by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Carrie Forrest and students
Change is never easy. But it is ever constant — especially in education. That’s because we are preparing our children to enter a world that is constantly changing and helping them prepare for what’s new and what’s next.
So what’s next? It’s the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). California is standing on the brink of one the biggest changes ever to happen in education. For the first time in our nation’s history, national standards have become a reality for 46 states, including California, but they are not without controversy. We’ve been covering the CCSS in this magazine for more than a year now, and we’ve heard from members who have strong opinions for and against the standards, and some who just aren’t sure yet. What we do know is the standards are rocking the world of everyone in public education. For implementation to be a success, it will take time, thoughtfulness, commitment, and a willingness to work together, which is exactly how California is approaching this big shift. Many states are looking to our commonsense approach to implementing the Common Core State Standards with envy.
The intent of the standards is to arm our students with the critical thinking skills they will need for a successful life. These standards recognize teachers as the classroom experts, but some districts have failed to embrace the spirit of collaboration and are creating implementation nightmares.
This series of articles reviews what’s happening as educators grapple with the new Common Core State Standards — as well as the field testing of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment. Read about the struggles, challenges and successes educators are facing in communicating with parents about the new standards, finding resources and making sure their voices are reflected in local policies. Find out if these members’ experiences featured here match yours.
We’ll start with Felipe, who was not a fan of the Common Core.
Felipe Lemus worried implementing something so different would jeopardize the steady improvement he’s been seeing in his students, who are below grade level. After three days of professional development, he began trying out some Common Core lessons on his third-graders at Calwa Elementary School. Some went well; others did not. The Fresno Teachers Association (FTA) member says he sometimes feels like he’s “swimming in a big ocean with no raft or life jacket” in the transition, and frequently stays up until 2 a.m. looking for lesson plans and curriculum. He feels stressed.
Carrie Forrest felt panicky about the new education standards. “I thought, ‘Yikes, something new! It’s not going to be easy.’”
The second-grade Santa Rosa teacher took a deep breath, signed up for workshops, and began collaborating with colleagues and trying out lessons plans. It hasn’t been a walk in the park, but she thinks the CCSS offer new opportunities to be creative in the classroom. That’s exciting and a little bit scary, admits the Piner-Olivet Educators Association (POEA) member.
Math teacher Katja Jackson felt pretty positive about changing over to new standards. She grew up in Germany, where students routinely collaborate with each other and explain their work, just as the CCSS encourages. She thought her Fairfield High School students would enjoy a critical-thinking approach. Some do, but others are used to rote memorization and balk when asked to explain their answers. “Isn’t it enough to just know the right answers?” they ask the Fairfield-Suisun Unified Teachers Association member.
Ready or not…
Teachers must implement the CCSS this fall. The new standards change not only what teachers teach, but how they teach it.
The English language arts standards have less emphasis on fiction and a greater focus on informational text. Students are to provide evidence from what they’ve read to support their answers, rather than provide their opinion or explain how an issue they’ve read about relates to their own life.
Math standards realign content to and across different grade levels. Topics are pared down, allowing teachers to go into greater depth on each topic. The biggest change was the elimination of the Algebra I requirement for eighth-graders, but schools may still offer it to students deemed ready.
With speaking and listening standards for each grade, students work more collaboratively, using technology in project-based learning to prepare for college and the workplace.
Teachers can incorporate more than one standard at a time into their lessons in creative ways.
For example, Kathy Harris recently modeled a math lesson on volume in an Olivet Elementary School classroom that incorporated a sixth-grade language arts standard of determining the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words, speaking and listening standards in small-group and class collaboration, and math standards for finding the volume of a rectangular solid.
Students first shared what they knew about volume in groups, then reported out to the class, then used boxes and rubber balls as manipulatives. Finally, students came up with a collaborative definition of volume as a “measurement of space inside a three-dimensional object.”
It differs from the traditional approach of memorizing the definition from a book, says Harris, a POEA member and Common Core coach, who believes students will likely remember what volume means from such a discovery process. “Lessons in the Common Core make you think more,” says sixth-grader Valentina Medina after the volume lesson. “When we can work out answers among ourselves, it makes things simpler.”
