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7 Things You Need to Know About Common Core

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Maybe you don't know the Common Core from a half-eaten apple, but if you have children in public schools you'll want to study up. Chances are your state has adopted these new universal learning goals, which promise to get all kids college- and career-ready.

Though most agree that the old system of state-specific standards under No Child Left Behind weren't getting U.S. students where they needed to be academically, Common Core has already taken a beating — recently, and most famously, in tweets from frustrated father-comedian Louis CK and the recent broadcast to American theaters by Glenn Beck. Surely you've seen angrily posted images of last night's math homework in your Facebook feed, fists shaking in a call to cease exposing kids to this crazy "Common Core math." More broadly, political pressure forced lawmakers in several states to drop the standards a year or two after adopting them. Other states kept the standards but were ordered by leaders to rename them something — anything — besides "Common Core."

Education policy hasn't create rancor like this since President Reagan declared ketchup a vegetable.

Will these standards actually stick? When will test scores start to count? Will Common Core actually graduate kids who are college- and career-ready as promised? No one knows what the future of Common Core will be. What we know right now, though, is that if your child's school is transitioning to Common Core, instruction and schoolwork is going to be noticeably different for you and your child.

To prepare before next fall, we recommend that parents on homework duty understand these seven things.

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1. Standards are not curriculum

Standards also aren't standardized tests. And the federal government did not mandate Louis CK's daughter's homework, or this confusing math problem that even some college students don't understand.

Common Core State Standards are meant to be universal, to prepare all children in the U.S. to be better thinkers and more than mediocre when ranked among their peers internationally. How? CCSS proponents say the new standards require students to develop and practice their critical thinking and reasoning skills. To do that, students will learn to read and write more deeply by analyzing more of the kinds of writing found in magazines, newspapers and academic publications. Students will have to develop stronger numeracy skills and be able to use more than one strategy to solve math problems.

To be sure, CCSS has its critics. They question whether requiring this high-level thinking and reading in kindergarten is developmentally appropriate, and whether the creation of these standards was overly influenced by a single, non-academic, corporate-back interest: the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

The new standards have also been a financial windfall for publishers like Pearson, as well as companies developing the new standardized tests states are requiring their districts to use. Because the new tests are computer-based, it's hard to ignore the profits these standards create for all types of tech companies, too.

2. Less math, more time

In math, fewer topics will be covered, and students have more time to master the year's objectives. This doesn't mean kids will leave school with gaps in their education, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education Janine Remillard says. Rather, students won't have to relearn the same topics, year after year, which is typical in U.S. math education. Remillard, chairwoman of the National Academy of Sciences' National Commission on Math Instruction and whose research focuses on teachers and math curriculum, says students in the countries that the CCSS are modeled on get the bigger picture when it comes to math. "This is an attempt to to reduce the time that we spend touching on topics briefly and repeatedly each year so we can spend more time getting to deeper learning on fewer topics each year. That's the biggest change that CCSS is bringing on," she said.

Which brings us to those famously tweeted and mocked third-grade math homework problems.

3. Math homework will look weird

That video asking students to solve 32 minus 12 "the Common Core way"? It's OK comedy but pretty misleading. Remillard says that for students to really get comfortable with numbers and grasp the underlying mechanisms of standard algorithms (e.g. stacking the two numbers and subtracting 2 from 2 and then 1 from 3 and getting 20 for an answer), they need to work flexibly with numbers. Yes, adding a bunch of smaller numbers to get the answer to a subtraction problem sounds counter-intuitive and slow. It's also pretty cool. One goal of CCSS math is for students to understand the relationship between the various operations (i.e. addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) and that's the point of these types of problems. National PTA has some tips for parents with homework frustrations.

Parent-comedians everywhere will be relieved to know that another stated goal in CCSS is for students to be able to perform the standard U.S. algorithms, Remillard says. In other words: to subtract the bottom number from the top one. You know, your kind of math.

What's the point? "Think of it this way," Remillard says. "If you're new to a city, your GPS gives you the exact route to take. And it works. But that's just one way. If you go many different ways around the city, you begin to understand that space, and you can get from one place to another in a number of different ways and from many different points. This is the kind of flexibility we want students to have in math."

4. In it for the long haul

The biggest and best feature of CCSS, Remillard says, is one that even some educators don't fully grasp. Rather than a set of skills required in each grade, CCSS has grouped the standards into domains, which stretch across the school years. "All the important math ideas are designed to develop over multiple years," she said. Common Core's website has links to all the standards for each grade and also links that organize the standards into these domains.

