Back to School: What is the Common Core?

File photo (MGN Online/

GREEN BAY - You may hear a lot about the Common Core State Standards as your children head Back to School .

But what is the Common Core, and how will it affect your children?

Students in classrooms across Wisconsin are being held to new standards.

But parents say they still need to learn more about the Common Core.

“No, I haven't really heard anything about that at all,” said Jill Ruelle of Green Bay.

“I'm surprised that it's not out there more,” said Amy Archibald, from Suamico.

“I've heard bad and I've heard good and I haven't done enough research to know what it's all about,” said Stacy Hakes of Suamico.

So what is the Common Core? Pull up a desk.

“It articulates what we want students to know and be able to do,” said Assistant State Superintendent Sheila Briggs.

The Common Core sets standards for math and English. Those standards are broken down by each grade level.

That's different from the old Wisconsin State Standards, which only focused on fourth, eighth and tenth grade.

National education groups created the standards in 2010 to improve student test scores. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction adopted the Common Core that same year.

“The common core state standards add more rigor than what we have right now,” said Tony Evers, the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools. “The local school boards decide whether they're going to be part of this or not.”

But critics say the Common Core lacks true local control. Duke Pesta teaches English at UW-Oshkosh. He also runs Freedom Project Education, an online home school program. Pesta says the Common Core needs more input from Wisconsin educators.

“When the tests are the only meaningful measure that you have, when your school and your teachers are evaluated based on how those kids do on the tests, how do you change them if the tests don't change? And no one in Wisconsin controls the tests,” said Pesta.

We met up with local teachers at a training seminar. They say the Common Core is working well.

“Even at first, I was one who thought, you know, ‘Can my kids really tackle this, are they developmentally ready for this?’ And they are. I've done some of the best teaching in the last two years with my students going deeper into texts, understanding material, and it's been really, really good,” said Patty Lofdahl, a sixth grade English teacher at Red Smith School in Green Bay.

Pesta says not all teachers feel that way, and are too afraid to speak out.

“If you're a teacher, and I've met thousands in this state alone who oppose it, they don't dare publicly speak out about it because of the pressure coming from the schools, coming from the administrators, coming ultimately from the DPI,” said Pesta.

School administrators in Green Bay say teachers have had to make changes in the classroom because of the Common Core. Educators say parents might notice that change most in the math homework their children bring home.

When most of us adults were in elementary school, we learned math by solving a series of arithmetic problems. But now, teachers say they're having students focus more on what's commonly referred to as word problems.

The school district says word problems are more like real-world scenarios.

“Children actually have to know how to do math. How math is applied in a daily life and across multiple content areas. I think that's the critical piece. They need to not only be able to compute math but they have to be able to talk about it,” said Nancy Chartier, the Director of Elementary Teaching and Learning at Green Bay Public Schools.

The Common Core does not regulate science or social studies standards. But the DPI wants students to better understand the information they read in a science or history book.

“It does not mean that we have English literature teachers teaching from pamphlets or manuals. We certainly want them to continue using great classic works of fiction literature. It means we have, for instance, a science teacher contributing the student's greater understanding of how to read an informational text,” said Briggs.

Common Core critics say the standards control too much of what children will read.

“The Common Core Standards didn't require that any books be read. What the common core standards did however was produce a group of exemplar texts-a group of about 450 texts that the common core people said "we approve these ones,” said Pesta.

Here is the list of sample books and articles. It's broken down by grade level. But the DPI says schools aren't required to teach off of this list.

“It's not even a suggestion list from us. That is fully a local control decision. That is local teachers, local school districts and school boards. They decide the materials and the curriculum,” said Briggs.

Schools say regardless of any changes they have made, they won't be able to gauge Common Core's true impact until students take new standardized tests this coming school year.