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Core Content Connectors and Essential Understandings

Core Content Connectors and Essential Understandings

Published: Nov. 23, 2021Updated: Nov. 7, 2023

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Every child deserves a rigorous education to help them grow and progress from kindergarten to graduation. In California, schools follow the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which provide a roadmap for teachers detailing what children should know at each grade level. But what happens if a child isn’t ready to work on the standards as written? What resources are available to help them move forward while giving them the knowledge and skills they need to work with the same content as their peers?

Core Content Connectors (CCC) and Essential Understandings (EU) can help bridge the gap for both children with disabilities and their neurotypical peers. So what are CCCs and EUs exactly, and how are they used in the classroom?

To get more information, we reached out to Dr. Caitlin Solone, a special education advocate and a faculty member at UCLA, as well as Rachel Quenemoen, who for decades worked at the University of Minnesota as the senior research associate for the National Center on Educational Outcomes and the project director for the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC), and continues to serve as a technical advisor to the post-NCSC Multi-State Alternate Assessment states. NCSC is the organization we have to thank for developing the CCCs and EUs that help children with disabilities access their grade level curriculum. Quenemoen tells us she is also “the proud mother of a 46-year-old daughter, Alma, who lives semi-independently with support and is active in her community. Alma agreed to share part of her story growing up in an inclusive, academically rich school setting as examples of what students with significant disabilities may need to be successful.”

3 key takeaways
  1. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a big list of what K-12 students are supposed to learn in each grade, like math or reading skills.
  2. Essential Understandings are the most crucial skills that students must know in each grade for moving on to the next grade level.
  3. Core Content Connectors (CCCs) can be used to support students who have learning challenges. CCCs pick out the most important skills from the Common Core State Standards to teach in a simpler way.

Background of the Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards were created as part of a 2009 educational initiative that sought to detail what K–12 students throughout the United States should know at the end of each school year about reading, writing, and math. Born out of concerns about radically different models throughout the U.S., the CCSS contains a set of standards meant to challenge students and promote higher-order thinking skills, such as analyzing and solving problems.

The initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, was adopted in California in 2010. The standards progress from kindergarten through twelfth grade and build on one another, so it is easy to look back to the previous grade. It’s important to understand that Common Core does not specify content or material — it is skills-based. Therefore, Quenemoen tells us, an eighth-grade student can work on grade-appropriate standards with “reduced depth, breadth, and complexity in the context of the eighth-grade content.”

For many years, children with cognitive disabilities who needed more intensive support were typically taught only a “functional curriculum.” They learned basic self-care skills and daily living routines and were often not included in a general education classroom.

Quenemoen tells us that over time, as professionals working with children with disabilities found they can achieve much more than previously expected, advocates got to work on educational standards. They used three main principles as their starting point:

  1. When children with disabilities are given opportunities to show their full potential, professionals avoid making "the most dangerous assumption" by relying on low expectations. Quenemoen says, “Just because you can’t do it all doesn’t mean the door should slam shut.”

  2. Students benefit when given opportunities to work on the same content as their peers, even when they are still mastering basic skills. For example, a student can still benefit from participating in a science experiment where cause and effect reactions are taught, even if they don’t fully understand the “why and how of their observations or the underlying mathematics.”

  3. When children participate in the same content with their peers, they become a part of the community, even if the content isn’t at the same “depth, breadth, or complexity.”

These concepts are what led to the creation of Core Content Connectors and Essential Understandings. Researchers were considering how to give children with developmental disabilities a chance to build on basic skills while still benefiting from the same interesting content as their grade-level peers.

What are CCCs and EUs?

Core Content Connectors and Essential Understandings were created for children who are using Alternate Assessments and need a modified curriculum. This group of students makes up 1% of the student population. As Dr. Solone explains, “Core Content Connectors connect you from the Essential Understanding to the Common Core standard as a bridge.”

What are Core Content Connectors and Essential Understandings?

Even though CCCs were created for a specific set of children who need more intensive support, their classmates can also benefit from learning complicated subjects in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

CCCs and EUs can be found on Element Cards, along with other valuable information, which teachers can use to gain a better understanding of the standards themselves and build more effective lesson plans for all of the students in their class.

These cards contain:

  1. The state standard

    • For example, the second-grade state standard 2.OA.1 reads: "Use addition and subtraction within 100 to solve one- and two-step word problems involving situations of adding to, taking from, putting together, taking apart, and comparing, with unknowns in all positions, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem."
  2. Essential Understandings

    • Quenemoen calls them “doorways to learning.” An EU will detail the entry-level knowledge that a student will need to know before anything else. For example, the Essential Understanding for 2.OA.1 is: “Add and subtract within 20.
  3. Core Content Connectors, which break the standard down into smaller, more accessible parts.

    • For example, the CCCs for 2.OA.1 are:
      Represent the addition of two sets when shown the + symbol.
      Solve word problems within 20.
      Solve word problems within 100.
      Solve one- or two-step addition and subtraction problems, and add and subtract within 100, using objects, drawings, pictures.
      Use pictures, drawings, or objects to represent the steps of a problem.
  4. Strategies and supports that the teacher can use to promote learning.

    • For example, the Element Card for this standard suggests using pictures and manipulatives (small objects, like blocks) to teach the lesson.

Quenemoen says, “The naming conventions used for the CCCs are more complicated than even most teachers need to know in depth, but being able to coordinate what other students are expected to know and do for the grade level relies on knowing how to find the right content targets. So, a little understanding helps track down the right resources.”

Referring back to the 2.OA.1 standard we used earlier, the “2” indicates that it is a second-grade standard, and the “OA” indicates that it is part of the “operations and algebraic thinking” domain (a group of similar learning standards). The “1” at the end simply tells us it is the first standard in the domain at that grade level.

