07/16/2014 05:29 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Standards?

I suspect one of the reasons conversation about Common Core state standards has gotten so very confusing and inflammatory is because so few articles, commentaries, and discussions ever spell out what standards are, how teachers use them to guide instruction, and why it might be useful to have common standards.

For example, The Washington Post published this entire front-page article on Common Core state standards without ever giving readers an example of a standard. Same with this opinion piece that appeared on At least this front-page article in The New York Times has 48 words that give readers a vague idea what a standard is - but you have to read pretty carefully to notice them among the other 4,800-or so words.

Why the lack of specificity? Maybe because talking about actual standards is -- at least to many non-educators -- kind of boring.

To demonstrate what I mean, here are two standards, taken more or less at random from Common Core State Standards:

Grade One Math Standard (Measurement and Data): Tell and write time in hours and half-hours using analog and digital clocks.

Grade Seven English Language Arts (Reading Informational Text): Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text, and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.

See what I mean? There's nothing inflammatory about standards. But their ordinariness doesn't meant they aren't important, particularly to teachers.

To back up a bit, all states have developed standards in the past 20 years, but some are so unclear and incoherent that teachers have had to rely on their own judgment of what they should be teaching when, thus exacerbating the achievement gaps that plague our schools.

Here's a rather simple example of what I mean, but it represents the thousands of dilemmas facing educators when they don't have a clear set of standards to guide their instruction.

First-grade teachers often teach telling time and making change for a dollar. But when some of their kids get it and some don't, they have had to make a decision: Should they take the time to ensure that all the kids fully understand those topics, or should they move on to the next thing in the curriculum, hoping that the kids who lag behind will catch up in second grade?

Meanwhile, the second-grade teacher has her own curriculum to get through. The kids coming to her, she thinks, should have learned how to tell time. Does she take the time to go back and reteach it and ensure that every kid has a solid basis for understanding time or keep moving forward through the second-grade curriculum?

It is in those discrete decisions -- made by individual teachers who, too often, do not have the benefit of clear standards and close collaboration with their colleagues -- that you can see how the achievement gaps that begin before kids arrive in kindergarten snowball through the years, making the U.S. near the top of the world in inequality of educational outcomes.

With Common Core State Standards, which are in place in 43 states, first-grade teachers have clear direction: They are responsible for making sure all kids know how to tell time. Second-grade teachers are responsible for making sure kids can make change for a dollar.

One very important result of having a common set of standards across states is that, finally, publishers can focus their textbooks and curricula. Until now they have been trying to match 50 sets of state standards, which means they have either produced a hodgepodge or they have focused on the standards of the biggest states.

There is no question that one impetus for common standards was the desire by state policymakers to be able to know how the kids in their states are doing compared with kids in other states and around the world.

But for educators, one of the most important parts of common standards is that they provide some clear guidance for what should be taught when and -- even more powerfully -- will permit broad, profession-wide collaboration.

So, for example, a sixth-grade teacher in Compton, California, and a sixth-grade teacher in Baltimore, Maryland, whose states have adopted Common Core State Standards, know that their students are all supposed to be working on fluently dividing multi-digit numbers using the standard algorithm and developing word problems requiring the division of fractions. Even separated by a continent, they can compare the textbooks and curricula they use, share lessons, and together hone their expertise about what works and what doesn't for their kids.

That kind of collaboration across states and cities is simply impossible without a shared set of standards.

Just to make sure that I don't fall into the trap of writing an article about Common Core State Standards without giving enough examples of what they are, here are a couple more standards, pulled more or less randomly. If you would like to see more, click here.

Grade 5 English Language Arts Standard (Literacy): Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.

High School Math Standard (Probability and Statistics): Distinguish between correlation and causation.

Again, the actual standards may not make for exciting political conversations, but they should help teachers focus their instruction.