Adam Ebrahim, an eighth-grade history and technology design teacher at Cooper Academy in Fresno, says the CCSS are transforming his teaching.
“I’ve worked hard to encourage student autonomy. In my classroom you’ll see groups engaged in a task. There is a leadership structure at each table with captains reporting progress to me as I rotate among tables. The groups in my technology and design class are currently investigating the food production networks in the United States to understand why their school lunches look the way they do. In this unit, called ‘Forks over Sporks,’ I am one of the test subjects. They are holding me to a plant-based, whole foods diet, and will be measuring my weight loss and feelings of well-being.”
This type of instruction is liberating for teachers and powerful for students, says Ebrahim, an FTA member.
It’s about learning, not testing
From the beginning, CTA supported the new standards because they emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed in today’s world. They give teachers more flexibility. And CTA led efforts that resulted in Gov. Jerry Brown adding an initial $1.25 billion in the state budget to help fund implementation.
CTA believes there are many ways the new standards will benefit students.
With fewer standards, teachers can cover topics in depth and go slower. There were so many old standards that many teachers felt they had to rush through them. The new standards ask students to explain how they arrive at their answers, rather than rely on rote memorization.
The CCSS tell teachers what their students need to know, but not how to how to get them there, which allows creativity and flexibility in lesson planning and curriculum.
“The new standards validate what good, effective teachers have been doing under the radar for years,” says CTA President Dean Vogel. “Under the old system, teachers had to do things they knew intuitively were not good for students. The new standards are a direct validation of teachers as professionals.”
CTA research shows that an overwhelming majority of members — 81 percent — support the Common Core, mirroring studies by NEA. Of those who support it, 55 percent support it with reservations about implementation and the assessments.
Lawmakers approved AB 484, a CTA-supported bill eliminating STAR testing this year, replacing it with Smarter Balanced field testing instead. The law also created a three-year moratorium on using state tests for accountability purposes, giving educators some breathing room. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan fought against it, but the governor held firm, and common sense prevailed against testing students on outdated standards while transitioning to new ones.
“It’s about learning, not testing,” says Vogel. “Among the lessons we’ve learned from No Child Left Behind is that testing should not drive instruction. We must separate the standards from the testing and implement the standards the right way, before it even makes sense to count assessments. I am pleased to say that California is doing things differently — unlike what has happened in New York and other states where it’s been a disaster, which prompted NEA President Dennis Van Roekel to call for a ‘course correction’ in how states implement the Common Core.” (Read Van Roekel’s statement at www.cta.org/vanroekel.)
“When things change, it demands serious introspection about how we go about improving our practice,” says Vogel, who has seen new education trends come and go. “But if we work together, we can shape implementation of the Common Core in our schools in a way that is right for students, teachers and public education.”
Holly Miller, a sixth-grade teacher at Olivet Elementary School, likes having Common Core coaches visit her classroom and model lessons, like the one Harris did on volume.
“I feel like I have lots of support,” says Miller, who has been given release time for trainings. “It’s been a huge shift and a work in progress, but it feels safe this way.”
Unfortunately, such support is not universal. A majority of teachers polled by CTA said they have not been given enough time or training to create high-quality lessons for students, and their schools have not yet equipped classrooms with the textbooks and technology needed for the transition. More than half of members gave their schools “failing grades” on implementation. Respondents said they need more time to plan, practice good lessons, receive high-quality training, and observe and collaborate with other teachers to help them successfully transition to the Common Core.
Standards and curriculum have not yet been aligned. The math frameworks, which provide curricula and instructional guidance, were approved in November, and math textbooks were released this year, but are only partially aligned to the new standards. The English language arts frameworks have not been approved, and textbooks are expected to be released in 2015. To fill the void, teachers are finding or creating supplemental materials themselves — and copy machines are working overtime. (Click here for more on the challenges members face.)
Collaboration among colleagues is invaluable when it comes to sharing resources, ideas and lesson plans, says Vogel. It also helps morale to be working toward a common goal, rather than struggling in isolation.
“We have a math workgroup of teachers in our high schools who collaborate,” notes Katja Jackson. “We were working on the scope and sequence of standards, which clusters them into units of instruction. We continue looking for resources. We have looked at what other states have, such as EngageNY and MARS [Mathematics Assessment Resource Service] Tasks. It’s definitely helping.”
