Clearing up Common Core confusion

The conservative sweep in the recent elections has a lot of people talking about what it means for Common Core, but while many are talking about the fate of the standards, I don’t think there’s enough talk about what the standards actually are.

The biggest sticking point seems to be confusion over one major misconception. The Common Core State Standards are standards, not a curriculum.

I know what many Common Core opponents are saying to themselves right now: The curriculum and the tests will have to be aligned with the standards, so essentially, the federal government is forcing a national curriculum on local school districts.

Let’s put aside the fact that Common Core was initiated in large part by our own Gov. Sonny Perdue and voluntarily supported by dozens of other state governors. It’s important to consider the distinction between standards and curriculum and understand how much of an impact one really has on the other.

Allow me to illustrate with an example: Let’s say we believe all students in a district should know how to read an essay and determine the author’s position and the arguments he or she used to support that position. That would be a standard.

In practical terms, the curriculum is how that standard is taught. The curriculum would essentially take into consideration the specific teaching materials, a lesson plan, and methods of teaching — things our teachers are trained to develop and implement.

So if our goal is to help students reach the above-mentioned critical thinking standard, one district might choose to create a curriculum that includes essays on say, the pitfalls of capitalism, how big government saved the republic, and the virtues of universal health care. It could call for class projects where everyone in the class works together and receives the same grade based on the final product. It might assign homework that requires watching MSNBC and quiz students on last night’s reading of the Huffington Post.

Or the district could choose another route.

Teachers could have students study essays on how free markets built this nation, pulling bootstraps and the American Dream, and the dangers of government dependency. Student project grades would depend on a popular vote by their classmates. And homework assignments, in this case, would require watching Fox News with quizzes based on Glenn Beck’s podcast.

Obviously these are extreme examples, but I think they make a point. A curriculum is not the same as a standard. Local districts and teachers have been free to develop their own curriculum to help their students meet standards. Common Core doesn’t change that. Getting students to understand an author’s argument doesn’t dictate the types of materials a district uses to teach, and it doesn’t force teachers into a particular lesson plan.

As a former school teacher and principal and as someone who has participated in district accreditation, I’ve seen firsthand how setting clear expectations fosters higher-performing students, happier teachers and more engaged parents. That’s what Common Core does.

Having these standards removes ambiguity and provides a blueprint for all schools to build a strong academic offering.

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Kelley Brock is a Baldwin resident and former special education teacher and principal who raised her children in the Cherokee County Public Schools.