Common Core aiming for uncommon results

Toni Taylor (l) and Kathy Moore view the graphic illustrating standards for Math Practices.
Toni Taylor (l) and Kathy Moore view the graphic illustrating standards for Math Practices.

Students ready for College, Careers

By Joan Trezek

Did you move to a new state or to a new school district as a child? Ever experience a “gap”?  Perhaps you had already covered fractions or the causes leading up to the American Revolution.  Now, in your new school setting, you had to do it all over again.  Or, the reverse situation, you weren’t prepared for the math or history class so you struggled to catch up.

Assuring consistent, good quality education throughout the United States which allows young people to be successful in college and in their careers is no small task.  That, in a nutshell, is what Common Core attempts to do…in California and throughout the country.  Together with California,  44 other states are working to implement the standards. Initially, the focus is on English Language Arts and math.  Science standards will follow.

Significant Change in the Works

Common Core standards or guidelines for the two initial areas in kindergarten through 12th grade represent the most significant change in California since standards were first adopted in 1998 according to some educators.   Deborah Sigman, Deputy State Superintendent of Schools, has been quoted as saying, “The 1998 standards were good standards, but the Common Core of college and career-ready standards is better.”

The previous standards are now viewed as overly broad.  Said more plainly: they were a mile wide and an inch deep.  With the pressure to cover everything mandated, important topics were often covered at a fast pace. The time to plan creative approaches to present new concepts by building on previous concepts and topics already presented often wasn’t available.  It wasn’t uncommon to hear classroom teachers say that they didn’t have time to go deep because students had to be ready for the test.

Kathy Moore, Ed.D., curriculum coordinator for the San Ramon Unified School District, says  Common Core standards are better than the previous ones.   “There are fewer, they are clearer, and they illustrate learning progression, she says.”

The new standards focus on deeper, more critical thinking as well as emphasizing connections within a discipline and between disciplines, and the search for problem-solving that recognizes there can sometimes be more than one right answer.  Their aim is to promote evidence-based reasoning.  Can students explain and defend how they arrived at a conclusion or a solution.  Curriculum development is left up to the states and the school districts, allowing each school district to develop its own curriculum, determine priorities and adopt materials suitable to their needs.   In effect, some 1800 SRVUSD teachers in 35 schools are engaged in a learning curve during the current school year as they prepare for full implementation of Common Core in 2015.

Implementation Plan Identifies Goals in Key Areas

According to Toni Taylor, Asst. Superintendent of Educational Services for the District, the roll-out has been unfolding for some time as teachers undergo training and representatives from every school come together  to develop an implementation plan for the district.  That implementation plan is posted on the district web site, Common Core heading.  The overarching goal for Fall 2014 is that“every teacher in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District will be fully aligning their lessons to the Common Core State Standards.”  The plan includes district goals for math, English Language Arts, Content Literacy, and Technology.  It is worth noting that in the area of content literacy, areas  other than English class—science and math for example—will ask students  to perform at least one task to demonstrate reading and writing standards.  In the technology area, teachers will design lessons that incorporate a technology component in alignment with the Common Core standards.  This is, of course, essential in today’s rapidly advancing world of technology, but also because the testing of students will be done online.

The District has completed an analysis of technology infrastructure and performed an inventory of devices to assure readiness in this area. In spring of 2014, students in grades 3-8 as well as Grades 9 and 10 will take the Smarter Balanced Assessments tests in a practice run.  Taylor describes this as a “testing the test, not the students”—essentially statewide field testing to be sure all is ready for next spring and to establish a baseline for the district.

In addition to posting the implementation plan online as well as other information, such as Frequently Asked Questions about Common Core, the District has held forums and workshops for parents and partnered with PTAs to present sessions offering a sample of the way classroom instruction is changing.

Monies released by the State of California as a result of the passage of Prop. 30 funnelled $6.1 million to the District for use in three areas: professional development, instructional materials, and technology.  A team of stakeholders—parents, Board members, teachers and administrators have developed a spending plan which will be presented to the Board for approval at the December meeting. Stay tuned!