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Trickle or Tsunami?: Getting Involved with the Common Core Standards

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Nov 18 2011 screencap, Common Core Standards Initiative main page, 15 Nov 2011

Is everybody talking about the Common Core standards in your district? I’ve heard them described as a tsunami by some educators, and also received blank looks when I’ve mentioned them.

These standards, developed through an initiative led by a consortium of states and territories, and overseen by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), are having a large impact fairly quickly. As of November 2011, only 16 months after they were published, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards. For federal programs, like Race to the Top and the waiver program for No Child Left Behind, states need to show that they have adopted top-notch college and career-ready standards. The Common Core State Standards fit that bill. Chances are that these standards will be on your district’s professional development agenda soon, if they are not there already.

Chances are that these standards will be on your district’s professional development agenda soon, if they are not there already.

The standards that potentially matter to history educators are nested in the English/Language Arts section of the standards and focus on literacy. With this focus, they broadcast that history and social studies teachers are literacy teachers and that historical reading and writing are skills that students should master before they leave high school. In the standards document, there are also nods to history and social studies as long-time companions of civic competency, as its stated “vision” of a literate person in the 21st century includes such things as demonstrating “the cogent reasoning and use of evidence...essential to…responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.” (p.9)

Interpreting the Standards

These Common Core literacy standards, like your own state’s history/social studies standards, are designed to articulate clearly what students should be able to do by high school graduation, not how to get them there. They are not a road map; they are the destination.

[The Common Core Standards] are not a road map; they are the destination.

That means there is a lot of work to be done to make the map. First, we need to understand and evaluate the standards. They are blessedly short. If you are a secondary teacher, you can scan two pages (63, 60) and see them in their entirety. Look at four more pages and you can see them broken down across grades 6-12 in a kind of developmental trajectory (61, 64–66). If you are an elementary teacher, look at pages 10, 18, 22 and 25 for an overview. To make the necessary curricular and instructional road maps, we will need to ask the questions that we ask of all standards: what does a student performance that meets this standard look like? What kinds of tasks can I use to enable students to show mastery of the standard(s)? What kinds of tasks and learning activities will scaffold that performance?

History and Literacy

This can all start to sound like more to add onto a curriculum already bursting at the seams. Your history course consistently requires you to make hard choices (more time on World War I or make it to the 1980s?) so adding more to it may sound outrageous or discouraging—just one more top-down dictate with an uncertain impact on student learning. But wait, these literacy standards may not be an add-on for you: they may in fact support what you are already doing in your class.

These literacy standards may not be an add-on for you: they may in fact support what you are already doing in your class.

Do you teach history as argument? Are your students engaged in analyzing primary sources and comparing secondary accounts? Do your students conduct research?

If so, and I imagine many of you are nodding yes, then much of these standards’ content will be familiar to you. Consider that the primary genre of writing that secondary students should master is “arguments focused on discipline-specific content.” Twelfth graders should be able to “introduce precise, knowledgeable claims,” distinguish them from counterclaims, and supply “data and evidence” for each while indicating its “strengths and limitations.” Likewise, sixth graders should write arguments, and be able to introduce a claim and support it with “accurate data and evidence.”

In reading, middle school students should to be able to “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources” and high schoolers should be able to do the same while “attending to such [text] features as the date and origin of the information.” In the more generic elementary standards, fifth graders should be able to “quote accurately from a text” to support explanations and inferences. Alongside this emphasis on using textual evidence is a focus on adjudicating between multiple texts and being able to “integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding,” while “noting discrepancies among sources."

Historical Thinking and the Standards

Is this sounding familiar?

It is to us. In fact, the six facets of historical thinking in our What is Historical Thinking video and poster focus on these kinds of disciplinary skills. And while not all the Literacy in History/Social Studies standards are as familiar (what does summarizing “how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text” look like?), we will be working in the coming months to make explicit how our content can support you in teaching to these standards. Also look for our upcoming Roundtable about what these standards mean for history education. (For example, what are the implications of nesting our discipline in ELA standards? Should History/Social Studies have a distinct set of standards?)

Your content knowledge is needed. Your knowledge about teaching history to diverse student populations is needed even more.

But in the meantime, I urge you to get involved in your local and state efforts to understand and use these standards. Your administrators may not know that you and your colleagues teach historical argument and are already deeply engaged with the challenge of helping students master historical reading and writing. Write your principal, district administrator, or state history education specialist an email today to let them know that you can be a resource for thinking through these standards.

Making effective road maps requires that history and social studies educators get involved with the evaluation, implementation, and assessment of these standards. Your content knowledge is needed. Your knowledge about teaching history to diverse student populations is needed even more.

If the Common Core standards are to be a tsunami, let’s have history teachers riding that tsunami and broadcasting its arrival, what it means, and how to tame it, rather than being crushed by it.


Gewertz, Catherine. “Specialists Weigh Common Social Studies Standards.” Education Week, May 18, 2011.

For more information 

Find the standards here.