Parents and the Common Core: A Conversation with National PTA President Otha Thornton

By ann-old

Evidence clearly shows that family engagement in education promotes student success. And the vast majority of parents (and other family members and guardians) understands that fact and takes educational responsibilities very seriously. So when they are faced with reforms that require changes to their children’s school experiences, families rightly raise questions and concerns about how those reforms will impact the learning and life of students.

Recently, one education reform in particular has come under significant scrutiny from a number of different education stakeholders, including families: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative. Parents have expressed concern about how the standards will impact student testing, classroom rigor, student privacy, what children will read and more. But even in the face of such concerns, one group that has never wavered in its support of the Common Core is the National PTA.

National PTA President Otha Thornton recently took the time to tell us why the organization continues to support the standards and what parents should know about them. He also dispelled some of the myths surrounding the Common Core and shared resources to help parents learn more and support successful implementation of the CCSS in their communities.

Public School Insights (PSI): Why does the National PTA support the Common Core?

Otha Thornton: Since 2009, National PTA has firmly supported the development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, maintaining that every child deserves a high quality education that prepares him or her for success upon graduation from high school. National PTA is confident that the Common Core State Standards are an essential tool to ensure that America’s youth have the opportunity to reach their full potential and become productive members of

society. National PTA’s position statement on Education Emphasis covers PTA’s position on voluntary standards. Specifically, National PTA:

  • Supports nationally agreed upon voluntary standards if they are derived by consensus at the state and local levels. Parents must be involved in this process.
  • Opposes federal legislation and/or regulations that mandate standardized testing or would lead to such testing, as well as federal policies that mandate comparisons of states, school districts, or individual schools and student retention based on a single test or sole criterion and the practice of social promotion.
  • Believes that valid assessment does not consist of only a single test score, and that at no time should a single test be considered the sole determinant of a student's academic or work future. 

PSI: What are the two or three most important things that parents should know about the Common Core?

Thornton: First, today’s workplace requires employees to be able to think on their feet, make decisions and solve problems. As the demand for highly skilled workers continues to increase, it is imperative that America’s youth are prepared with critical thinking and reasoning skills necessary to engage in our complex work environments and compete in our global economy. The Common Core State Standards are internationally benchmarked, relevant to the real world and reflect the knowledge and skills students need to compete globally and excel in their studies and the workplace.

Second, as states implement the Common Core, they also are transitioning to new assessments designed to better measure if students are on track for college and career readiness. This is a new system with a new way of scoring, and as a result, it is not possible to compare the new scores directly with the old state assessment scores. What is important is that the higher standards are measured with better tests. Because the rigor is higher, it may appear that scores have temporarily dropped. If this does happen, it does not mean a student is performing worse on the new tests. Educators expect this short-term decline to improve as teachers and students become more familiar with the standards and better equipped to meet the challenges they present.

Third, in a recent survey of teachers, more than 70 percent indicated that they are enthusiastic about the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in their classrooms, believing the standards will hold students and teachers to higher expectations, improve students’ ability to think critically and use reasoning skills and provide nationwide consistency in a positive way.

PSI: Some opponents claim that the Common Core requires some states to lower their academic standards. Should parents be concerned that if they live in a state that adopted the Common Core, their children will not be as challenged in school as they used to be?

Thornton: The Common Core State Standards increase rigor in every school and focus on problem solving and critical thinking skills, not solely on knowledge of particular facts that have little relationship to success later in life. College and career-ready standards are critical because even in high-performing states, some students are passing all required tests and graduating, yet still require remediation in their postsecondary work.

On the other hand, another common concern in raising the standards is whether or not it is likely that students will drop out of school. Data does not support this idea and actually shows the opposite — when more is expected of students, they rise to the challenge. In a survey of high school dropouts, two thirds reported that they would have worked harder if more was demanded of them.

PSI: Opponents also claim that the Common Core compromises student privacy – that the federal government will be collecting and storing personally identifiable information about students. Could you set the record straight on this issue? What concerns should parents have about their children’s privacy and the Common Core?

Thornton: Common Core is not a mechanism for federal data collection. Federal law, FERPA , prohibits the reporting of aggregate data that could identify individual students. In addition, the federal government does not have access to the student-level information held in state databases. States – as they have always done in the past – have collected student information through state assessments in accordance with state and federal law and will continue these practices under new assessments

PSI: What type of work has PTA done to increase awareness and understanding about the Common Core in general?

Thronton: National PTA remains committed to supporting parents and educators as states transition to the Common Core. Since it began its work on the standards, National PTA and its volunteers nationwide have educated millions of people and conducted trainings for tens of thousands of people on the standards.

PSI: Are there other resources, from PTA or others, that can help parents learn more about the standards?

Thornton: National PTA has developed a wide variety of resources for parents and educators to ensure they are knowledgeable about the standards and new assessments, including the Parent’s Guide to Student Success, Common Core State Standards Assessment and Accountability Guides and a webinar series.

The Parent’s Guide to Student Success has been used throughout the nation by parents, school districts, community partners and departments of education. The grade-by-grade guide explains the Common Core State Standards and key items that children should be learning in English and math, features activities parents can do at home to support their child’s learning, and highlights questions parents can ask their child’s teacher.

The Common Core State Standards Assessment and Accountability Guides have been developed for every state that has adopted the standards. The guides feature information in parent-friendly language, including background on the standards and state-specific information about their assessment consortium, the testing timeline, sample test questions, impacts on students, new accountability systems and ways for parents to get involved and support their child’s learning at home.

The Parent’s Guide to Student Success, Common Core State Standards Assessment and Accountability Guides, and other resources are available at

PSI: How can parents help ensure successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards?

Thornton: It is essential that parents are actively involved in their child’s education. Education is individual for each child, so it is critical that parents find what works best for their child and work with their child’s teacher to determine how best to support him or her. It is also important for parents to take the time to learn what is expected for their child during the school year.

Parents should look in their child’s backpack every day; frequently view the parent portal (or whichever tool their school uses) and participate at the school when possible; develop a relationship with their child’s teacher and keep in touch often; and assist their child with their homework and encourage him or her to read aloud. Parents also can join their local PTA. One of the most important “tools” is the opportunity for parents to connect with other parents who have the same questions, concerns, hopes and dreams for their children.

PSI: Are there any other questions that I should have asked you, but did not?

Thornton: It is important to identify the real cause of concern for the Common Core. Many parents are finding that their concerns are not actually related to the standards, but rather issues surrounding implementation (teacher training, aligning curriculum) and assessments (testing schedule, accountability, privacy).

It also is important for parents to know that the Common Core only set expectations for what students must know to leave school prepared for college and careers. The standards do not dictate the details of academic curriculum. States, districts and teachers remain in control of curriculum and assessment decisions.

Each state has unique challenges, but it is important not to back away from demanding the highest expectations of our children via the Common Core State Standards. The road will be bumpy, but we cannot allow these challenges to undermine this strong bipartisan effort to raise the bar for all children.

Image provided by the National PTA