Common Core 101: Why, what and how

Curriculum Choices

(Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a three-part series on Common Core State Standards.)

How does educational inequity impact individual students? A college preparedness study analyzed which California high school students went on to receive four-year college degrees (“Removing The Roadblocks: Fair College Opportunities For All California Students.” To access this report online, please visit Despite evidence that most all students and their families initially desired a college education, Asian and white students went on to graduate from college at two to three times the rate of their African American, Latino, and Native American counterparts. Typically, social and economic reasons are used to justify this educational inequity. This study determined, however, what factors most profoundly lead students to graduate from high school, enter, and complete college. According to the research, what happens academically in a child’s education far more profoundly determines eventual success at college than economics, race, ethnicity, and family background:


The college chances of every student — wealthy or poor, regardless of race or ethnicity — will be affected by whether he or she has access to essential college-going conditions, including access to curriculum, high-quality teaching, counseling, and opportunities for extra academic support. It is important to note that none of these conditions is within the control of the student or his or her family.

This research serves to illustrate the life-long impact of adequate or inadequate college preparation on individual students: one student comes from a more privileged background, works hard to succeed at a high-achieving high school, enters college prepared for the rigor, earns a college degree, and begins a career as a well-compensated productive professional; another student comes from a less privileged background, works hard to succeed at a low-performing high school, enters college unprepared for the rigor, and — true to statistical probability — drops out, thus entering the work force at a significant disadvantage.

California’s academic inequity reflects the reality of education in every U.S. state. The Common Core State Standards initiative is designed to reverse this educational inequity by:

  • Creating a “college and career ready” U.S. workforce to bolster our global economic competitiveness
  • Providing academic consistency within systems and across state lines
  • Guiding instruction with developmentally appropriate performance standards
  • Establishing clear goals, expectations, and learning progressions
  • Guaranteeing adequate academic preparation for every U.S. student
  • Eliminating educational inequities according to race, language, gender, economics, ethnicity, and background

Though schools cannot guarantee the life-long success of every student, all schools should guarantee that each individual student is sufficiently prepared to enter college, advanced technical training programs, or the workforce ready to succeed.

The Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards initiative begins with the premise of college and career readiness for all students. The National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) worked to define a clear and equitable goal for every student in public education: college and career readiness. This goal shifts the educational paradigm from group test scores to individual performance standards that demonstrate the developing skills and proficiencies students need for post-secondary success. Fully adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, the Common Core creates a framework that is re-engineering public education.

At the School Improvement Network, we are documenting Common Core implementation efforts at the state, district and school level. We have engaged with teachers, administrators, and policy makers across the nation in a rigorous discussion about what works and does not work when trying to implement these standards. Through Common Core 360, we demonstrate how these educators are integrating the standards into their practice, classrooms and schools.

This significant effort to re-engineer public education, however, faces an inherent challenge: the likelihood of being yet another well-meaning but poorly-implemented school improvement effort. Successful implementation of these standards occurs when the why, the what, and the how of the Common Core are systematically addressed. (Refer to the sidebar: Common Missteps in Implementing the Common Core Standards.)

Why the Common Core?

American students continue to fall behind their international counterparts. As other nations moved towards rigorous study of fewer standards, the U.S. maintained “a mile wide and an inch deep” curriculum. Likewise, international school improvement efforts have focused on empowering teachers with the necessary skills and flexibility to succeed with every student. Meanwhile, the U.S. debates who controls the schools and who is responsible for student success. Having lagged behind global education reform efforts, the U.S. is left with a less capable workforce, and high school graduates are unprepared for the academic and professional rigor that lies ahead.

The goal of the Common Core Standards movement is college and career readiness for every student. In English Language Arts, there are 32 “Anchor Standards” clearly aligned in a K-12 progression that allows students to deepen rigor and build proficiency in the same language skills year-after-year. In Mathematics, there are eight practice standards that span K-12, and grade-level content standards organized in clusters and domains that collectively build one upon another so that students become ready for advanced mathematical understanding and application. Performing proficiently in these standards upon high school graduation, students are prepared in ELA and Mathematics for post-secondary efforts.

