Nearly everyone wants to improve the nation’s public schools, but it’s hard to find broad agreement about how best to do it.

The most current example of this may be the debate over Common Core State Standards. The intention was to create clear, high expectations for the knowledge students must learn to ensure they are college or career ready.

But a growing number are questioning whether the new standards will achieve that goal.

It’s a debate unfolding across the country, and a new chapter could be written in South Carolina when lawmakers return to Columbia in January. Here is a primer:

What are the Common Core State Standards?

The Common Core State Standards are a new set of standards that define what students must learn in grades K-12 in English language arts and math.

For example, one of the first-grade English language arts standards calls for students to be able to identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.

Schools still have the ability to decide the method and curriculum they would use to teach that standard.

Why are they controversial?

The standards have been criticized for both what they represent as well as what they contain.

From a philosophical standpoint, many Republicans are concerned that the standards will infringe on states’ rights. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has said, “We need to move past the notion that the federal government knows best when it comes to the unique needs of our students and communities.”

Others are opposed to the content of the standards for a range of reasons. Some have argued that the new standards aren’t rigorous or developmentally appropriate, and that they try to instill federally determined attitudes and mindsets about political and religious beliefs.

Some have said that the new standards put too much emphasis on informational text and neglect classic literature. Still others have said they eliminate the study of cursive writing, thus failing to give students the skills needed to read, among other things, historical documents such as the U.S. Constitution.

Why is the controversy happening now?

Educators aside, most people don’t understand what “standards” are, so that’s likely one of the reasons some opponents didn’t take notice when Common Core emerged in 2010. Since then, a growing number of conservatives have been speaking out against them.

From a political perspective, Republicans have been lashing out at the Democratic administration for its implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Common Core has been another rallying point for them. While Republicans have been louder and more vocal in their opposition, some Democrats also are fighting the national standards but for different reasons. Some, for example, don’t think the new standards-aligned tests will assess student achievement better than states’ pervious tests

Most teachers have been supportive of the new standards. The National Education Association, which has 3 million members, and the American Federation of Teachers, which has about 1.5 million members, have both endorsed Common Core.

What role did the federal government have in the development of Common Core?

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan have endorsed and encouraged states to adopt the standards by using grants and waivers, but the U.S. Department of Education played no role in developing the standards. Those grants and waivers were why some states adopted Common Core, and some feel as if states were coerced into doing so.

Who came up with Common Core?

They were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in partnership with teachers, school administrators, parents and experts from across the country. The standards were benchmarked against those in the world’s top performing countries. The goal was to ensure students are better prepared for two- or four-year college programs or for the workforce.

Which states adopted Common Core?

States independently decided whether to adopt the Common Core State Standards. A total of 46 states and the District of Columbia are putting these standards into practice — every state but Texas, Virginia, Alaska and Nebraska. Minnesota only adopted the reading standards. Although some states, including South Carolina, have proposed legislation to prevent Common Core from taking effect in their schools, no state has dropped implementation yet.

Why did South Carolina adopt Common Core?

The state Education Oversight Committee and the state Board of Education signed off on the state’s adoption of the standards. Some wanted the state to use the standards because they said it would enable South Carolina to compare its students’ results with other states, which has been virtually impossible. It also gave the state a better shot at securing some federal money.

Where does South Carolina’s debate stand?

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, has introduced a bill to block Common Core’s implementation here, but that legislation has not moved so far. Grooms has said its chances seem to be improving.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a Republican, has said he doesn’t support the standards, which were approved here before he took office in 2011.

This month, Zais wrote a letter criticizing the standards for forcing all S.C. students on a path toward a four-year college, “when we know that 70 percent of our high school students will not attend a four-year college. I believe we ought to be preparing our students for life, not for some elusive goal chosen by other people.”

When is Common Core going to be used in South Carolina classrooms?

Barring any successful legislative effort, the standards will be fully implemented and tested during the 2014-15 school year. This school year is a bridge year, meaning school districts statewide are using the standards in classroom lessons.

How will the standards change what South Carolina students learn?

The state compared the content in the new standards with its current standards and found them very similar — a 97 percent match. While the content is similar, a major difference is Common Core’s emphasis on rigor and applying knowledge learned. Supporters say the Common Core will require students to think and reason more deeply, but opponents disagree.

Will the standards change how students are tested?

Yes. The state Board of Education agreed to adopt new tests for the 2014-15 school year that are being developed by the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, a collection of educators, researchers, policymakers and community groups from states nationwide. The new reading and math exams will replace what students know now as the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, and the new tests could serve as replacements for exit exams and end-of-course tests, if the General Assembly approves that change.

What kind of results can the state expect to see as a result of Common Core?

It’s too early to say. Students’ scores in New York and Kentucky have dropped on tests aligned to the Common Core standards. Supporters say those are a more accurate assessment of the degree to which students are being prepared, but opponents say that’s just another reason why there shouldn’t be national standards.

Source: The Post and Courier, S.C. Department of Education,, Education Week