The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – A Common Knowledge Base

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By Nancy K. Hennessy, M.Ed., Educational Consultant, The Consulting Network, Past National President, IDA

Apples and PapersThe Common Core State Standards
 (CCSS) are a prominent topic in educational newsletters, conference workshops, webinars and school conversations. Recognizing that the adoption of the standards will result in significant changes in educational practices and policy is critical for all educators.  Ensuring that students can potentially achieve mastery of the CCSS demands an understanding of the challenges posed by their implementation. Each of us, regardless of our role in the educational community, has the responsibility to consider how these standards will change instructional practices for our students. An exploration of the basic facts and challenges related to the Common Core State Standards should facilitate our ability to do so.

What are the CCSS?

The standards are a framework for preparing our children for college and the workforce. They define the knowledge and skills students should acquire K-12 so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in academic college courses and in workforce training programs.  They are not curriculum documents nor do they specify instructional method, rather they provide a roadmap for the development of curriculum and instructional resources.

The CCSS address two major areas; English Language Arts/ Literacy in History- Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects and Mathematics.  These areas are each defined by broad anchor standards that provide focus and coherence and then, specific K-12 grade level expectations.  English Language Arts standards are articulated for reading, writing, listening and speaking, and language. Mathematics standards are expressed as mathematical practice and content.

Why were the CCSS developed?

Over the last several years, the field of education has experienced multiple reform efforts, some more successful than others.  Yet, as a nation, we continue to fall behind. In a special standards issue of American Educator, the rationale for an education is explained in the following way:

An education is an enlightening and enriching experience that results in a body of knowledge and skill—both academic and social— that enables one to be a responsible and productive citizen. What is fundamental to an education is a specific body of knowledge and skill and the best means of acquiring it-everything else is peripheral.”  –Editors, 2010       

The authors argued that what we, as a nation, have failed to attend to these fundamentals and inferred that the adoption of the CCSS is the first step in setting forward across state lines a framework for designing common curriculum that will fulfill this intent.

TeacherThe mission statement of the CCSS further clarifies purpose by indicating that these standards are a means to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. These standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.”

Finally, during a CCSS session at the 2011 IDA conference, Sue Pimentel, lead writer for the English Language Art Standards, outlined purpose in this way:

  • Preparation: To prepare students with the knowledge and skills they need for postsecondary success.
  • Competition: To ensure our students are globally competitive.
  • Equity: To provide consistent expectations for all—not dependent on a student’s zip code.
  • Collaboration: To create a foundation to work collaboratively across states and districts, pooling resources and expertise.Clarity: So students (and parents and teachers) understand what is expected of them.

How were the CCSS developed?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative was a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). In the spring of 2009, Governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, 2 territories and the District of Columbia committed to developing a common core set of standards that would help prepare all students for success in college and career.

The CCSS, including English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics K-12, were developed based on high performing state and international standards, educator and content experts’ knowledge and experience, research findings, data regarding prerequisite skills for college and career and feedback from multiple sources.

Members of the standards writing teams worked on initial drafts of English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics while external and state feedback teams (e.g. national organizations, teachers, postsecondary educators) provided feedback throughout the process. Additionally, draft standards were released for public comment and validation committees conducted final reviews before release in June 2010.  To date, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the CCSS. These are not national standards and as such, each state has the option of review and approval as well as the latitude to supplement the common core standards with state-specific standards (additions of up to 15 %).

How will the CCSS be assessed?

Two state consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balance Assessment System, were awarded $360 million in federal Race to the Top money to design common core assessments for 99% of students. Currently 24 states and the District of Columbia belong to PARCC while 30 belong to the other consortium.  Each has taken a somewhat different design approach; however, both, thus far, include summative and formative/performance assessments, mandatory as well as voluntary components that are in part, computer-based. While additional changes in content and format are likely to occur, final products in English Language Arts and Mathematics are expected to be ready for the 2014-2015 school year.  Each collaborative has accessibility and accommodation/fairness work groups that are advising designers on accommodations for students with special needs. These will be built into the design rather than retrofitting assessments, as has often been the practice with high stakes assessments.

What are some of the general challenges? 

