California schools are getting close to fully implementing Common Core, and with it new standardized tests, more rigorous expectations for classrooms, and over $1 billion in state funding for school districts.
But polls show nearly three in four Californians are still wondering – what is the Common Core?
“We’re shifting to a new set of standards,” explains Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based education research and advocacy organization. “The standards themselves will demand more of our students, and in many ways more of our teachers.”
Adopted by California in 2010, the Common Core is a new set of education guidelines that are meant to make curriculum standards for math and language arts consistent across all states nationwide, and to align those standards with higher expectations for student learning. So far, 45 states have signed on to the initiative.
The standards are national, but were not developed by the federal government. They were created by a team of education experts, including those knowledgeable in other countries’ education systems, that were brought together by the National Governors’ Association.
“They were really looking to see what’s the standard we need to achieve,” says Ramanathan.
The new standards emphasize critical thinking and deep understanding of key ideas, skills students will be required to demonstrate verbally and in writing, both in class and in standardized tests.
What was wrong with the old guidelines?
California’s old curriculum guidelines “were called a mile wide and an inch deep,” Ramanathan told reporters Oct. 29 on a telebriefing organized by New America Media.
A former teacher, he says that the Common Core brings with it “a reduction in the sheer number of standards” that will allow teachers to have “the ability to address the needs of students who are falling behind, but also the students are excelling.”
Iris Taylor, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Sacramento City Unified School District, agrees. Since 2010, Taylor has helped lead efforts to implement the new standards in her district. She says that the Common Core encourages educators to “go deeper into a few standards as opposed to trying to cover a multitude of standards.”
The new areas of emphasis, she says, will result in “college and career readiness for all students, not just a select few.”
Changes in math and language arts
In math, the Common Core will reduce the amount of content and the number of topics being covered in favor of students gaining a deeper understanding of fewer key concepts and being able to “use the language of mathematics to describe their thinking,” says Taylor.
UC Santa Cruz mathematics education professor Judit Moschkovitch agrees that in math, the Common Core represents “a shift toward balancing understanding and calculation.”
Moschkovitch says that students will be expected to communicate verbally about math with each other and their teachers during math class, which will support both understanding and remembering math concepts.
In language arts and literacy, the Common Core will bring with it a greater emphasis on non-fiction because, as Taylor says, non-fiction represents the kind of writing that students will encounter more of in college and in their future workplaces.
According to Taylor, students will read texts at higher levels of complexity than before, and will be required to critique the ideas presented in the texts and respond both orally and in writing.
Support for English learners
Ramanathan believes that the implementation of the Common Core is “critical to the success of California students across the board,” and that it can particularly benefit English language learners. One-quarter of the 6 million students enrolled in California public schools are English learners.
Hector Perez-Roman, who teaches AP world history in Los Angeles Unified School District, says that the Common Core’s emphasis on group discussion in class has become “a powerful tool” for helping his students to comprehend reading assignments.
Perez-Roman teaches in the San Fernando Valley at a high school where 95 percent of the students are Latino, and nearly half of the students have at some point been classified as English learners. He says that when students work in groups, he’s able to have students who have strengths and weaknesses in different areas work together so that they complement each other’s skills.
Taylor adds that the emphasis on verbal discussion in math – for example, talking through word problems – also serves to support English learning.
Moschkovich agrees. As co-chair of the math work group at Stanford’s Understanding Language initiative, she has long studied mathematics education for English Learners. “Communicating about mathematics not only supports understanding math but also learning English.”
Critics of the Common Core worry that some teachers may not be prepared to teach to the new standards, widening the achievement gap that already exists in California.
Moschkovich notes that the success of the new standards will depend on schools and students having access to “high quality materials” and “qualified teachers.”
Taylor adds that implementation “won’t happen overnight,” but will take years before the standards are fully in place in all California schools.
What about the digital divide?
The first Common Core-aligned standardized testing, which is targeted for the 2014-2015 school year, will be administered on computers.
The $1.2 billion allocated by the state for Common Core implementation will in part help to pay for the technical necessities required for computer-adaptive testing, according to Ramanathan. The tests, he explains, will adjust the level of difficulty based on whether a student answers questions correctly or not.
But there are still concerns that students will not have equal access to technology. Among the challenges that still need to be addressed are bandwidth, Internet connectivity, and the number of computers and other devices available for students to use.
And while part of the state funds will go to purchasing devices, Taylor adds that these tools must not be “put in a closet and saved for testing” – students must have access to the technology so that they can become familiar with it and be able to use technology outside of testing situations.
As for measuring the success of Common Core, Ramanathan says that “will be dependent on getting a far higher percentage of students in public school into and through two- and four-year colleges.”