How Does the Common Core Affect the Classroom?

No matter which side you’re on in this hot button issue, find out how the Common Core changes the way students learn these subjects.

The news is currently exploding with Common Core stories.

State governments, school districts, and citizens from the forty-three states that have adopted Common Core education standards are currently locked in disagreements about everything from whether Common Core is a government overreach, to whether the standards go far enough to effectively bring American students up to comparable educational levels with the rest of the world.

But how does Common Core actually affect classroom learning?

Here’s a basic breakdown of how the two sets of standards — English language arts (ELA) and math — are set to change classroom learning when they’re implemented by most states during the coming school year.

English Language Arts

What’s Required?

Here’s the thing about the Common Core reading lists you may or may not have heard about: they don’t exist. It’s true that Common Core has assembled an extensive list of “exemplars,” or sample texts to illustrate what types of writing children should be able to comprehend at different grade levels, but the vast majority of lesson plans and texts are still left to the discretion of districts, principals, and individual teachers.

So what is on the exemplar list?

Largely the stuff you’ve come to know as, well, standard. For elementary school, selections include E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Frances E. Ruffin’s non-fiction work “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington.” Middle school exemplars include the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!,” the Louisa May Alcott novel “Little Women,” and John Adams’ “Letter on Thomas Jefferson.” For high school, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and Thomas Paine’s historical pamphlet “Common Sense” are mentioned.

And what’s actually required? Pretty much nothing, when it comes to individual texts. The only texts specifically mentioned in the ELA standards are the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Apart from those, there are only loose guidelines, like “include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist” and teach “foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.”

This isn’t to say that teaching to Common Core standards won’t fundamentally change ELA learning in America, but it may illustrate just how many of the specific text choices will still be made by school districts, principals, and teachers. This is also not to say that leaving the standards open to interpretation will bring a sigh of relief to all educators — indeed, some teachers, administrators, and school districts have criticized them for being too vague.

How Will the Learning Process Be Different?

Reading through the ELA standards reveals some trends. One of the more controversial aspects of Common Core is the expectation that by senior year, 70 percent of all ELA reading materials are non-fiction. Some educators have criticized this standard as undervaluing the importance of fiction as a jumping off point for analyses and opinion. There’s also a shift towards analysis and away from creative writing and personal narratives; according to the standards, by senior year, 80 percent of writing assignments should require students to “explain” or “persuade,” while only 20 percent should require students to “convey experience.”

You might have noticed that some of the examples above, like the “Declaration of Independence” and John Adams’ “Letter on Thomas Jefferson,” seem more fit for social studies class than English, but this is part of Common Core’s push towards the critical analysis of informational texts. Essentially, in history class you might be expected to have a surface-level, multiple-choice understanding of the “Declaration of Independence,” but under Common Core, students would use English classes to analyze the rhetorical effectiveness of the documents.

Common Core ELA standards emphasize making students critical consumers and savvy users of new media. For example, one grade 8 standard requires students to “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing.” Another standard intended to foster critical thinking requires students from grades 11 and 12 to “analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem evaluating how each version interprets the source text.”

How drastically Common Core departs from what students are already learning will obviously vary quite a bit from district to district. It should also be noted that Common Core-adopting states can create up to 15 percent of their own standards. So, for example, while Common Core doesn’t require teaching cursive writing, a state can choose to add cursive writing to its curriculum.


What’s Required?

While the ELA Core standards may be getting more media attention, it’s pretty easy to make the argument that the math standards will create a more fundamental shift in the American classroom. As with the ELA Common Core standards, math standards will look pretty familiar to anyone who’s been through grades K-12. Kindergarten through second grade focuses on addition and subtraction. Third grade through fifth grade standards are focused on multiplication, division, and fractions. Middle school focuses on ratios and algebra.

However, the math standards are intended to sidestep traditional American math education (which the Common Core State Standards Initiative website calls “a mile-wide” but an “inch-deep”) by zeroing in on and deepening understanding of the important concepts, rather than giving a wide range of topics superficial treatments.

Kindergarteners, for example, will no longer have to learn about repeating number patterns. Instead, they’ll be focusing on meaning behind the numbers, like connecting the dots between what the letter “5” looks like on paper, how “five” sounds, and what five objects look like in front of you. This approach is borrowed from countries around the world where students are scoring much higher in math than they are in the United States.

How Will The Learning Process Be Different?

The point that’s most consistently drilled on the Math Standards section of the Common Core website is the importance of focusing on “interconnected concepts” and not one-off lessons and “tricks.” With that in mind, the Common Core standards encourage moving away from traditional American high school math classes (Algebra one year, and then Geometry the next, for example) and towards the integrated model that’s used most widely around the world (a sequence with classes called “Math 1,” “Math 2,” and so on, each of them using math concepts across the board). While adopting an integrated math program isn’t mandatory under Common Core, many districts have decided it works better with the standards.

Common Core also aims to make the learning process more about concepts and less about memorization. Take the following question: “What are two different equations with the same solution as 3(y-1) = 8?” which replaces the more traditional algebra questions “If 3(y-1) = 8, then what is y?” The new problem is meant to require more reasoning and be less mechanical.

Moving to make classroom math more about critical thinking and less about memorization may seem like an easy move in the right direction, but the approach has provoked the ire of some educators and parents for making simple problems unnecessarily difficult.

Take, for example, a Common Core-influenced problem reported on by The New York Times that read “There are 6 cars in the parking lot. What is the total number of wheels in the parking lot.” The student was supposed to construct an equation (6 x 4) and then solve the problem. Instead, the worksheet shows a student's drawing of six cars, each with four wheels, and counted to solve.

At their best, advocates say, these problems will give students a more thorough understanding of mathematical concepts and place them in the real world. At their worst, critics say, they’ll unnecessarily complicate straightforward learning, and alienate students who prefer numbers to words.

Further Reading and Resources


"Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks." Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014. Common Core Standards Initiatives

Bloom, M. (2013, February 15). How the Common Core Will Change High School Math Classes. Ohio RSS. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from State Impact

Chang, K. (2013, September 2). With Common Core, Fewer Topics but Covered More Rigorously. The New York Times. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from The New York Times

"English Language Arts Standards." Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014. Common Core Standards Initiatives

"Frequently Asked Questions." Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014. Common Core Standards Initiatives

Garland, S. (2014, February 25). The Common Core Math Standards: Content and Controversy. US News. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from US News

Gewertz, C. (2012, March 12). Districts Gear Up for Shift to Informational Texts. Education Week. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from Education Week

"Key Shifts in English Language Arts." Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014. Common Core Standards Initiatives

"Key Shifts in Mathematics." Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014. Common Core Standards Initiatives

"Mathematics Standards." Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d. Web. 30 July 2014. Common Core Standards Initiatives

Old Standards v. Common Core: A Side-by-Side Comparison of Math Expectations. (n.d.). Foundation for Excellence in Education. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from Excellence in Education

Rich, M. (2014, June 29). Math Under Common Core Has Even Parents Stumbling. The New York Times. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from The New York Times

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