"This idea of progression is important to keep in mind. It is tempting to think of standards as learning objectives in and of themselves," Remillard said. Instead, we need to think of the standard as a line and the goal for a particular year as a point on that line, though that's a significant shift in perspective for many working in education as well.

5. Save the personal interpretations for book club

English Language Arts standards, like math, have been organized in a similar progression. For reading, the basic same 10 sets of skills apply across grade levels. It's the level of a text's complexity that changes through the years.

ELA reading and writing standards don't list specific areas of grammar, spelling, punctuation and vocabulary — a major focus in the old system, according to authors Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman, who co-wrote "Pathways to the Common Core," a book to help teachers understand Common Core standards in reading and writing. Rather, the new skills focus nearly exclusively on comprehension, connecting actions and consequences, understanding characters, and comparing and contrasting, among other skills.

What parents won't see are their kids writing paragraphs and essays about how a particular character's circumstances made them feel, whether they could relate to a certain piece of dialogue or how a story might have connected to their child's own life. The "Pathways" authors write, "... the Common Core deemphasizes reading as a personal act and emphasizes textual analysis."

6. Technology is inevitable

Whether you limit screen time at home or offered an iPad in the crib, it won't matter at school: All kids will learn to use — and have much access to — technology.

Because bubble tests appear to have gone the way of the dinosaur, assessments will now all be done using tablets or computers with Internet access. This means students, even very young ones, will spend some amount of class time in front of a screen and online. The Fresno County Office of Education published a table of recommended technology skills for the different grades in anticipation of CCSS.

Third-graders will be required to type a short story online, which means they'll need to be familiar with, if not somewhat proficient in, keyboarding. Some child development experts argue that 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds may not be ready for typing. A focus on keyboarding as early as kindergarten could also take away time from developing pen-and-pencil writing skills. And though cursive has already been under fire for the last decade, with fewer and fewer state's requiring it in its schools, time that had once been spent learning the intricate loops of cursive capital Q will likely be used for increased visits to the tech lab to master QWERTY.

7. Everyone is asking questions

If CCSS still feels like a mystery, know you're not alone. The 80 percent of educators who want to move forward with CCSS — and the organizations and political bodies that stand to benefit from their success — know that parental involvement is key to its success (or key to its overturn, if you're still not convinced) and don't want parents in the dark.

Ask your PTA or school principal to schedule parent workshops about CCSS in the classroom and how your school is implementing them. Talk to your child's teacher (or teachers) and ask how you can support your child at home.

If your Twitter feed blows up with more screeds about "Common Core math" or you don't see the point of this week's homework packet, step back. Maybe some less-obvious concept is being practiced. Or maybe it's a really terrible assignment. Until the rest of us get better acquainted with CCSS and the curriculum designed to help students meet those standards, it could be hard to tell.

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Here are some FAQs you may have about Common Core:

Will Common Core affect my child? That depends. Did your state adopt the new standards? Or did your state adopt them and then drop them?

Is "Common Core math" going to make my kid stupid? Short answer: no. Long answer: there is no "Common Core math." Let's define the terms: "standards" are the universal goals; "curriculum" is the individual school's or district's path to meeting those goals (textbooks, homework, computer apps, etc.); "assessments" are the tests used to determine whether the standards, the grade-level skills they were supposed to learn, were met. Standards are clear, if controversial. The curriculum and assessments? That's where things are getting a bit like the Wild West. Publishers may stamp text- and workbooks as "Common Core aligned," but no agency or committee has been appointed to check whether these labels are true.

What shifts under Common Core State Standards? National PTA created a booklet highlighting differences between the old standards and CCSS. They include tips for supporting students at home.

Wait! I don't understand my child's homework. Council of the Great City Schools, a policy group for urban education, created a road map to help parents navigate this new and sometimes unfamiliar terrain. Remember, too, curriculum is still being developed. Be frank with teachers that you weren't sure how to help and don't sweat a few incomplete assignments.

What does a standard look like? What specific skills do they demand? Read all about them, in full, for English Language Arts and math.

My kids smoked the old tests. I heard they'll bomb the new ones. States and test-makers are still working on how to test for the new sets of skills. Find out whether your state will use PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessments. Then go to their websites and sign up for alerts. Take practice tests to get a better idea of what your child will be asked to do.

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