Alternatives to the Common Core

According to the Common Core Standards adoption map, published by, 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). But several states — 26 at last count — are considered “in flux,” meaning they’re still deciding what to do or are reconsidering their initial decisions to adopt the CCSS. Some are considering Common Core alternatives.

The options are being discussed in state legislatures and town hall meetings around the country. “Politics aside, I think there's an emergent educational consensus that we need to reverse the decades-long trend of falling reading levels in high school,” says George Schneiderman, principal business analyst for Amplify Education in Brooklyn, NY. “And that in math we need to allow teachers and students to focus more deeply on fewer topics, and to pay as much attention to mathematical practice as to mathematical content in order to achieve real understanding coupled with procedural fluency.”

There are two viable “alternatives” to the Common Core:

Option 1: The 15 Percent Rule

Some state educators like the Common Core, but want to customize the standards a bit. This is where the “15-percent rule” comes in: a state adopts 100 percent of the CCSS K–12 English/Language Arts and mathematics standards “word for word,” and adds up to 15 percent more standards of its own choosing.

“It allows a state to add or fill gaps necessary above the Common Core,” Schneiderman explains. “A number of states have added pre-K standards. Others have added more on the literary side. One of the shifts in the Core was placing more emphasis on informational texts — nonfiction — particularly in science and history. There were feelings that some traditional skills related to analysis of literature were receiving less attention, so some states have added in more of that.” Other additions focus on state cultures and demographics. “Minnesota added a lot of requirements that literature covered should include writings by and about Minnesota American Indians,” Schneiderman notes.

Option 2: Individual State Standards

Several states are considering a return to their own standards, charging that the CCSS marks are too rigorous, not rigorous enough or developmentally inappropriate. Regardless of the reason, classroom educators need to be involved in creating new state standards.

“We advocate that teachers need to be a part of the conversation because, at the end of the day, all these initiatives land on the teachers,” says Jill Nyhus, vice president of business development at Insight Education Group, an education consulting firm in Encino, CA. “They are the ones who have to implement them.” But the truth is, because the Common Core standards are common and core, Nyhus says, “even states not calling themselves Common Core are pretty much using them. The Common Core includes some really basic things it’s hard to get away from.”

While politicians sort all this out, many educators, like Miller County, GA, middle school literature teacher Ben Sasser, just keep teaching. “I want students to learn how to listen and speak, absorb and process, conjugate and construct,” he says. “I'm doing all I can in the best way I can do it.”

“Standards cause anxiety and boredom in almost equal measure, and when the state seems to change them every two years or so, it just makes for seemingly unnecessary busy work,” Sasser continues. “I have to retype, reword, rework, reassess, repost, re-copy-and-paste, re-, re-, re-, re. It's hours of fun. Yes, I want to teach the standards. I really, really do — I promise. Just tell me what they are!”

“We’re in a wait-and-see kind of mode,” Nyhus laments. The good news is that “the whole Common Core movement has people looking at the rigor of whatever standards they use.”

Margot Carmichael Lester is owner of The Word Factory in Carrboro, NC. The granddaughter of schoolteachers, she’s a frequent guest instructor, leading K–12 workshops on persuasive, opinion and argumentative writing. She’s a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find her on Google+.

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