When successfully implemented, the Common Core Standards drive each individual student equitably towards college and career readiness so that the student can choose for him- or herself what he or she may do upon high school graduation, rather than the educational institution inequitably preparing some and not others.

What are the Common Core Standards?

Common Missteps in Implementing the Common Core Standards

Focusing exclusively on the “how” of Common Core:

  • Beginning implementation efforts with only the crosswalk 
  • Focusing too quickly on classroom level integration of the Common Core Standards 

Not clearly explaining “what” are the Common Core Standards:

  • Aiming to establish “power standards” rather than focusing on all of the essential College and Career Readiness Standards 
  • Defining the Common Core Standards as content rather than performance standards 
Downplaying “why” the Common Core exists:

  • Not clearly illustrating the purpose and backwards design of the College and Career Readiness Standards 
  • Failing to establish the vision of the Common Core, its background, and how it is re-engineering U.S. public education curriculum choices


Like walking up a spiral staircase, when a student progresses upward within the framework of the Common Core, they spiral back around in each subsequent grade to standards they have already learned, but one level up in terms of rigor and application. To facilitate this upwards progression, each college and career readiness standard is backwards designed from 12th grade to the grade where it is introduced — sometimes as far back as kindergarten. When a student works on a proficiency, the particular standard builds upon previous knowledge from earlier years, becomes more rigorous, and prepares the student for the grades to come. Understanding this vertical and spiraled alignment towards college and career readiness is key to understanding the Common Core.

Consider the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Reading, ( which states that upon high school graduation students should be able to: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

The skills embodied in this standard are applicable whether the student chooses to pursue a liberal arts degree, or enter an advanced welding training program. This standard is backwards designed from 12th grade to Kindergarten and develops in rigor as it progresses from grade to grade, as illustrated here in grades one through three:

  • Grade 1 (RI.1.1): Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
  • Grade 2 (RI.2.1): Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
  • Grade 3 (RI.3.1): Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

As students progress through the 12th grade in this standard’s proficiencies, they become ready to apply these skills in college and career. This grade-by-grade progression of the ELA and Mathematics Standards guides educators to lead all students to College and Career Readiness.

How are the Common Core Standards Integrated into Classroom Practice?

The Common Core provides a clear framework of what students need to learn so that educators can apply the how of effective teaching pedagogy in the classroom. Working as collaborative teams, educators use the Common Core and its standards progressions throughout the teaching and learning cycle to:

  1. Direct grade level (horizontal) and grade-to-grade (vertical) curriculum mapping and lesson planning.
  2. Guide instruction and support to be developmentally appropriate for each student.
  3. Assess student learning by:  
    –  Translating the “performance standards” into on-going formative assessments that inform classroom teaching.
    –  Utilizing the forthcoming new generation of standardized tests that show clear grade-level progress towards college and career readiness.
  4. Scale up instruction to accelerate learning or spiral back to intervene based on student needs.

The Common Core: Re-engineering K-12 Education

The Common Core State Standards initiative is designed to re-engineer U.S. public education into a system that can equitably succeed with all students. The Common Core aims to effectively prepare each individual student for life-long success, no matter who they are or where they come from, while simultaneously creating a college and career-ready workforce that is globally prepared and tech-savvy.

The Common Core offers a compelling vision for the future of U.S. education. The School Improvement Network embraces this collective opportunity to powerfully reform how education works for students and teachers alike. In order for the Common Core initiative to succeed, implementation efforts need to focus on the why, the what, and the how of the standards. If executed successfully, the Common Core Standards will lead all students to success at college, career, and beyond.

(Part Two of this series, “Teaching the Standards,” will appear in our April issue.)

Curtis Linton is Vice President of the School Improvement Network, producer of PD 360, and author of the book “Equity 101.” To learn more about Common Core 360, visit
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Issue 19.2 | Winter 2018

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