Eager as I was the first time I went to 5th grade, going back again as a new teacher in Chicago Public Schools had my stomach in knots.

At the beginning of my school’s three days of professional development prior to the first day of school, I received a document outlining my school’s expectations for what my students would be expected to know by the end of 5th grade. These expectations – you probably know them as “standards” – were not what I had been expecting. You see, at the public charter school where I taught, their standards differed from the Illinois state standards that I had worked with during graduate school.

When I started as a teacher in 2009, it wasn’t just charters that were often different–every state developed and used its own standards for K-12 instruction.  For teachers throughout the country, the expectations for what their students should know by the end of each grade were not the same. This confusing patchwork of expectations was, in part, what stirred state governors and superintendents to develop a set of education standards that would be the same from state to state: the Common Core State Standards.

Recent polls show that the public is having a hard time understanding what these standards are and why they exist. It hasn’t helped that, over the past few months, the standards have been the target of an awful lot of partisan rankling from both ends of the political spectrum. The dizzying din of grievances – from objections over their development to bizarre allegations about their content – has drowned out this important fact: They are actually standards.

We rarely acknowledge that there’s nothing standard at all about 50 different sets of expectations for students, teachers, and schools. And this inconsistency fuels inconsistent student outcomes. The Common Core represents a serious effort to address this fundamental problem.

An anchor for teaching

Many have decried Common Core as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching. But, again, this misses the point of what standards are and the value that consistent standards provide. Anyone who has taught knows that teaching is much more than standards. 

Over three million teachers are making important decisions daily about how they will teach their students complex knowledge and skills–what they will say, what materials they will use, and how their students will demonstrate learning. Standards provide a consistent way to anchor these decisions to the fundamental skills students need to master. They don’t replace those decisions.

Standards also help teachers understand the skills that students will build on from the previous year, and where they will continue the following year. For instance, under the Common Core, by the end of 5th grade, a student should be able to:

  • Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).

The standards also explain that in 4th grade, students are learning how authors use reasons and evidence to support their points, and in 6th grade, students will be expected to use this skill to evaluate the points made based on the evidence provided. In other words, the Common Core provides scaffolding for building student learning and mastery to a college- and career-ready level.

Evidence suggests strong teacher support for the Common Core. According to a national survey released this year, 93% of teachers think that the CCSS are as good (44%) or better (49%) than what they’re currently working with. And 76% of teachers agree that the standards will help them improve their own instruction and classroom practice. A second national survey underscores these findings: An overwhelming majority of principals and teachers think the standards will improve student achievement and better prepare them for college and the workforce. 

This isn’t to say that teachers have no concerns. The same surveys show teachers are equally concerned about a lack of high-quality resources to implement the standards. They’d like better professional development, aligned materials, planning time, and other supports. And they’d like time to grow their practice without the anxiety of immediate high-stakes testing and evaluation.

My first year of teaching was incredibly difficult, made more challenging because I was aligning my teaching to different standards than I had anticipated. Anchoring teaching in real, clear standards will allow for greater sharing of best practices in teaching. It will also provide a foundation for better understanding differences in student outcomes, and how to address these differences to ensure all students have access to a quality public education.

Lindsey Tepe is a program associate on the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative, and a former 4th and 5th grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools.


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