Aug. 13, 2014 at 10:33 AM ET
Common Core. For many parents, it’s become their homework nemesis. Meanwhile, the new educational standards are being tossed around like a political football.
Love it or hate it, Common Core is a fact of life for parents and their school-aged students in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories.
But do parents understand Common Core any better than their 10th grader's math homework? A Gallup poll in April found that 37 percent of public school parents had never heard of Common Core or knew enough to provide an opinion.
If you're one of them, or among those who have specific feelings about it (35 percent view it positively, 28 percent negatively), here are five tips to help understand what Common Core means to you and your children.
1. What is it, exactly? Find out.
Common Core is a set of shared academic standards, for English and math only. The idea is that U.S. students should all learn the same educational essentials, regardless of whether they live in Mississippi or Massachusetts. Common Core standards were created with an eye toward making American high school graduates more competitive with their international peers.
The folks behind the Common Core website describe it this way, in a three-minute video.
The federal government supports the standards but did NOT create them; they were written by a group of academics tapped by the nation’s governors and education leaders. Teachers, parents and school administrators provided feedback on drafts of the standards before they were finalized.
2. Standards and curriculum are not the same thing.
Common Core is a set of educational goals and objectives. How those standards get implemented in a classroom gets left up to teachers and local educators.
Curricula can vary by state, or within the same city. This can be confusing, especially when the methods used by one teacher to get their students up to Common Core standards may differ from the choices made by another instructor, even one at the same grade level or same school.
Jessica Wright, a middle school English teacher at a Little Rock, Arkansas school, said she doesn't have a mandated curriculum at her institution.
"I get to make a lot of personal decisions in how I’m going to teach the standards in my classroom. But this next school year, we actually bought text books, so that’s going to affect my teaching practice a lot," she said. "The idea behind the books is to help newer teachers get their feet wet with Common Core in a way that everybody feels comfortable. It gives them more of a guideline on how to do it, instead of letting them discover it all on their own."
3. Homework for parents: Read up on the standards for your child’s grade level.
There’s information about it everywhere, but most experts agree that going to the original Common Core site is a good starting point. For English standards at a glance, go here; a list of math standards can be found here. The National PTA also has created short, easy-to-read guides explaining standards at each grade level. The documents also provide tips on how parents can help at home.
For a more in-depth explanation, the Council of the Great City Schools has a grade-by-grade breakdown of what students are supposed to be learning each year, as well as tips on how to work with teachers on the standards.
4. The new, new math: Be prepared to be confused.
Common Core standards encourage depth, rather than breadth, in mastering topics. It also emphasizes a student's ability to analyze and explain their answers rather than simply knowing how to come up with the correct ones.
Teaching things like fractions, division and other math essentials may look really different from how parents learned it. Teachers often present the concepts differently, sometimes incorporating unfamiliar timelines and drawn-out charts.
Amy Spies, a Port Orange, Florida, elementary teacher with a math background, said she and many parents grew up learning math concepts by rote memory.
“They would show us, 'This is how you do it, and here are 50 problems that look just look like this. Go forth and prove you can do exactly what I did,'” she said. “Whereas now, the focus may be on only one or two problems but those problems are going to be very rich and in depth.”
That can upset parents unfamiliar with the new methods, said Kate Gerson, a senior fellow of the Regents Research Fund, which helps provide support to New York's education department.
Under Common Core standards, she said, kids may get asked "'Why do you carry the one — what does that mean? In long division, what does it mean to have that remainder?' We (adults) have not been trained in that way, so it can be disorienting,” Gerson said. “Parents go, ‘Why do they have to know that? I don’t know that and I’ve managed to balance my checkbook all these years.’”
5. Be ready for kids to struggle.
All that analysis and explanation may be a shock for some students — and their parents. Getting the answer right isn't necessarily enough anymore.
Students transitioning into curricula based on Common Core standards may have a difficult time being asked all the time how they reached their answers, said Wright.
“Kids are caught off guard because they can’t just repeat back what their teachers are telling them. They have to be able to analyze and apply and really think about things and form their own opinions,” she said.
That process frustrates many students.
“I tell this to parents: Be ready for that struggle of watching your child go through that experience, especially when their kids are used to getting straight A’s," she said.
Wright has seen it happen repeatedly with many of her pre-Advanced Placement English students.
"They've been doing great forever and they come to my class and get a ‘B,'" she said. "And then they get worried, and their parents get worried."
In the end, she reasoned, "a little struggling could be the best thing for their learning process."