In striving for more accountability in schools, policy-makers keep bumping up against the same problem: a lack of consistency between what we expect children to learn from state to state. If there is no nationally accepted curriculum, then there can be no national standards by which to measure student learning. A new project called the Common Core State Standards Initiative is out to change all that, with a set of proposed standards in math and language arts for kindergarten through grade 12. The goal of these standards is to establish more uniform expectations for students across the nation, in order to make them more college and career ready. Forty-eight states are involved in the effort, led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Achieve, ACT, and the College Board.

This is the first step in what will be a long process to reach an agreed upon set of national standards, but, according to the Parent Teacher Association, it's a step in the right direction. “The great benefit of the standards is that they will ensure a level playing field among states, school districts, and schools that will give all students the opportunity to be ready for their college and career,” said PTA President Charles J. Saylors.

Some believe that this will lead to greater access for parents. “Right now, parents are informed of progress, but not part of the instructional conversation,” said Mark Luetzelschwab, PhD, the senior vice president of product development and marketing at BrainHoney, an organization that assists teachers in organizing lesson plans, tracking student progress, and ensuring they’re teaching to state standards. "Having access to these standards makes it easier for you to be part of the instructional conversation. If you knew what objectives your child is covering this week, and were provided relevant information for these objectives, you could be significantly more involved in your child’s learning," said Luetzelschwab.

What would these proposed standards mean for your child? In language arts, your child would be expected to show mastery in reading, writing, speaking and listening – interrelated skills needed for success not just in college, but also in the workplace. Students must read and evaluate literature; the document cites the novel Pride and Prejudice as an “illustrative text,” or an example of material that shows the level of complexity your child must tackle when she reads. (The document authors chose the Jane Austen novel as exemplary material because of its multiple plotlines, style and word choice particular to a time period, and subtleties in the characters’ relationships.) Other illustrative texts include a Walt Whitman passage, a sample business memo, nonfiction (or “informational text”), and multimedia sources, such as a web version of the front page of the New York Times.

“Text analysis is a critical skill, and these are all valid examples of text that need to be analyzed in college and the workplace,” said Luetzelschwab. Other material he suggests for textual analysis includes “threaded” discussions, email chains, and disconnected conversations – day-to-day correspondence your child will encounter in college and in the 21st-century workplace.

In mathematics, students would be expected to develop a deep understanding and mastery of linear and exponential functions, familiarity with other families of functions, and apply algebraic, modeling, and problem solving skills – but not develop in-depth technical mastery. According to the authors’ research, the U.S. curriculum in math is a “mile wide and an inch deep,” compared to standards in other countries in which students master fewer topics. Surveys of college faculty show the need to move away from high school math courses that survey advanced topics, for example, and toward a deeper understanding and higher mastery of fewer, but more fundamental skills at the core of advanced mathematics.

This proposed shift in mathematics means that your child would be expected to have a solid grasp of essential math concepts, giving her the foundation she needs to apply knowledge to real-world problems. “One of the most critical skills we can teach is the connection of the abstract world of math to the physical world,” said Luetzelschwab. ‘It’s very different to ask someone to find the maximum y-value of a quadratic function than to ask them to figure out how high they can throw a baseball based on measurements – and then make them validate it, model it, and find out why or why not the model and reality match up.”

While language arts and math standards are divided into sections “for the sake of clarity,” the document says, the skills outlined are truly interrelated. Reading, writing, and speaking and listening, for example, are modes of communication applied at once. But while all skills are interconnected, breaking down the objectives into categories is reasonable, said Luetzelschwab, to simplify the process of measuring if the objectives are being met. “However, just because the objectives are organized in this manner does not mean the curriculum should also be organized in these neat little buckets,” he added. With these standards, your child’s teachers should align their activities to standards from multiple categories and implement a multi-model strategy that includes observation, homework, quizzes, and standardized assessments to track her progress, he suggested.

According to the draft, students who meet the core standards are ready to compete and collaborate in a global, media-saturated environment. “The skills outlined are clearly aligned to skills that modern employers are looking for and the skills that are required to excel in college-level courses,” said Luetzelschwab. But what’s lacking, he added, are objectives addressing cooperation, teamwork, leadership, information retrieval and analysis, creativity, and problem solving.

While the proposed Common Core Standards help define what your child is learning, standards alone do not change things, cautions Luetzelschwab. “If you look at improvement in five steps – define, measure, analyze, improve, and control – the standards provide the most critical ‘define’ step,” he said.

So, what happens next? Research- and evidence-supported feedback from the public is being accepted until October 21st. After this, the standards will be reviewed by a committee. To put in your two cents on the standards initative, click here.