If you have children in school, or even if you don't, you're likely aware of the Common Core curriculum. Lots of people have heard of it. Fewer know what it is.

That's why I visited the Contra Costa Office of Education, where Associate Superintendent Pamela Comfort, Director of Education Services Pam Tyson and Common Core Coordinator Marsha Tokuyoshi agreed to explain the newest chapter in K-12 education in terms even a journalist could understand.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, as it's formally known, is designed to apply the same measuring sticks for math and English language skills to schools across the nation. Until now, every state went its own way, which meant an eighth-grade reading level in one state might rank as a sixth-grade level in another.

Only four states -- Texas, Alaska, Nebraska and Virginia -- have declined to participate, and Minnesota bought in for half a loaf (English but not math). It's anyone's guess as to why -- perhaps they were afraid of what they'd find -- but common standards are only part of the program. The bigger emphasis is in better preparing youngsters for colleges and careers.

"It's focusing on critical thinking," Comfort said, "and on having students learn how to solve problems. In previous standards, there was more focus on learning facts. That's not the kind of learning that prepares kids for the future."

Students still will learn how to calculate the area of a circle, but now they will see how that information can be used in construction plans. They will be taught not only how to compile statistics, but how to apply them in problem-solving.

"Common Core standards are set up to make more relevant how we use the information we have," Comfort said.

College educators will be pleased that nonfiction writing skills receive added emphasis, too. They say too many incoming freshmen are unable to write coherent, research-based essays.

"When kids go to college," Tyson said, "they have to read and write nonfiction material. Common Core looks at what it means to be college- and career-ready."

Students still will be taught the difference between an adverb and an adjective. "That's part of Common Core," Tokuyoshi said, "but there are bigger skills you need to have. We're looking at writing as a whole process."

New emphasis is placed on nonfiction reading, Comfort said, because it's a big part of everyday life, whether it's a mechanic understanding instructions in an auto-repair manual or a student digesting a textbook. Collaborative learning is also part of the process; that means fewer teacher lectures and more feedback from students, who will be encouraged to work together and learn from one another.

"In my youth, we were not allowed to do group work," Tokuyoshi said. "You came to class and sat at your desk. But if you're in a career now, there are very few jobs where you work in an isolated work station."

Among the myths surrounding Common Core is that it will dumb down academic standards -- "Couldn't be further from the truth," Comfort said -- and that it's a federal mandate (the National Governors Association authorized the program).

Teachers will need more training, the program will take a year or more to implement, and it doubtless will meet with resistance, as every change does.

But Common Core is coming. We may as well understand what it is.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.