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New national standards mean the district will be going through an adjustment period


By Brian Park

The first day of school is often accompanied by feelings of nervous anticipation and optimism. In recent years, budget cuts in school districts across the country have added an increasing sense of uncertainty to that mix, as education officials have been forced to tighten their purse strings while working to mitigate the effects of a recovering economy.

Now, those sentiments have been magnified further as students, teachers, parents and school administrators begin to wrap their heads around what’s considered to be the most dramatic reform to the U.S. public education system since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

The Common Core is a new set of educational standards that was released in 2010 and has since been adopted in 45 states, including California, and the District of Columbia. Common Core advocates say the new standards fill gaps created by No Child Left Behind, which introduced stringent forms of student and teacher assessments but highlighted, and in some cases created, disparate standards from state to state, all in the race for federal funding.

While supporters of Common Core say it levels the playing field for students across the country, some critics believe implementing new national standards improves the baseline at the expense of schools that have thrived under the previous model.

In the Capistrano Unified School District, where classes began Monday, September 9, Common Core elements were first introduced last fall and spring, but the real rollout begins this school year, with full implementation in 2014-2015.

“We’re poised to move in that direction,” said Assistant Superintendent Julie Hatchel. “It’s going to be an ongoing work in progress, but as we do now, we’ll continue to develop a stronger methodology as our teachers and students become more familiar with Common Core standards.”

Discussions regarding Common Core over the last several months have shown a divide among the CUSD Board of Trustees.

Trustee Anna Bryson has been a vocal opponent of the new standards, saying that it hurts high-performing districts like CUSD.

“California has had the highest standards in math and English. It’s sad to think that across the state, many districts will implement these lacking, lowered standards,” Bryson said. “The Common Core is not the ultimate answer. There are better ways of helping our students achieve at a higher level than imposing a blanket standard across the nation.”

Board President John Alpay acknowledges that the district will have to quickly adjust to the intricacies of the new standards, but, he said, the Common Core reinforces existing strengths while improving inadequacies in the former system.

“Common Core is not to be feared. The devil is in the details, but as we move forward, we’ll learn,” Alpay said. “We’re not dumping by the wayside all the things we’ve done well up to this point. It’s just an evolution of what we’ve done and allows us to improve our game.”

Although they will have to take their cues from Sacramento, California school districts maintain some discretion. The state budget has allocated $1.25 billion in one-time funds to help districts implement Common Core standards. During a presentation to the board on Wednesday, September 11, district staff explained how it would use the $10 million it will receive for training teachers, instructional materials and technology over the next two years.

In that meeting, Superintendent Joseph Farley opened the discussion by reassuring the board and parents that the coming changes in standards would not be as jarring as they have been made out to be in the national discourse.

“One thing I want to disavow folks of is the notion that the Common Core is the next great reform in California education,” Farley said. “It’s really just a natural extension of what we’ve done.”

What is Common Core?

Common Core standards were developed in 2009 and released a year later by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to address a growing concern that high school graduates were entering the workforce ill prepared and that college entrants, at both two- and four-year institutions, were having a difficult time graduating.

During the planning and development of the Common Core, representatives from the nation’s workforce provided input on what skills graduates would need in the coming years. From that discussion, the basic philosophy of the Common Core was developed: students needed to have greater critical thinking and problem solving skills; effective written and oral communication skills; collaborative skills; and the ability to work creatively and innovate.

When those pillars are applied in the classroom, Common Core aims to teach students to be more analytical and rely less on rote memorization. Teachers are being trained to lecture less and act as facilitators, encouraging discussion among students, who will not only give answers, but share their problem-solving process and reasoning. In CUSD, teachers will undergo three days of Common Core training.

“It’s really about student engagement versus just going up there and lecturing,” Trustee Lynn Hatton said. “It empowers students to take control of their own learning. When you empower them and teachers are more comfortable with giving them control, more powerful discussions take place. When you’re actively involved, you’re going to retain more and be more excited about learning.”

Under previous standards, Common Core supporters say students were taught a wide breadth of material but lacked an intimate understanding of some subject matter. As such, Common Core standards will scale back on what is taught in schools, in terms of volume, to spend more time on individual concepts.

“It will present a different level of complexity of how students demonstrate their understanding of content,” Hatchel said.

In the early going, Common Core standards will only be applied in English and math, with cross-curricular lessons also expected as more subject areas will be brought into the fold the next year, according to Hatchel.

Common Core also changes when some subject material is taught, most notably in math, where pre-algebra will be pushed from the eighth to ninth grade.

“I’m not thrilled about that, but that’s an issue we’ll have to address as we move forward,” Alpay said.

Testing Under the Common Core

The state Legislature on Tuesday, September 10, passed a bill, AB 484, that will suspend California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting system this year and replaces it with the Measurement of Academic Performance Progress in 2014-2015. Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated his support for the bill and is expected to sign it into law in the coming days.

The bill does not, however, mean students will avoid any standardized testing this year. District officials and trustees anticipate pilot tests adhering to Common Core standards will be administered to students.

California will not be the first to administer a pilot test, which is currently being developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two multi-state consortia that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education. In Kentucky and New York, Common Core testing resulted in 30-point percentage drops in reading and math. Common Core decriers point to those figures as examples of the ineffectiveness of the new standards, while supporters maintain lower scores were expected in what was essentially a trial run.

“Children are not to be experimented with,” said Bryson, who expressed concern that STAR testing, which has been administered in California since 1999, would be eliminated. “If our students are learning and achieving, why take it away? Why did we trash the nation’s best math and English standards?”

Hatton, who served as executive director of the Princeton Review in Irvine, applauded the change since STAR testing would not have applied to Common Core standards. In doing away with the old system, Hatton said teachers will be able to focus on teaching Common Core without worrying about preparing students for different test standards.

“It would have been a mismatch. We want our teachers to start teaching for what they’ll be accountable for,” Hatton said. “Accountability drives behavior. If you’re accountable to a test that emphasizes cognitive thinking, you’re going to teach that way, and that’s what Common Core is.”

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