By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
In August, California joined 33 states and the District of Columbia in approving new Common Core standards in math, English language arts, and literacy in history/social studies, science and technical subjects for K-12 students. CTA members, who were enjoying their summer vacations when all this took place, have lots of questions.
For answers, we turned to CTA member Kathy Harris, who served on the California Academic Content Standards Commission. She has been an educator for 25 years, teaches third-graders at Olivet Elementary School, and is a member of the Piner-Olivet Educators Association. We also enlisted the help of fellow commission member Pat Sabo, a teacher for 34 years and member of the Healdsburg Area Teachers Association, who teaches eighth-grade algebra at Healdsburg Junior High. They are two of 11 CTA members serving on the commission, which also includes administrators, university faculty, school board members, and a few holdovers from the original committee that first adopted state standards in 1997.
CALIFORNIA EDUCATOR: We already had world-class standards. Why do we need new ones?
Currently our standards are very broad, with lots of skills kids are supposed to master and be tested on. The new Common Core standards will allow us to go deeper with instruction because there are fewer standards. They are also clearer and higher standards. A great deal of research has been done since our standards were adopted, especially regarding language development and comprehension. None of that is reflected in our current state standards, but much current research is reflected in the Common Core standards. In the new standards, we have incorporated research about what actually improves teaching and learning.
Did Race to the Top (RTTT) cause the new standards?
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, the two groups instrumental in making this happen, got together before RTTT was even conceived. The Obama administration saw the Common Core standards as a good thing and picked it up as requirement of RTTT and attached a timeline, which turned out to be very challenging for California and other states.
What does “Common Core” mean?
It means there are common anchor standards that go across grade levels. It’s part of having fewer standards. These core standards span grade levels K-12 — and anchor the grade level specific standards. States were told that if they adopted the Common Core standards, they should comprise at least 85 percent of a state’s standards in math and English. California’s interpretation was to adopt 100 percent of the Common Core standards and add on another 15 percent, instead of taking anything away.
Are the new standards going to be drastically different than the existing ones?
The developers of the Common Core standards include some of the same people who developed the California standards, and they used California’s standards as the foundational piece. So the Common Core standards should look very familiar to California teachers, although there will be differences — especially more emphasis on comprehension. There are also some brand-new components. So there will be new curriculum, new materials and professional development, but it’s not going to be a whole new world. Teachers will likely be pleased and relieved at the way that the expectations are more appropriate to children’s development.
When will the Common Core standards take effect?
Implementation should occur in the 2011-12 school year. The actual timeline will depend on actions by the Legislature to authorize and fund the implementation. Two consortiums are looking at assessments that will go along with Common Core standards, and then states will be using common assessments. Teachers can look at the Common Core standards now and begin tweaking their instruction at www.scoe.net/castandards.
Should teachers be worried about having to teach to new standards?
Teachers should be able to get the support, information and professional development they will need for the new standards. The state’s goal is that the transition will occur in a thoughtful and thorough way. We can’t do this in a vacuum; we can’t just publish standards and think people will understand all it entails.
Is anything lacking in the new Common Core standards?
One thing that is not present in the Common Core is anything specific for English learners. When the State Board of Education (SBE) adopted the Common Core, there was a lot of public testimony from people who wanted to make sure that the English language development standards in California were immediately reviewed and aligned to Common Core to meet the needs of English learners. The SBE heard that loud and clear, so that will be one of their goals.
When will schools need to get new textbooks and other materials?
A timeline will be developed by the California Department of Education and submitted to the SBE for approval to make sure new pieces get implemented in a responsible, sensible way, and it will happen around the same time that new materials would be adopted anyway.
How will the Common Core affect testing and teaching?
Testing will change eventually. The new standards have much more of a focus on application and making sure kids use the skills and strategies they learn. The new standards are more practical with less emphasis on learning skills and more on actually using those skills, thinking and doing. There should be more discourse in the classroom, more opportunities for kids to talk to each other.
This is estimated by EdSource to cost about $1.6 billion. Is it worth it?
We think it is, provided the state makes the investment. Our system as a whole needs ratcheting up. There are kids that really need “going deeper” time, but they are not getting that because teachers are so worried about covering the standards, which are so broad. Teachers have so many standards to cover that they can’t go back and revisit them. Many teachers feel as though they are on a treadmill running through the curriculum so they can get to the end and kids can be tested. With the Common Core in place this should change, with fewer standards at each grade level that are also more age appropriate. It’s not cheap, but change is never cheap.
What’s the deal with eighth-grade algebra?
Under current California standards there is just one eighth-grade math standard, and that is algebra. But if they’re not taking it, they take general math, which covers sixth- and seventh-grade standards. Almost 50 percent of California’s eighth-grade students fall into that category now. The Common Core State standards left it up to individual states. If a state wanted to have algebra as an eighth-grade core, it could; but if it also wanted to have a high-level pre-algebra core, it could. This is what California decided to do: Have an eighth-grade algebra core for some students and also a high-level pre-algebra core for others, which is supposed to be a powerful preparation for algebra. CTA is concerned that this could lead to tracking, however, and encourages schools to be very careful that this does not happen, especially with low-income students and students of color.
Will the Common Core standards continue to evolve?
Yes, they will continue to evolve based on evidence and experiences across the nation. One of things we voiced concern about on the commission was whether, by adopting new standards, we were also adopting every version of Common Core standards to come? The answer is no. In California we are adopting this particular version of the Common Core standards and we will consider adopting updated versions as they come up. These Common Core standards have been reviewed by teachers across the country. NEA and the CTA State Council Curriculum and Instruction Committee spent numerous hours and days reviewing the core standards. And we will continue to review them as they evolve.