“Unsurprisingly, parents have a lot of questions about the Common Core,” she said, focusing on why the changes are happening now, what they mean for students, and how parents can help their children succeed.

It’s important for parents to know that:

1. States chose whether to adopt the Common Core. Adoption was not required by the federal government, but those states that did adopt the standards received various incentives. Some states are now reversing their decisions to adopt. Others chose to overhaul their state standards but did not adopt the Common Core.

2. The Common Core State Standards are different from previous standards in a number of important ways. They’re generally “fewer, clearer, and higher,” O’Brien said. Previous standards focused on how to perform various tasks, such as multiplication, and also focused on memorization. The Common Core standards take a different approach–they focus on critical thinking and are intended to help students understand the “why” behind the things they learn.

3. There are some key shifts in English/language arts (ELA). Students in states that have adopted the standards will work with complex texts and academic language regularly, and they will perform reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts. The standards also incorporate the use of nonfiction.

4. Mathematics learning is changing, too. The standards highlight a greater focus on fewer topics. Coherence–linking topics and thinking within and across grades–is important, as is rigor.

O’Brien said parents often have a number of questions about the standards, including:

5. Why now? There’s a renewed focus on educational equity, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that students in different states should be on level playing fields–a student in Alabama, for instance, shouldn’t have weaker or fewer skills than a student in Colorado, for instance. Many education stakeholders have noted that academic progress in the U.S. has been stagnant, and, coupled with concerns about student mobility, the standards are often viewed as a way to give students the new and different skills they’ll need for success in life. “People know the changing role of technology in our lives,” O’Brien said. “This is a conversation that lots of states have been having, independently, prior to the Common Core.”