Educators now have the task of thinking through potential changes in curriculum, assessment, professional development and other areas at the state, district, school and classroom level.  This work is already underway in many of the states.  In a recent report on states’ progress and challenges implementing the CCSS (2011), The Center on Education Policy surveyed possible state level changes being considered including:

  • Adopting special initiatives to ensure the CCSS are fully implemented in the state’s lowest-performing schools.
  • Creating or revising educator evaluation systems to hold educators accountable for students’ mastery of the CCSS.
  • Requiring districts to implement the CCSS.
  • Changing professional development programs.
  • Changing curriculum guides or materials.
  • Revising educator certification policies and requirements to align with the CCSS.

It is obvious that the adoption of the CCSS is just a beginning step; the major work of implementation is yet to come. In many instances the changes called for are system wide and will require leadership, funding and commitment on the part of all stakeholders (e.g. educators, researchers, policy makers, parents and publishers). As they continue to grapple with and further understand the implications of these standards, more questions, concerns and even, resistance are likely to surface.

What are some of the specific challenges related to students with learning disabilities?

According to the sponsoring organizations, The CCSS standards are intended to provide a greater opportunity for states to share best practices within and across states that can lead to an improved ability to serve all students including those with disabilities and English Language Learners. The English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics standards include information on application of the standards for these learners. While this is an important beginning step, the complexity of this issue demands further study.  Many issues related to the instruction and assessment of students with learning disabilities and to the professional development needs of general and special educators have yet to be addressed.

Organizations and individuals, committed to the education of students with learning disabilities, have a collective responsibility to raise questions regarding implementation and to advocate for the rights of these students. Several organizations are doing just that-one being the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) whose mission includes responding to national issues affecting students with learning disabilities (LD) by facilitating communication and cooperation among member organizations. NJCLD is comprised of fourteen organizations, one of which is the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). During the CCSS session at IDA’s recent conference, Nancy Cushen White represented NJCLD’s concerns while reinforcing that students with LD can achieve the standards when provided with high quality instruction in general education and with specialized instruction and the accommodations that reflect their learning profiles.

Given that the CCSS are a framework and do not articulate specifically what or how to teach essential content and skills, professional knowledge and skill will be essential to design and delivery of instruction for students. The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), another member organization, has acknowledged this concern relative to standards implementation stating:

The most significant challenge will be in preparing and further developing the knowledge and skills of not only special educators, but all teachers who are sharing the instructional responsibilities for students with disabilities.” – CEC Today, 2010      

Professional preparation and development has been an ongoing concern of IDA as evidenced in the publication of the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (2010). Not only the rigor but also the organization of the English Language Arts/Literacy Standards necessitates knowledge of the foundations of oral and written language, relationship of language systems, structured language teaching, dyslexia and assessment. This knowledge will be critical as educators align standards with research based practices necessary for students who struggle mastering the skills and language processes necessary for proficient reading and writing. NJCLD also advocates for systems changes that result in professional development processes that ensure:

  • General education teachers understand specialized instruction and accommodations needed by students with LD.
  • LD specialists have a depth of content knowledge sufficient to enable understanding of the demands of the content curriculum. All teachers understand oral language and its relationship to achievement in reading, written language and higher-order thinking and problem solving.
  • All educators are adept at the use of differentiated instruction and data to inform instruction.

Assessment presents as another area necessitating attention and advocacy. NJCLD has voiced the need for systems change in this area particularly, in regard to the development of clear and fair guidelines for provision of valid accommodations for students with disabilities.   Laura Kaloi, the public policy director for National Council for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), further elaborated on these concerns at the IDA session. She raised specific practical and policy issues related to assessment design including the need for incorporating UDL principles (Universal Design for Learning) and the embedding of individual student accommodations, as well as, student control over the computer based test.  Other policy recommendations included requirements that adaptive testing be aligned with grade levels and that states, in reconsidering accommodation policies, include as non-standard accommodations only those that are research-based.

While this article has provided basic background knowledge on the Common Core State Standards, it is has barely scratched the surface. This is an evolving knowledge base that warrants and deserves continued attention given the potential impact on professional practice and subsequent achievement of our students. Lest we forget, learning is our work too!

References & Resources

Common Core Curriculum: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. American Educator, 34 (4) 2-

Common Core State Standards Initiative –

Common Core State Standards: What Special Educators Need to Know (2011). CEC Today–

Education Week Spotlight on Implementing Common Standards (2011) –

Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (2010). International Dyslexia Association –

National Council for Learning Disabilities-

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities-

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers-

Rentner, D. S. & Kober, N. (2011). Common Core State Standards: Progress and Challenges in School Districts’ Implementation. Center on Education Policy-

Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium-

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