Terri Jackson, a teacher at Stewart Elementary School in Pinole, says collaboration and discussions with colleagues have helped smooth the transition.
“We are pulling together, and it takes away some of the fear,” says the United Teachers of Richmond member and CTA Board member. Even with collaboration, it’s tough not having core-aligned textbooks and materials.
“It’s scary and time-consuming for teachers to put aside our everyday curriculum in math and create our own materials from what we learned in our training and what’s on the Internet,” she adds.
Felipe Lemus finds mixed results with the CCSS lessons fashioned from online supplemental materials.
“One lesson went really well on reading comprehension,” he recalls. “I had students collaborating together in groups, helping each other with word recognition and blending. They explained their answers and couldn’t just copy from a book. The kids were energetic and successful.”
Another lesson did not go as well, and Lemus believes it’s partly because his students are so used to rote memorization, they are resistant to exploring concepts and problem-solving in math.
“Right now, they just want the answers. But with the new standards, we teach them to think.”
Lemus is doing plenty of thinking these days himself, wondering if his new lessons are really teaching to the new standards.
Vogel says teachers he visits are constantly expressing that same concern, since the Common Core is about standards, not curriculum. It’s like the “old days” before NCLB, when teachers came up with their own lessons, resources and assignments, and were allowed to use their professional judgment to decide how something should be taught.
For teachers overwhelmed from having so much freedom, the Common Core will get easier in time, says Vogel, but that means teachers must be part of the process.
Change can’t be top-down
Some districts are trying to impose control on the new standards with pacing guides and top-down mandates just like they did under the old standards and accountability system, which defeats the purpose of CCSS.
“In Fresno, implementation has been a largely top-down affair,” says Ebrahim. “The same people who were true believers in explicit direct instruction and pacing charts are now in charge of implementing the Common Core. There has been confusion. I fear that if there is not a true shift in the core beliefs of our district leadership, the Common Core will live on clipboards, not in classrooms.”
He says teachers deserve a place at the table — and need to create one quickly if they haven’t done so.
“I think the transition has created an important window of time for teachers to organize and assert our voice in determining what the next decade of education is going to look like in California. If we don’t step up, we’ll be left out.”
Research shows that teachers want to be consulted and involved in their schools’ implementation plans. However, just 46 percent of CTA members in California say they have been given the opportunity to give feedback on Common Core in their district, and of these, just 24 percent feel they have been heard. Research also shows there’s a disconnect between what teachers need most, time to prepare, collaborate and learn new technology, and what is made available to them.
Teachers, says Vogel, must make their voices heard loud and clear, especially when it comes to demanding collaboration time, professional development and resources necessary to make implementation successful. CTA has helped several chapters bargain teacher participation in CCSS implementation and also in bargaining for collaboration time. (Click here for more on bargaining issues.)
“Don’t underestimate your authority,” says Vogel. “Teachers are still some of the most respected people in the communities where they teach. If you feel the Common Core is unfolding differently than it should be, you have a right and responsibility to communicate that to your district and management teams — and to parents whose kids you serve.”
Looking to the future
Forrest describes herself as an optimist: The second-grade teacher believes she will be ready by fall. To prepare, her students are doing more partner work or “pair share” activities. In math, she’s learning what to leave out (fractions) and what to add to her curriculum (the study of money).
“The Common Core is somewhat like changing grade-levels,” she muses. “It’s so hard at first because you have to learn a new curriculum as you go along. Then it gets easier. I’m thinking that is how it’s going to be with changing over to Common Core. I believe change is good. Change makes you ask questions such as ‘What’s the point of what I am teaching?’ and ‘What can I do to help my students thrive?’ So far I’m happy with changes I’ve seen.”
Lemus is also hopeful about the future.
“I am a teacher, and I will find a way to be successful,” he says.
Harris, the Common Core coach, believes that the new standards will be an easier adjustment for students than teachers anticipate. “They are more technology-savvy than we are. They are ready to let go of the bubbles and worksheets. They are ready to start talking about things in a meaningful way. I can hardly wait.”
Source: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research
Back to Main Page