insult. Unless you have a systemic approach across multiple grade levels in which writing is taught step by step, with department members and middle schools all on the same page, it takes an exemplary teacher to overcome years of repetitive failure and student passivity.

    I also believe classifications such as FBB based on CST scores simply reflect lack of interest. Review the type of questions a student has to miss to be classified as FBB, BB, and Basic. Unless the high school student cannot read at 4th grade level, is ELD, or developmentally disabled, they are not FBB. Compare to the DMV test. If a student can learn how to pass a driving test, then he’s not FBB, nor is he unteachable. It is a question of motivation.

  • ImaTeacher


    I think a lot (most) English teachers in the district would be surprised to hear your interpretation of what is taught in English classes. I can assure you that teaching writing is a significant component of our instruction; in fact, it has to be. Of course, we teach reading, as well. Not necessarily in the way you have described it; which assumes a lot about a lot of teachers. In fact, we (most of us) do have a systematic approach.

    Now, as to why students haven’t learned something that has been explicitly taught, this is obviously the $64,000 question. Maybe you have some incredibly effective method I haven’t heard of; in which case, you should offer your services to the district so all of us can be better writing teachers. But I have taught every genre of writing, from compare/contrast, problem/solution, persuasive/argumentative, informative/report all the way to the research paper, as well as reflection, short story, poetry, yes, and grammar, too, in context, as noted elsewhere. I have used many strategies, have gone over writing in individual conferences, small groups, and whole class. I’ve shown examples of good, mediocre and bad writing, and analyzed it with students. We’ve used all kinds of pre-writing, peer-editing, and multiple drafts. I’ve used every type of methodology that is out there (at least those that I am aware of).

    Kids may not learn for many reasons. Maybe the teacher really isn’t teaching something, but in my experience, I absolutely am teaching it. Many kids do learn it, but, many don’t. Where does the problem start? Is it the “fault” of the middle school teachers? The elementary school teachers? Lack of pre-school? Learning disabilities? Unstable home life? Lack of society value on academic skills? Not making it fun enough? Unwillingness to try anythng that isn’t sugar-coated? All of the above?

    Teaching is a difficult job. We don’t always see the fruits of our labors. We have heteregenously grouped classes with 32 kids, who may or may not be native speakers of English, and even if they are, they may still lack sufficient linguistic skill to be effective writers. I try to help students improve their skills; but it is a still a tough job, and success is not always that evident. OUSD is a particularly challenging place to teach.

    But we’re all hanging in there, trying to do a good job. You should visit the classroom of an English teacher while s/he is teaching expository writing so you know first-hand what really happens. It might not be what you think.

  • Gordon Danning

    Imateacher and Makeitgoaway:

    I don’t think that the three of us are disagreeing all that much. For the record, the frustrations I have heard re: English teachers seem to be aimed more at more “old school” teachers; younger English teachers, at OHigh anyhow, seem to have kids do more analytical writing.

    Yet, there is still a failure to coordinate, both between English and Social Studies teachers at the high school level, and between teachers at middle school and high school. I have many times advised a student to X, only to have him or her say, “My English teacher says to do Y.” Getting contradictory instruction is almost worse than getting no instruction at all.

    Now, last year at OHigh, we began a process of coordinating between English and Social Studies, but I do not know how far that process has continued this year, because I am on leave of absence. But it really should be done at the District level. Moreover, teachers of all subjects should be involved, not just English and Social Studies.

  • Makeitgoaway

    Totally agree Gordon. There is little coordination between English and Social Studies, which even seems to be resented?!

    But I know what I see, and what I see is English teachers reading to the class, silent reading, vocabulary tests, showing the movie in class, and short quick writing pieces which allow the students to be passive and do not enhance college skills? this is why kids do not retain skills. Kids know it too, and the smarter kids always comment how they were not prepared by their regular English teacher for college like the kids in AP. Check out the numbers of kids who graduate from high school but then must take the remedial English classes. The numbers are astronomical. And this Is at a school higher up on the rating scale than OUSD high schools. I am glad to hear that Imateacher does not do these things but I bet she knows teachers who do.