Deciphering the Common Core

A gamesandlearning.org Explainer

Common education standards are essential for producing the educated work force America needs to remain globally competitive. This voluntary state-led effort will help ensure that all students can receive the college-ready and career-ready, world-class education they deserve, no matter where they live.

— Craig Barrett, Former CEO and Chairman of the Board, Intel Corporation

What Is It?


The standards are posted on the Common Core website and are divided between Math and English Language Arts (ELA). The ELA standards include a variety of sub-fields including literature, history, social studies and science. You can also find separate documents that outline how the standards affect those who are not native English speakers and those students with disabilities.

Common Core is the name of a set of standards developed by state education officials and adopted by nearly every state in the union. The standards were an attempt to create a single set of educational goals for students from Kindergarten to high school graduation and aimed to prepare students to succeed in college or in early careers.

The group developed a set of criteria to draft the standards. These criteria included:

  • Being aligned with college and work expectations;
  • Including rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
  • Building upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
  • Being informed by top-performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and,
  • Ensuring that the standards are evidence and/or research-based.


There is a lot of confusion — and a fair amount of misinformation — about whether Common Core reflects a national curriculum that is being forced on all students. Simply put, it is not a curriculum, but rather a list of skills and knowledge students should possess at each grade level between Kindergarten and their senior year of high school. Specific curriculum and most content decisions still reside at the state and local level.

Although the federal Department of Education endorses the standards and has encouraged their adoption through grants, the standards were developed by a group of governors and state education leaders. The group says it listened to a wide variety of feedback from parents, teachers and administrators, but the standards have faced criticism from some that key groups — like advocates for students with disabilities and the youngest students — did not have enough say in the standards. Although the Obama administration has made preparing students for college or careers a goal of education policy, failure to implement Common Core should not affect federal funds flowing to school. That said, not adopting the standards could limit the new money made available to improve the college-ready curriculum.

What I haven’t seen yet is clear recognition that the Common Core, taken seriously, eventually changes everything in American education and that implementation, done right, must be comprehensive.

— Chester Finn, President of the Thomas Fordham Institute

Why is it a big deal?

Even with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, education standards — that is what students should know at certain points in school — were set by states and enforced at the state and local level. Even now, 90 percent of money for schools comes from non-federal sources. The No Child Left Behind system allowed states to largely set their own standards and so there were different yardsticks operating in the country. A student knowing the same material could be found to be acceptable in one state and behind in another.

The Common Core State Standards (often called CCSS for short) sought to move away from the test-based No Child Left Behind and toward a single set of goals where the way to teach those skills and that knowledge were left to teachers and administrators and only the end goals were assessed.

Importantly for those considering building content or tools for the Common Core classroom, the writers of the standard saw a single nationwide set of goals as enabling a series of important collaborations across many states. These, according to the Common Core website, include:

  • the development of textbooks, digital media, and other teaching materials aligned to the standards;
  • the development and implementation of common comprehensive assessment systems to measure student performance annually that will replace existing state testing systems
  • changes needed to help support educators and schools in teaching to the new standards.

The hope is with Common Core in place those creating tools can feel assured that if their product helps a child learn a specific skill or piece of knowledge, it can be marketed to schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

What does it mean for game developers?

What Common Core means is almost every school system in the nation will be implementing a new curriculum or at the very least revising their current teaching to reflect these new standards. This means for games that either teach specific skills or, even more ideally, reflect the standards expects of students and can assess student progress through badges, levels or points, the game has a much better chance of finding interest from schools and school districts across many states.

As Jordan Shapiro of Temple University said, “Those developers who can show that their games are correlated to the Common Core standards will have a huge leg up in the years to come.”

One of the outstanding questions will be how to effectively gauge whether a student has actually learned a given skill. This effort to measure their ability is generally called assessment and to the degree that game designers consider how best to assess student progress in learning a given skill outlined in Common Core they may be able to appeal more directly to school districts and teachers looking to test their students’ proficiency.

States face key spending decisions as they implement the Common Core State Standards, and a new study finds that they could save about $927 million — or spend as much as $8.3 billion — depending on the approaches they choose in three vital areas: curriculum materials, tests, and professional development.

— Catherine Gewertz in EdWeek

Where do things stand?


Some 45 states are in the process of implementing the Common Core standards. So far only Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted Common Core standards. In some of those cases, this is because the state has rigorous standards of its own that they feel approximate the CCSS and therefore they did not need to opt in to the new effort.

The states are at varying levels of implementation and this has been one of the primary sources of criticism. Some students are already being tested against the more rigorous standards and without the benefits of the textbooks, digital tools and fully trained teachers. Not surprisingly, many of these students have struggled in the first year of teaching.

Also, in many states grassroots groups, sometimes connected to conservative causes and sometimes not, have sprung up in opposition to the CCSS. Indiana, Alabama, South Dakota and Georgia have all discussed opting out of the standards and similar measures have been proposed in Maine, Florida, Idaho and elsewhere.

Some connected with the more tea party elements of the Republican Party have also sought to capitalize on the perception that the CCSS is a federal policy with conservative talker Glenn Beck warning the plan amounts to a “leftist indoctrination” run by the Obama administration.

Other groups have specifically criticized elements of the standards, but for the most part implementation will continue through the next academic year and be up and running in most states in the next year or two.


Common Core Edition

Alignment – The degree to which assessments, curriculum, instruction, teacher preparation and professional development, and systems of accountability all reflect and reinforce the educational program’s objectives and standards.

Alternative Assessments – Ways other than standardized tests to get information about what students know and where they need help, such as oral reports, projects, performances, experiments, and class participation.

