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What’s all the fuss about Common Core?
By Miriam G. Mazliach
There’s been a lot of buzz around “Common Core State Standards” (CCSS) and yet many parents and students who are most directly impacted by it are still puzzled. To help alleviate any fears and clear up misconceptions, school districts in the Tri cities have held workshops and informational meetings for interested students, parents and community members.
Essentially, Common Core is the new K-12 educational direction, with benchmarks for the subjects of English and Math, presently being implemented in 45 states and Washington D.C. In order for states to receive RTTT (Race to the Top) grant funds or NCLB (No Child Left Behind) waivers, they will need to follow the Common Core Standards. Introduced in 2009 and adopted in 2010, the standards focus on analytical thinking and problem solving, shifting away from rote learning or memorization. Before 2010 each state held to its own set of educational standards. Now is the time most school districts have begun its implementation.
It is crucial that teachers have a deep understanding of the purpose and focus of Common Core in order to effectively convey the concepts to their students. So, in preparation for the standards, teachers have been learning the new curriculum and making adjustments to lesson plans, in order to teach with the right methodology that would best enhance the learning experience for their students. Educators will also continue to have many ongoing professional development opportunities throughout the school year and textbooks, aligned with the new standards, have been published for use by teachers and students.
In California, it is the State Board of Education that decides on the standards for all students, while the state’s Department of Education assists schools in its effort to ensure that all students are meeting the Common Core State Standards.
The intent of the new educational direction is to standardize what is being taught in English and math; so, if students were to move out of the state or to a different school, their education would be equitable and similar to what others have learned to date. These standards are designed to be more rigorous yet reflect what is needed by students to learn real world skills to achieve success at college or in the workplace.
“To ensure that our students are college and career ready, the implementation of the Common Core State Standards is one major effort in achieving a more common and coherent vision of educational purpose,” says Deborah Sims, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction for Fremont Unified School District. “The new standards provide fewer, clearer and higher expectations for learning across grade levels in English language arts and math as well as providing guidance for understanding how students learn in a progressive manner along skill strands.”
To an observer entering a classroom what might be noticeable? What proficiencies are needed in English and Math?
In English classes, whether at the elementary or secondary level, the texts should be of a higher quality with more complex learning and accordingly the focus would be on learning how to access knowledge through the text. Teachers would be spending more time having their students obtain meaning from the material, rather than spending a lot of time lecturing to them. Students could also learn more about text components such as: the index, glossary, etc., designed to help the student understand and gain fuller meaning of the content.
Students will read from grade level texts, and spend less time on lower level reading texts. Previously, material was related to a child’s reading level but with Common Core, there is more of a whole emphasis on reading the grade level text. (Example: 5th graders using a 5th grade text, not a 3rd grade level text). The student should be able to explain after reading the material, how and what they learned or what information was obtained.
Reading requires a great deal of understanding. There has to be a reality check though as students who have learning issues or are English Language Learners (ELL) will need to have more assistance available and perhaps accommodations with the new computerized testing.
In other subject areas, there will be more of a focus on reading for meaning in the specialized texts. In science class, for example, students would “read as a scientist,” seeking content knowledge and utilizing different skills. In all subjects, there will be a focus on reading multiple texts, and making connections across texts and books, comparing and contrasting information.
The use of academic language and vocabulary words tied to the various disciplines is a greater focus. With writing, more time would be spent on informational writing and less time on personal essays.
At the junior high and high school levels, discourse skills will be needed to become college ready as well as familiarity with advanced writing, research, digital resources and technology.
As far as Mathematics, what could be covered differently than in the past?
With Common Core Standards, there should be fewer topics in a given grade level, allowing for greater depth and focus on what the students learn. Algebra/Geometry would be introduced a bit earlier, providing a progression or transition from algorithmic to conceptual understanding. Students would not only build algorithms (step-by-step calculations) but work with and apply them. The goal should be to work through the ins and outs of problem-solving.
Another example might be using a number line to teach the concept of fractions, rather than the old pie chart method. Students can learn to build off the number line by seeing smaller numbers (fractions) sitting between larger (whole) numbers and then can better visualize the relationships.
At Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Matt Wayne explains how his district has been handling the educational transition:
“Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) is excited about Common Core and how it will challenge our students to be problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and prepared for 21st century success. HUSD is well along the path toward transitioning to Common Core,” states Wayne. “We have developed an Instructional Framework that guides our transition. We’ve provided professional development to all of our teachers and over 400 teachers attended 5-day summer institutes on Common Core. Students have started taking Common Core assessments this year already. We’re preparing students so that when they leave our schools they can say with pride that they were “Made in Hayward,” says Wayne.
Although the Common Core shift has begun, there are critics or those who have concerns about its implementation, citing lack of local control or cost. Chris Thomas is an assistant professor of Leadership Studies in the graduate School of Education at the University of San Francisco. He has researched urban education, K-12 administration, instructional leadership, special education, and family and community involvement. “Common Core is a major cost in terms of professional development for leaders/teachers - new learning for everyone,” states Thomas. “While there is funding from the state, there are still large costs for districts in terms of the assessments and materials that it is not clear the funding will cover. The focus on Common Core can take the focus away from more substantial student issues that need to be addressed by policy makers.”
Others worry about testing and how the results from such a new curriculum could affect their child. Some teachers might feel that they could be evaluated on their students’ test results. However, in California, Gov. Brown has stepped up and signed AB 484, so that the state won’t release results from the English and math testing for at least the first year. The new Common Core test, selected for use by most districts in the Tri-cities area is “Smarter Balanced” (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium). It will face its trial run and the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) tests will come to an end. Federal education representatives are displeased with California’s decision to withhold the initial testing results and have threatened to eliminate funding to the state.
Newark Unified School District’s (NUSD) Sr. Director of Educational Services, Soleste Hilberg, Ph.D., says that Common Core has been and will continue to be the focus of much of the district’s work for years to come. “The Newark Unified community of educators is excited to welcome the Common Core State Standards, with the hope that with the standards come an emphasis on supporting and developing student thinking, as opposed to the former emphasis on broad but too often thin coverage of a range of standards,” states Hilberg.
Regarding English Language Arts, last year Newark K-12 teacher representatives developed instructional units, aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which are currently being implemented and the district is continuing its focus on literacy in all content areas.
This year, Solberg explains that a mathematics coach is working with teachers in grades seven through twelve to develop Common Core pacing for eighth grade mathematics, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II aligned to the Common Core Standards. “The coach is also assisting teachers to present information using multiple methods and representations to support student comprehension of key concepts.”
In most high achieving countries, their international benchmark helped us here to identify the basis for Common Core standards and in this technological world it is felt that the U.S. will then be giving our kids an equal footing by this change.
Superintendent Molleen Barnes of Sunol Glen School District adds, “Our staff is filled with excitement along with a healthy dose of anxiousness as we recognize that the shift to Common Core truly supports the learning needs and style of our current students, known as the ‘C-Generation’; and as such, it is our responsibility to meet the rigor level and their needs in readiness for 21st century college and career pathways.”
No matter what, it will take teacher and student effort and patience to transition smoothly into the Common Core Standards. For now we’ll have to wait and see what transpires.
For additional info on Common Core Standards visit these websites: