Explainer: Common Core State Standards — What Is Christie Walking Away From?

Much of the backlash from parents and teachers over Common Core has really been over the PARCC assessments linked to the academic guideposts

Gov. Chris Christie
What they are: The Common Core State Standards are a set of academic requirements in language arts and math that have been adopted in New Jersey and more than 40 other states. They are intended to be guideposts for children from kindergarten through 12th grade to ensure that they are ready for college and jobs.

What they mean: The Common Core has many goals, including raising the rigor of academic standards and increasing the depth of learning. And with 43 states and the District of Columbia signed on, it provides a single metric to help compare state achievement levels against one another.

What’s the big deal? The Common Core has returned to center stage in New Jersey, with Gov. Chris Christie in May 2015 announcing that he no longer supported the national standards and would move for the state to set its own. This comes after the standards enjoyed a fairly easy launch four years ago, when New Jersey was among four-dozen states to initially embrace the goal of more rigorous academics. But as the standards have been rolled out — and new state tests developed — concerns and criticism have arisen from both the right and the left.

A little history: The Common Core is an outgrowth of the “standards and assessment” movement that actually started under President George H. W. Bush. The standards continued to evolve through President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama, ultimately being released in 2010, as defined by a confederation of states, education groups, and business leaders under the umbrella of the nonprofit group Achieve. They then got a big boost with President Obama’s Race to the Top grant competition starting in 2010 that all but required adoption, leading to New Jersey joining the list.

What they do: The standards only set the endgame of instruction, not the actual curriculum, but they definitely change how schools teach students in different grades, including more depth in specific topics and often earlier in a child’s school career.

For example: Students in all grades — including elementary school — are being asked to write based on informational texts, using evidence and research. In math, numeric operations and fractions are the focus of elementary and middle schools, while it isn’t until high school where algebra is taught in depth.

All about the testing: Any discussion of the Common Core is incomplete without discussion of its biggest impact, the new state tests. And that has been where most of the debate has arisen. The standards are the basis of New Jersey’s new tests starting in the spring, known by the acronym of the group that developed them, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). New Jersey is one of 9 states participating in the PARCC tests, which are administered online. Twenty-two states have adopted a parallel test also aligned to the standards, known as Smarter Balanced.

Who’s for and against: Much of the education establishment and the business community, including the state’s chamber of commerce, have strongly backed the new standards. The state’s largest teachers unions, including the New Jersey Education Association, have also been among the supporters. And the Christie administration, the governor included, had been staunch supporters and defended the standards as critical in raising student performance. But with the advent of the new tests, the Common Core has come under debate. The teachers unions, for example, have softened their support, especially since the tests affect teacher evaluations under the state‘s new tenure law. And opposition has surfaced from both conservative and liberal camps that see the standards and tests as a top-down incursion on instruction.

[related]Christie’s about-face: As he geared up for a run for the Republican presidential nomination, Christie hinted for several months in early 2015 that he was cooling on the Common Core, an apparent nod to the right wing of the GOP that has been especially critical of the standards and what it sees as a federal intervention in schools. Late in May, Christie removed all doubt and announced that the state would move to adopt its own standards, although it would retain PARCC testing. He called for a commission of parents and educators to begin reviewing the standards and offer recommendations before the end of the year.

New Jersey not alone: Backlash has been so strong elsewhere that a half-dozen states have either backed out of adoption or threatened to do so.

What’s next: The commission is expected to be appointed and start its work by summer 2015. In the meantime, the PARCC tests started this spring and continue into next year, a pivotal juncture to determine how New Jersey students rank not just against other states but compared with other students in state. New Jersey officials have warned that there is likely to be some drop-off in achievement levels, although they stressed that the state’s phase-in of the Common Core up to now should have eased the transition.