Applied Learning – The acquisition and use of knowledge, skills and understanding through tasks set in sector contexts that have many of the characteristics of real work or are set within the workplace. Most importantly, the purpose of the task must be relevant to real work in the sector.

Assessment – Any form of exam used to evaluate student performance.

Benchmarks – A detailed description of a specific level of student achievement expected of students at particular ages, grades, or developmental levels; academic goals set for each grade level.

College and Career Readiness – Measured by the level of knowledge, skills and academic preparation needed to enroll and succeed in introductory college credit-bearing courses within an associate or baccalaureate degree without need for remediation.

Differentiated Instruction – This is also referred to as “individualized” or “customized” instruction. The curriculum offers several different learning experiences within one lesson to meet students’ varied needs or learning styles.

Instructional Scaffolding – Refers to the idea that specialized instructional supports need to be in place in order to best facilitate learning when students are first introduced to a new subject.

Integrated Curriculum – Refers to the practice of using a single theme to teach a variety of subjects. It also refers to an interdisciplinary curriculum, which combines several subject or content areas into one project.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – A national test that is given to specific grade levels in specific subjects every other year. A small sample of students representative of the state are tested. NAEP test scores can be compared to national averages.

Proficiency – Mastery or ability to do something at grade level.

Race to the Top (RTTT) -A competitive federal grant program run by the U.S. Department of Education that began in 2009 and provides a total of $4 billion in one-time grants to a handful of states that have created conditions for bold, comprehensive action in four reform areas described in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Scientifically-based Research – Research that involves the application of rigorous, systemic and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to educational activities and programs.

Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium(SBAC) – Smarter Balance is a state-led consortium developing assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics that are designed to help prepare all students to graduate high school college- and career-ready.

Standardized Test – A test that is in the same format for all who take it. It often relies on multiple-choice questions and the testing conditions — including instructions, time limits, and scoring rubrics — are the same for all students, though sometimes accommodations on time limits and instructions are made for disabled students.

Summative Assessment – An assessment of learning in which the focus is on determining what the student has learned at the end of a unit of instruction or at the end of a grade level (e.g., through grade-level, standardized assessments).

Value-Added Calculation – Models used in school district teacher and principal evaluation systems that measure the contribution of an individual teacher or school to students’ learning growth over time in a particular subject.

Vertical Alignment – Planning curriculum across the grade levels, from Kindergarten through high school, building upon instruction based upon standards.

The Debate


Read more about the debate at the Smithsonian

As was mentioned, the development and especially the implementation of the Common Core State Standards has sparked widespread political and policy debate. Attacked as a coercion of local control or a national takeover of education on one side and a bureaucratic rat’s nest of educational goals disconnected from the teacher’s experience on the other, the debate over CCSS is important to understand for those developers and marketers considering entering the formal education market.

The following is a snapshot of the current public debate over the Common Core and a sense of the political atmosphere administrators and teachers are operating in:

Our educational system has become so tangled in experiments and exams and excuses that we’ve drifted away from the basis of what makes education great: learning to think critically and solve problems. We have drifted away from the fundamentals of what makes a great teacher: the ability to light a fire in a child, to develop in him or her a level of intellectual curiosity, the grit to persevere and the capacity to expand. Great teachers help to activate a small thing that breeds great minds: thirst. The Common Core is meant to help bolster those forms of learning and teaching.

Charles Blow in The New York Times

Maybe I am missing something. Can anyone explain how the nation can adopt national standards without any evidence whatever that they will improve achievement, enrich education, and actually help to prepare young people — not for the jobs of the future, which are unknown and unknowable — but for the challenges of citizenship and life? The biggest fallacy of the Common Core standards is that they have been sold to the nation without any evidence that they will accomplish what their boosters claim.

Diane Ravitch, NYU Professor in the Huffington Post

I feared the new standards would lead to my students failing and that I would be scapegoated for those failures. But after two years of working with the Common Core in my Boston classroom, I’m a convert — That said, the first year wasn’t pretty. I struggled, and so did my students, and when it came time for the first assessment exams of the year, my kids bombed. My ego was bludgeoned and my students were frustrated with the new types of questions used in the exams. I was afraid I would be viewed as an ineffective teacher, but thankfully, my principal remained unwavering in his support of the staff. He knew the transition would take time, and he wasnít looking to blame teachers.

Andrew Vega, teacher in LA and Boston, in the Los Angeles Times

When I first read about the Common Core State Standards, I cheered. I believe that our schools should teach all students (except for those who have severe learning disabilities), the skills, habits and knowledge that they need to be successful in post secondary education. That doesn’t mean that every teenager must be prepared to enter Harvard, but it does mean that every young adult, with few exceptions, should at least be prepared to enter their local community college. That is how we give students a real choice… I confess that I was naive. I should have known in an age in which standardized tests direct teaching and learning, that the standards themselves would quickly become operationalized by tests. Testing, coupled with the evaluation of teachers by scores, is driving its implementation. The promise of the Common Core is dying and teaching and learning are being distorted. The well that should sustain the Core has been poisoned.

Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York, quoted in the Washington Post

Additional Resources

  • Common Core State Standards Initiative – the official site for the new standards has a list of resources for publishers about the new initiative as well as an FAQ about the effort and the standards themselves.
  • Achieve the Core – this site was produced by Student Achievement Partners (who were deeply involved in writing the Core) and has a large library of information about how teachers can adapt to the new standards.
  • The Council of Chief State School Officers – the CCSSO helped craft the Core and is now largely in charge of implementing it. They has a site that offers some insight into what is happening in state’s in this series of publications from the middle of 2013.
  • Smarter Balance  This consortium is working to develop tools and benchmarks to assess students’ ability to achieve the standards outlined in the Common Core.