The Common Core: CUSD prepares for new state standards

There’s change in the wind for public schools across the nation, including those in the Claremont Unified School District, in the form of a new set of state standards called the Common Core.

Its development is incomplete because assessment methods are still being devised, and its implementation is unfunded, but Common Core is set to start in 46 states, including California, in 2014.

Here’s a little background.

In 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Officers collaborated to create voluntary national standards with the goal of raising the academic bar, improving achievement assessments and strengthening accountability. The impetus for the undertaking was a 2004 report that concluded kids are graduating from high school unprepared for college and unready for the workforce.

In 2010, the California Department of Education (CDE) committed to the Common Core, which has been championed by President Barack Obama, joining what is now a consortium of every state except for Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia. With virtually uniform standards in place, proponents say US schools will benefit from the collaborative development of curriculum and assessment methods and from shared resources, while bridging the achievement gap among students.

According to the CDE, the standards are research-based and culled from the best practices of “academically high-achieving nations around the world.” A recent blog entry posted by Tom Vander Ark on the Education Week website, titled “Quick Guide to the Common Core: Key Expectations Explained,” describes the upcoming curriculum shift in the area of Language Arts in a nutshell.

One of the biggest changes will be greater emphasis on informational text, Mr. Vander Ark says.

“Specifically, in grades 3 through 5, there is a call for more scientific, technical, and historic texts, and in grades 6 through 8, more literary nonfiction including essays, speeches, opinion pieces, literary essays, biographies, memoirs, journalism, and historical, scientific, technical, and economic accounts,” he writes.

Teachers in all subjects will be expected to collaborate to foster students’ literacy development through the use of informational text, Mr. Vander Ark continued. Students will be expected to become better researchers, learning information and supporting conclusions via a broad range of sources.

An informational video posted on YouTube by the Hunt Institute elaborates, saying the new language arts curriculum will feature more research projects, both large and small, and will require students to “research like a detective and write like an investigative journalist.”

The shift toward informational material will certainly apply to writing as well as to reading, agreed Bonnie Bell, CUSD assistant superintendent of educational services. Ms. Bell, who has become something of an expert in the Common Core in anticipation of its enactment, serving as one of the authors of a text called Navigating Implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

“Any of the new materials that are coming out will have a heavier emphasis on writing information—persuasive text versus narrative—and the reading will be more nonfiction than it currently is,“ Ms. Bell said.

The use of multimedia will also be increased, according to the Education Week blog, which says “students are expected to understand the presentation of texts in a variety of multimedia formats, such as video.”

Under the Common Core, math teachers are likely to find themselves covering fewer subjects, but will delve into the subject matter at greater depth. There will be a greater emphasis on solving real-life problems through mathematics as opposed to rote memorization.

Students who graduate after having studied the Common Core in math are expected to be able to do the following, according to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others; make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; reason abstractly and quantitatively; model with mathematics; use appropriate tools strategically, including computers and other technology, and “attend to precision,” which means being able to clearly communicate math problems and solutions. 

The Core Curriculum assessment is likely to involve computers or tablets as opposed to pen and paper, Ms. Bell said. The greater emphasis on Digital Age approaches may pose a challenge for the district because no state funding has been earmarked for new hardware, software, or any other materials. The state hasn’t allocated any money for professional development either, which begins locally this fall with training in the language arts aspect of the new standards.

California schools are notably facing another significant mandate, also unfunded, with the implementation of a new grade, transitional kindergarten, required by the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010. This year, CUSD launched its first T-K class for fall-born children who just missed the kindergarten cut-off age.

California educators and students initially tested in the Common Core will  also struggle with a bit of a paradox. While students will be tested on the Core Curriculum in 2014-2015 school year, California does not plan to adopt the new math textbooks until 2016-2017. 

CUSD, whose solvency in these tough economic times has been attributed to conservative spending and contingency planning, is doing its best to prepare for expenses likely to be incurred as the Core Standards are implemented. The district is tightening its belt further and is trying to avoid dipping into its textbook account in preparation for the new curriculum, according to Ms. Bell.

“We’re putting aside as much of the little bit of money we have towards those needs. There’s just not a lot of money to put aside at this time,” she said.

It’s not all uncertainty, Ms. Bell said, sharing what California educators know about the shape assessment is expected to take.

“It’s going to be performance task-oriented. There will be open-ended questions—it’s very different from multiple choice,” she said.

In an interesting development for educational critics who have lamented the “bubble in the answer” method of assessment, which they feel has led to a “teach-to-the-test” style of instruction, tests may also involve group assignments, in which students are given an assignment and asked to, after a period of study and research, return and post their findings.

“It will also be adaptive in nature,” Ms. Bell said. “As each student is taking the test and getting the questions right, the questions will get harder.” (Inversely, test questions will become easier for students who are having trouble answering the questions.)

It’s not easy to keep abreast of impending changes, Ms. Bell said, emphasizing that Core Curriculum assessment methods are very much a work in progress at this point.

“It’s changing every day. You have to get on the website to see the current decisions regarding new assessments.”

CUSD may face a learning curve in adopting the Common Core, but there is good news for students and their parents. While focuses will shift, the curriculum in California schools is unlikely to become more difficult, because California state standards are already among the most rigorous in the nation, Ms. Bell said.

There are many unknowns, considering that local educators “haven’t gotten their feet wet” with regards to implementation and assessment of the Common Core. However, Ms. Bell sees some promising aspects to the new developments in education.

“The wonderful thing about it is every state will be able to pool resources with regards to designing lesson plans and sharing textbooks,” she said.

—Sarah Torribio


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