How to align courses to Common Core: a tongue-in-cheek guide

I’ve been reading the education blogs, and I think I’ve finally figured out this whole “align with the Common Core” thing.

1. Take a lesson you’ve been doing that didn’t produce the learning students need.

2. Find something in the lesson that is like something called for in Common Core.

3. Include the code for the Common Core standard with your lesson plan.

How hard is that?


Misaligned with the Common Core

As the Common Core State Standards are rolled out across America, CCSS opponents such as Diane Ravitch, decry the profits publishers are making selling “Common Core aligned” material, which often is nothing more than their old materials with a CCSS reference number slapped on them.

As troubling at that practice is, I am at least as disturbed by educators who putting a CCSS reference number on their materials and saying their curriculum and their assessments align with the Common Core.

Sample student learning outcomes posted to, a website developed and maintained by the New York State Education Department, demonstrate just how serious the problem is.

The sample learning outcomes appear to have been developed by teachers. Each SLO includes information about the number and educational characteristics of students enrolled in the class, such as their ages/grade level, whether they had IEPs or were English Language Learners.

One SLO I examined is for a Computer Applications course. As you will see, the outcomes the teacher wrote (the author is not identified) do not specify what computer applications the students will study. That gap apparently did not bother the state education staff, but it bothers me.

Objectives for student learning

The Computer Applications course uses objectives borrowed from three sources, two of which are publicly accessible.

National Business Applications Standards

As a business owner, I hope the National Business Education Association’s standards include some instruction in

  • word processing
  • spreadsheets
  • Internet research
  • basic HTML coding
  • presentation/multi-media software

However, without paying a hefty price ($90 for the standards plus $9 shipping), the only way I or another member of the public has of figuring out what specific applications are taught in the computer course is to analyze the teacher’s description of the course assessments.

The teacher writes that the Computer Applications course “assessment is based upon keyboarding skills, multiple choice questions, and short answer section (error analysis).” The only application that suggests to me is word processing.


New York State’s Career Development and Occupational Studies objectives used for the Computer Applications course include what the layperson would refer to as:

  • applying classroom knowledge in the workplace
  • “soft skills” and/or “employability skills”

The state education department provides a downloadable PDF that shows both  standards and suggested assessments  for the standards, which are remarkably hands-on and realistic.

These suggested assessments were not used with the sample teacher’s curriculum.

Common Core State Standards

The teacher aligned the Computer Applications course to eight English language arts standards for writing, reading, and speaking. This list gives the gist of the standard the teacher cited. Use the link to get the CCSS wording.

  • CCRW4: Produce clear, coherent, appropriate writing
  • CCRW6: Use technology to write and collaborate.
  • CCRW10: Write long and short pieces regularly.
  • WHST5: Plan, revise, and edit writing.
  • WHST6: Use technology to keep written information current.
  • CCRL1: Use standard grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • CCRL2: Follow standard edited English conventions.
  • CCRL6: Continually expand vocabulary.

Remember the teachers’ description of the assessment instruments? It said, “Assessment is based upon keyboarding skills, multiple choice questions, and short answer section (error analysis).”

Do you think multiple choice questions are likely to show how whether students write long and short documents regularly?

Is a multiple choice question likely to show how well students use technology to write collaboratively?

Will an error analysis show whether students are regularly expanding their vocabulary?

I don’t think multiple choice items are likely to be good ways of assessing those kinds of learning.

The central problem

The teacher who prepared this material has made a real effort to do what she or he thought needed to be done. But her/his understanding of teaching to a set of standards is flawed.

While every teacher in a Common Core school is supposed to pitch in with helping students master the ELA and math objectives, each teacher is supposed to look for logical connections between what they teach and the Core.

Finding those logical connections between Core and course curriculum is easier if teachers work with the specific year-by-year standards rather than with the CCR standards for K-12.

Teaching to the standards

Students need to learn computer applications so they can do things such as:

  • Write documents
  • Gather data through online search, surveys, etc.
  • Collaborate on work tasks with people who are in different locations.
  • Record  numerical information
  • Analyze information
  • Produce and distribute multimedia information to various audiences.

The computer teacher can teach any of those skills and show their applicability to the Common Core using the year-by-year ELA and math standards.

The teacher can also use skills required in the core, such as writing and math, in computer class tasks. For example, having students use software to graph their keyboarding progress would provide a logical link between the Common Core standards and the computer course itself.

I feel sorry for teachers who want to teach well but are left to figure it out without help from anyone with experience teaching to standards.

They deserve better treatment.

Standards-Based Teaching Mindset

The controversy surrounding assessment of students and teachers in standards-based classrooms in the U.S. and around the world has obscured a fundamental problem in teacher preparation: The vast majority of teachers have been taught to think in terms of lessons and units, not in terms of objectives. They don’t have any training in working with standards.

A few truly gifted teachers can teach lessons and units, each with their own objectives, and manage over an academic year to instill in their students a knowledge of the major concepts,  essential skills, and attitudes required in that discipline.

The majority of teachers, however, teach as they were taught and as they were taught to teach: in disconnected units.

They may teach well.

Students may acquire a great deal of information.

Students are unlikely, however, to get the big picture that will allow them to use their knowledge to acquire and produce new knowledge.

The frustration  teachers who are told to use methods they haven’t experienced or been taught is intense. I feel especially bad for the teachers who are eager to teach better, but held back by their unit-mindset, as these two tweets for help reveal:
Tweet from teacher

Tweet by teacher

This teacher’s problem is a unit mindset: one concept, one week.

Working within a standards-based environment means teachers must think in terms of objectives for a year or longer. Those objectives are major concepts and major skills. Such objectives cannot be “hit in a short time.” They cannot be confined to a lesson, a week, a unit. They must be taught repeatedly throughout the year in multiple ways in multiple contexts.

Take, for example, the Common Core Reading Standards for Literature for grade 6 students. The nine standards listed are to be a focus for the year.

Learning to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (the first standard) is not something students will learn to do in one unit. So instead of teaching a unit on citing textual evidence,  teachers incorporate that activity regularly into learning activities until citing textual evidence becomes standard procedure for students.

Teaching within a standards-based environment allows—even demands—teachers assume more responsibility for selecting materials to use with their students. In addition, teachers have more freedom and responsibility for the pace of instruction: “This month’s unit” is on its way out.

We’re probably in for a long period of turmoil until the assessment issues are worked out, but when they are settled, I believe many teachers will welcome having more professional responsibility for managing their classroom learning environment and will do  better teaching in a standards-based environment.

They just need the right mindset.