Power Standards or Why the Common Core is Like a Second Marriage

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 11 October, 2012

Blast from the Past: This was originally posted October 11, 2012, and was re-issued on October 5, 2017. These observations were relevant concerning Common Core originally, but it is relevant to most or all of the states' standards now. The CCSS model has been a persuasive one: it has led states to focus on fewer but bigger, well-organized standards. That means trying to pick the important ones is no longer a smart way to go.

Recently, I received a note from an educator trying to develop “power standards” for the common core. Power standards is a concept developed by Doug Reeves and Larry Ainsworth. Their idea was that school districts needed to identify the most important curriculum standards – the ones students really needed to learn—and then to prioritize those standards to ensure maximum learning.

Most state standards have been long lists of semi-random, undifferentiated skills, usually quite uneven in grain-size. So this approach made sense.

The common core standards, however, are relatively brief (“fewer, bigger, better”) and one standard is really no more important than another.  As such these standards work better in their totality than as individual items. The common core standards are the power standards.

Coping with Common Core 

What is going on here is something marriage counselors see all the time. A husband or wife in a second marriage often try to refight the battles of the first marriage. Bad idea. The circumstances have changed. The status quo is no more. The new hubby isn’t responsible for what the Ex did or failed to do. It is time to move on with a fresh slate.

We’re all in a second marriage with standards.

This new partner deserves a tabula rasa. The coping behaviors that made sense the first time around no longer make sense. (If you stopped inviting your sister to your parties because your former husband got drunk in social situations, it may be time to update your invite list). The point isn't that these coping behaviors didn't have utility before -- they did, that was why you developed them -- but your situation has changed and those responses, as wise as they might have been, no longer should have a place in your life's routine.

Which Coping Mechanisms to Drop

What does that mean in terms of the standards? Probably many things, but here are a few that I have run into:

1.  Don't provide grade-level standards for each teacher, but give them the entire set of standards K-12. These standards have coherence, and teachers cannot understand them a grade level at a time.

2.  Don't develop pacing guides for the reading, writing, or oral language standards. Pacing guides made sense when standards were a bunch of individual skills, but these fit together better into coherent sets that need to be applied in combination during reading (or writing or speaking or listening).

3.  Don't divide the reading, writing, or oral language standards by report card marking. See item 2 above.

4.  Don't disconnect the reading standards from texts. You won’t improve kids’ chances of success in identifying the key ideas by having students read lots of disconnected paragraphs to answer “key ideas questions.” Instead, students need to apply such skills or engage in such behaviors, with text that is sufficiently complex and challenging.   

5.  Don’t reduce common core standards to power standards. Consider doing the opposite. A great in-service would be for teachers to unpack standards to identify the subskills and knowledge inherent in each. Understanding each standard in this way allows teachers to be more responsive to students’ learning needs.

6.  Don't have teachers staple their standards into their lesson plan books. Instead, have them staple them into their brains. These grade-level standards are brief and well organized enough that teachers can carry these around in their heads instead of in their book bags--meaning that they can take advantage of teachable moments that may arise.

Each of these coping mechanisms made sense before, but they don't fit our new partner and ought to be dropped from our repertoires.

Oh, and don't go to sleep angry.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Robyn Trowbridge Jun 20, 2017 12:56 PM


So does this same idea apply to the "essential skills" that Dufour and Dufour reference in the PLC concept?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2017 12:56 PM


I don't know the PLC concept very well, but to the extent that I do, no, I don't think it is the same problem. PLC wants you to focus and to define terms, but I don't get the sense that they require one to narrow down the curriculum. In fact, it is possible that to do what PLC requires, you might have to break common core down into smaller pieces to help you to understand them or to define them. That is not a problem, whereas leaving out or minimizing some of the standards would be.


Anonymous Jun 20, 2017 12:57 PM


- I would tend to disagree with the statements/anallogy when you are working with students with significant disabilities. Yes, all standards are important, but for students who will inherently not be able to master all of the standards, even despite significant supports, where do you place your greatest emphasis?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2017 12:57 PM


I hear you. That isn't quite the same thing as power standards, but the notion that you might have to narrow your focus with somebody who is severely disabled makes a lot of sense (thus, if the student can't even decode, I would put more time into the decoding--without totally ignoring at least some of the higher level concerns). However, if I were teaching comprehension, the idea of focusing on only some aspects of comprehension would make no sense.

Trevor Jun 20, 2017 12:58 PM


Is it reasonable to try and break out the Common Core standards by quarter? I had initially worked with our curriculum coordinators to develop a report card that showed the standard as measured as an end of the year goal. Meaning that students were measured against where they should be by the end of the year and the conversation with parents would be about the progress made towards these end of the year standards. However, I've had questions about breaking up the standards by quarter? Is this something you'd recommend and if so how would we begin to break up these standards by quarter?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2017 12:58 PM


I think dividing the decoding standards or the language standards across report card markings could be a good idea. There are lots of specific skills there that need to be taught and this might facilitate accomplishment of that. However, it makes no sense with reading or writing or oral language. There are a small number of very large standards and kids will have to work with these over and over throughout a school year in various combinations.

Timothy Garrity Jun 20, 2017 12:59 PM


What is your opinion of Kansas University's Learning Strategies?

It would seem to fit a whole swath of CC/Power Standards, yet few schools use it and those that do often use it incorrectly.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2017 12:59 PM


The Kansas strategies are not included in the CCSS in any way. They reflect the difference between goals (standards) and curriculum (what you would teach to get kids to the goals (including comprehension strategies). I would not try to get the goals down to a smaller number (thus i would not use power standards with reading or writing in CCSS), but I would not hesitate to teach things like strategies if I believed they would increase the chances of meeting my goals (and I do).

Erica Holton Feb 28, 2023 02:13 PM

I appreciated finding this post, especially the list. Could you point me in the direction of some resources, research, books, etc that would expand on this issue. The concept of Power Standards and reporting by standard is extremely prevalent, and I would love some more information concerning why that approach isn't best for students when it comes to literacy. I'm in total agreement, but I want to make sure I have sufficient evidence to share with those who may not hold the same perspective. Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Mar 01, 2023 06:49 PM


I'm sorry, I don't know of any others writing about that topic. Perhaps you'd find it helpful to know that I was one of the authors of the Common Core Standards.

Good luck.

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Power Standards or Why the Common Core is Like a Second Marriage


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.