How to Use State Learning Standards
Each state has created or endorsed a set of learning goals for children in public schools. These learning goals are called state standards. Standards do not say how the student should learn over the course of the year, or what curricular materials should be used; instead, they simply state what learning the child is expected to gain.
At CRHE, we believe that home educators only stand to benefit from familiarizing themselves with state learning standards. This is true whether they purchase a complete curriculum or take a more eclectic/relaxed approach to homeschooling.
How Knowing State Learning Standards Can Help
Let’s use an example to illustrate the ways homeschooling can be informed by standards. Maggie is homeschooling her 3rd grade son, Liam. She looks at the 3rd grade Common Core English Language Arts standards and finds these items listed under “Reading: Literature”:
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
If Maggie uses a 3rd grade language arts curriculum that is aligned with these standards, she can better understand why her son’s workbook asks him to show where in the text he found specific information. She understands his curriculum better because she knows the learning it is designed to create. This gives her more flexibility — she may choose to move more quickly through sections where she knows her son has already mastered the standards being taught. On the other hand, if Liam struggles with a section, Maggie can go off-book to work on his learning, because she knows the end goal the curriculum is trying to get to.
If Maggie is taking a more eclectic approach and creating learning experiences for her son herself, she may start to pause while reading to ask him to identify a character’s motivations — or to discuss the central message or moral, when reading fables. If these are things Maggie was already doing when reading with Liam, she can feel reassured that she is creating appropriate learning experiences for him, and that he will be ready for more challenging learning later. (Remember, state standards are designed to scaffold, or build on each other; standards in earlier grades provide a foundation for learning that takes place later.)
Regardless of her particular homeschooling approach or methods, knowing the learning goals for her son’s grade empowers Maggie to better support his learning.
What if I Buy a Complete Curriculum?
Professionally developed curricula is typically designed to create the learning outlined in state standards. In theory, you could simply choose a complete curriculum for your child’s grade — or for each subject — and implement that curriculum without ever reading a single state standard. This is not advisable, however. Teachers are expected to learn and know state standards even if they are implementing a predesigned curriculum. This is because knowing the learning you are trying to create makes you a more effective teacher.
Not every curriculum marketed to home educators is aligned to state standards. However, because the purpose of curriculum is to build learning, every curriculum is aligned to some set of standards. When you purchase curricula, you should ask the publisher what standards it is aligned to — in other words, what learning it is trying to create. (If a publisher cannot give you an answer, you may want to rethink purchasing that curriculum; curriculum designed without clear learning goals in mind may be disorganised, or have other problems.)
Understanding the learning a curriculum is trying to create will also help you assess whether your child is gaining the desired learning. What your child scores on quizzes or tests is less important than whether they are building learning that will carry them into the future. Your focus should be on ensuring that your child is gaining understanding and building skills, and not on your child’s scores on assignments or progress through a textbook.
What If I Want to Get Creative?
Some home educators take a more eclectic approach to homeschooling and create learning experiences for their children themselves. When a homeschooling parent curates their own curriculum, they bring together a variety of texts, activities, and assignments to create specific learning. Parents in this situation can create their own Homeschool Learning Outcomes (HLOs), but they may also choose to use state learning standards as a guide.
For example, a parent homeschooling a 3rd grader might look up their state’s social sciences standards and find the following three geography standards:
Geographic Representations: Spatial Views of the World
SS.G.1.3: Locate major landforms and bodies of water on a map or other representation.
Human-Environment Interaction: Place, Regions, and Culture
SS.G.2.3: Compare how people modify and adapt to the environment and culture in our community to other places.
Global Interconnections: Changing Spatial Patterns
SS.G.3.3: Show how consumption of products connects people to distant places.
A home educator taking an eclectic approach to homeschooling might latch onto any of the three standards above and use them to create engaging learning experiences. For example, the parent could spend time looking at a globe with their child, introduce their child to google maps on a computer or smartphone, and spend time poring over an atlas together. Or, a parent might use the second standard to prompt an exploration of immigration, both today and in the past, or a study of different societies’ adaption to climate change.
For the third standard above, a parent could find books from the library about trade and consumer products and identify documentaries covering global trade patterns to watch as a family. They could also have their child keep track of where every item that comes into their house over the course of several weeks come from (shirts from Vietnam; blueberries from Chile). This project could culminate in a giant poster illustrating the connections between their home and places around the globe. It’s also a project that could involve the whole family.
While home educators who design their own curriculum are not required to use state standards and may instead choose to create their own Homeschool Learning Outcomes (HLOs), being aware of your state’s learning standards for your child’s grade can only ever be helpful. You may find yourself using some of them as you craft and implement your own curriculum, and even if you don’t, knowing your state’s learning standards will give you an idea of the sort of learning expected for children in your child’s grade.
No matter how closely you choose to follow your state’s standards, you can only benefit from knowing them. You may find things that surprise you, or that push you in new directions, even as you build your child’s learning on a somewhat different trajectory.