STUDENT BECOMES TEACHER: In Kevin O’Sullivan’s science class at Cleveland Elementary School, students educate each other about plate tectonics by projecting from their iPads.
An Idiot’s Guide to the Common Core
California Schools Adopt New Standards
Thursday, August 15, 2013
This school year, teachers will begin to implement the most significant changes to classroom instruction since California first adopted standards in 1998. Along with 45 other states, three territories, and Washington, D.C., the Golden State is betting its kids’ futures on new guidelines called the Common Core State Standards. This new touchstone is largely the result of pressure from the federal government, which told states they would be ineligible for Race to the Top funds if they did not adopt internationally vetted standards. (Ironically, California will not be eligible in the near future anyway because both the governor and the California Teachers Association refuse to adopt statewide teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores.)
Common Core does not dictate curricula, but it sets goals for K-12 classrooms that emphasize depth over breadth. The new standards are supposed to be fully implemented by 2015, but that means teachers have to start adapting now, by running pilot programs and experimenting with new lesson plans throughout this school year. Leading the charge are people like longtime La Cumbre Junior High math teacher Janet Hollister, who is now a “teacher on special assignment,” responsible for preparing her colleagues for the changes to come. The Santa Barbara Independent interviewed her and other South Coast educators in a quest to figure out what Common Core means in the most concrete terms.
By Paul Wellman
‘Students are going to have to think about multiple ways to solve a problem and think about how to explain how
to solve a problem and think about somebody else’s point of view.’ — Janet Hollister (pictured), teacher on special assignment
How It Works
Common Core is the culmination of work done by two nationwide groups, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which were tasked with evaluating why American schoolkids were falling behind on global education benchmarks as well as college- and career-readiness. They found that teachers were racing through textbooks and checking off boxes without pausing to gauge the intellectual growth of their students, so Common Core aims to correct that by requiring fewer topics but allowing students to think more deeply. It also makes the teacher less of an authority figure in the classroom, forcing students to spend more time figuring things out themselves.
To an outsider, that may make a Common Core classroom look “chaotic,” admitted Natalie Ireland, another teacher on special assignment who, until now, worked at Franklin Elementary. With the new standards, kids will be leading the inquiry and working collaboratively on projects — not sitting quietly at their desks listening to a teacher lecture at the front of the room. But Ireland is excited about it, explaining, “I think school will be fun again.”
At first, Common Core will affect math and English, but new science standards are in the pipeline, as well. In English, students can expect to see a greater ratio of nonfiction to literary texts, said former San Marcos High School teacher and current UCSB professor Tim Dewar, but that doesn’t mean literature will go by the wayside. Literary texts may be read in conjunction with historical documents, for instance, and there will be more emphasis on students reading and writing in other subjects. “If the only place students are reading and writing is in English,” said Dewar, “then we are screwed.”
In high school math, traditional subjects like algebra, geometry, and trigonometry will be more integrated to emphasize their connections, and more statistics will be required as it is deemed more useful in the working world. Santa Barbara district teachers even favor abolishing the traditional ordering and naming of math courses to replace them simply with Math 1, 2, and 3, a change that will be voted on soon.
Altogether, Common Core proponents hope to foster real-world problem-solving skills. “How many people in their forties are still factoring polynomials?” asked Chris Ograin, a math and education professor at UCSB. “We want to have people who, when they encounter a problem in the workplace or wherever, can engage with that problem.” So in the classroom, students will be asked to struggle more to find solutions, a process that requires a healthy dose of metacognition.
By Paul Wellman
A fancy way of saying “thinking about thinking,” metacognition is what happens when students are asked not just for the right answers but how they got to those answers. Vieja Valley teacher Allison Heiduk, also a Common Core fan, explained that currently, when instructors teach texts, they focus on comprehension. Previously, while teaching a book called Frindle, she might have asked her kids, “What did Nick do to transform the classroom into a tropical setting?” Under the new standards, she might instead ask, “What do you think Nick’s motives are? To cause trouble? Is there an educational reason? What is your evidence?” The goal is to always drive students back to the text and encourage them to formulate evidence-based reasoning — in short, a bit more “why” instead of just “what.”
The hope is for better communication skills in all subjects. “Students are going to have to think about multiple ways to solve a problem,” said Hollister of La Cumbre, “and think about how to explain how to solve a problem and think about somebody else’s point of view.” The process of finding an answer and defending that answer should be just as important as the answer itself.
Students who excel under the current system may be most frustrated with the Common Core, said several teachers, explaining that those who are good at following directions, finishing work quickly, and finding right answers will be forced to consider other answers and to articulate their thought process. But Common Core will encourage critical thinking, which is important to teachers like Ireland because currently, she said, “We are graduating kids who aren’t good problem solvers.”