Common Core implementation: Let’s not lose the forest for the trees

If you’re to believe the rhetoric around Common Core, these new college- and career-ready standards are poised to usher in major education changes—changes that will help better prepare American students for the rigors of university coursework and the workplace.

On the other hand, if you’re to read individual states’ own descriptions of the differences between the Common Core and existing ELA and math standards, the changes seem far less dramatic.

Since they have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), nearly every state has undertaken some kind of review that compared existing ELA and math standards to the CCSS. And, almost without exception, these comparisons found near-perfect alignment between the CCSS and state ELA and math standards.

A Tennessee’s curriculum and assessment “crosswalk,” for example, found that “97 percent of the CCSS ELA standards have a match in Tennessee’s ELA standards, with 90 percent being rated an excellent or good match.” On the math side, Tennessee found that there are “no grade-level difference[s] in Kindergarten and only a 1 percent difference in 1st grade…” Similar comparisons by state departments of education around the country have found similar levels of alignment. (This despite the fact that our own analysis of state ELA and math standards found significant differences between a majority of state standards and the CCSS.)

There are several problems with these crosswalks and their findings.

For starters, these crosswalk comparisons too often lose the forest for the trees, focusing on narrow and sometimes insignificant differences between state and Common Core standards, rather than working to identify major differences in prioritization and focus. As one example, a Crosswalk done by the Oregon State Department of Education compared the following second grade standards:

Common Core Oregon Standard
Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

EL.02.LI.05 Make and confirm predictions about what will happen next.

EL.02.LI.06 Describe cause-and-effect of specific events.

EL.02.LI.06 Describe cause-and-effect of specific events.

EL.02.SL.07 Ask for clarification and explanation of stories and ideas.

The summary analysis found that

  • Oregon's call for predictions and cause/effect only.
  • CCSS calls for students to focus on key details.

Nowhere in this overly simplistic analysis does the state even mention the focus in the CCSS on engaging in close reading of grade appropriate texts. And yet, the importance of ensuring that all students engage in reading sufficiently rigorous texts is at the heart of the Common Core standards—and represents a significant shift for classrooms across the country.

What’s more, the Beaver State analysis glosses over the most significant difference between the CCSS and the Oregon standards. Namely, that the Common Core rather deliberately focuses on using details drawn from the text itself to support student understanding, rather than on using reading skills and strategies as a way to improve reading comprehension. Yes, they mention using details in passing, but there is no discussion of what this means or how it differs from the current standards.

And therein lies the second problem. States are using these crosswalk exercises as way of identifying the areas where they should focus teacher professional development. And yet, these crosswalk exercises seem focused on finding similarities between the standards, rather than on understanding the most significant big picture differences. And so, if the crosswalks fail to focus attention on the most fundamental differences between the state standards and the Common Core, it is unlikely that teachers will receive the training they need to make the instructional changes the Common Core State Standards demand.

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