How can CCCs be used to benefit my child?

Why use Core Content Connectors in the classroom?

CCCs break down the standards so that children who need more support can learn the same content as their peers.

CCCs are an excellent tool for kids to learn content at their current grade level and work alongside their classmates. For example, suppose Alma is struggling with finding the perimeter of a rectangle. In that case, Quenemoen says, “the Essential Understandings will open the door, and then you look at the CCCs to see what components might help her move toward a more in-depth understanding.”

Quenemoen explains it like this:

  • What is the first piece of knowledge that Alma will need to be successful? In this case, the Essential Understanding is “What is a rectangle?”

  • Then, she can work through each Core Content Connector, starting with “How many sides does a rectangle have?”

  • Finally, Alma can use hands-on materials to measure each side of the rectangle and add up the total units.

  • While she may not be using a formula to solve the problem, she understands the basic concept of how to determine perimeter.

Quenemoen also reminds us, “The long-term goal is for her to move as close to the grade-level understanding as possible. In other words, you don’t stop when one skill is mastered. Move on within the constraints of time and priorities.”

Dr. Solone adds that if a child is struggling to meet a grade-level standard, it’s important to look over the CCCs and EUs first, as they “illustrate the most necessary knowledge and skills that students need to learn to get to the standard.” She suggests only moving to lower-grade standards if the Essential Understanding is still too high-level for the student.

CCCs can be taught with the same or similar materials other children are using.

Because CCCs only detail what is being taught, there is a lot of flexibility in how they are taught and what materials are used. Quenemoen tells us that the materials children with disabilities use should be “no different than necessary.” Using Element Cards can help teachers create lesson plans that focus on the same content for students with diverse needs, strengths, and interests by thinking through what materials will be most beneficial to individual students and the class as a whole.

Dr. Solone explains, “If you’re looking at the Essential Understanding, which is really the target goal, then they might have different physical content. They might have different learning objectives within that content,” but the student is “still attending the lesson, just like all their peers.”

For example, if the class is working on the reading standard RI.K.2, all of the students can read the same book about butterflies during read-aloud time. As the class discusses the book, some children may be working on the state standard (“With prompting and support, identify the main topic and retell key details of a text”) while others are still mastering the Essential Understanding (“Answer a simple question about the main topic of an informational text”). Most importantly, every student is involved and engaged together in the same lesson.

CCCs help promote inclusion: children can learn alongside their peers and be a part of their school community.

Quenemoen shared a story with us about a special education teacher named Mike. He worked for years toward the goal of children with disabilities spending more time in their general education classrooms. One of his students was a boy with autism who participated in his general education fourth-grade classroom while they learned the state capitals by singing a song. The boy remained reserved and spent most of his time on his own, and some of Mike’s colleagues questioned whether the time he spent in the gen ed classroom was beneficial.

Then Mike saw the boy do something unexpected: he looked at a group of his peers on the playground and walked over to sit with them. As nonchalantly as possible, Mike wandered over and found that the group was singing the song about state capitals. The boy's first interaction with his peers happened because he and his classmates had learned that content together.

Quenemoen adds that Alma has also benefited from accessing the same classrooms, content, and material as her classmates. Alma was able to work with her typical peers from kindergarten through high school, and Quenemoen believes she was more independent as an adult as a result. She recently attended her twenty-fifth class reunion with her friends from school, and the band dedicated a song by Bon Jovi to her. (She’s a big fan!) She danced with her friends as the crowd cheered, celebrating “twenty-five years of friendship that came from her being included in K-12.”

Can CCCs be used to write goals for my child’s IEP?

Your child’s IEP goals are essentially a set of instructions for what the team wants your child to accomplish by the end of the year. Dr. Solone suggests that parents look at the “most essential standards to address this year” and use them to “inform your goals.”

Quenemoen adds that while the ultimate goal is for a student to have access to the general curriculum to the greatest extent possible, she discourages parents from listing the specific standards or Core Content Connectors on an IEP.

Instead, she encourages IEP teams to write goals based on what will give the most access to the content that their peers are learning. This NCSC Brief uses the example of a student named Anna who, instead of choosing a specific standard for English Language Arts, had a goal to learn to use a writing template for her assignments. A goal like Anna’s will enable her to work on multiple content areas with the support she needs to be successful.

What if my child's teacher has never heard of CCCs and EUs?

Dr. Solone suggests sharing resources with your child’s teacher, saying, “They will be so grateful,” because teachers don’t always have the “latest and greatest.” Sending links to information regarding CCCs and EUs can benefit your child as well as their classmates.

However, because CCCs only “unpack” Common Core standards, Quenemoen feels it isn’t always necessary for a teacher to have access to them as long as they have the skills to unpack the standard themselves. You can help with this process by meeting with your child’s teacher and asking what your child’s peers are learning in class.

Quenemoen warns that while some teachers are happy to work with you, some may be uncomfortable. However, meeting with teachers to pinpoint the essential ideas behind a lesson and concepts that your child will benefit from can be extremely helpful in promoting their growth.

Does your child’s teacher use Core Content Connectors and Essential Understandings in class? Has it been helpful for your child? Let us know!



Background of the Common Core State Standards

What are CCCs and EUs?

Navigating the Common Core State Standards

How can CCCs be used to benefit my child?

Can CCCs be used to write goals for my child’s IEP?

What if my child's teacher has never heard of CCCs and EUs?

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Alysha LundgrenUndivided Writer
Reviewed by Jennifer Drew, Undivided Senior Editor Contributors Dr. Caitlin Solone, Education advocate, teacher-educator, and Academic Administrator for the Disability Studies program at UCLA Rachel Quenemoen, Senior research associate for the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota, project director for the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC), technical advisor to the post-NCSC Multi-State Alternate Assessment states

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