Understanding the Common Core:
A Primer for Parents

by Denise Schipani

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Flickr CC

Say the words “Common Core” in my house, and you get moans and groans from the two tween boys dragging home backpacks full of homework. I’d wager that happens all around the country, and that the moans aren’t just coming from the kids. But what’s behind it? It’s true the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) — new benchmarks for education that have been put in place in forty-five states in recent years — have ignited a storm of controversy, but they also live under a possibly unfair cloud of confusion. There’s certainly confusion from many parents about what the standards actually are.

Putting the pros and cons aside, here’s a look at the basics of the Common Core. The better parents understand the benchmarks, the easier it’ll be to help our kids meet them. Here’s what you need to know:

English Language Arts (ELA) Standards:
In a nutshell, Common Core’s ELA standards focus less on the basic skills of reading and writing (though of course that’s there), and more on exposing students to increasingly complex pieces of writing. It aims to help children read deeply and critically, and to be able not just to comprehend what they’ve read, but to back up what they understand, using evidence pulled directly from the texts. You might also notice that your kids are reading more nonfiction selections than in the past, and certainly more than you might remember reading.

  • In grades K-5: Your kids will be reading a half-and-half mix of informational texts and good old stories. The informational stuff includes things like history and social studies, science, and the arts. (For example, your fourth-grader might come home with an essay about a painter, a re-telling of a Greek myth, or the story of Paul Revere.) Writing assignments will be less of the “what I did on summer vacation” variety, and more focused on how to plot out a well-reasoned and backed-up argument.
  • In grades 6-12: The balance shifts even more toward literary nonfiction (though again, what’s read is still up to the teachers and/or whomever develops the district’s curriculum). You’ll notice that there’s more reading across all academic subjects, including science and history/social studies.


Math Standards:
When it comes to math, the idea is to move away from covering a little bit of a large number of topics, and toward covering fewer topics, but diving more deeply into them. Math is no longer a list of separate skills to be mastered; there is a lot of emphasis on how math is one coherent body of knowledge. It’s all connected! Ideally, your child should learn math in a more seamless, less disconnected way, and be able to continually build on the foundations as he goes through school.

  • In grades K-5: Your child will learn the basics (addition and subtraction in early years, followed by multiplication and division, and moving from whole numbers to fractions). But she won’t just be learning the concepts on their own; there’s a greater emphasis on problem solving and explaining how she got the answers she did.
  • In grades 6-12: Using the concepts, skills, and problem-solving abilities learned earlier, your older kids will now expand into algebra, ratios, and proportional relationships. High school math will look different than what you might remember, integrating what used to be discrete subjects (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.) into all four years. There’s also a new emphasis on statistics and probability, and learning the all-important language of technology.


Where to learn more about the Common Core:

  • Core Standards explains the reasoning behind the Common Core standards, includes the standards themselves (which you can read), and breaks info down by state.
  • The National PTA has a number of excellent parent resources on their site.