By Frank Wells
Cynthia López Elwell, James Norwood
Cynthia López Elwell, Ontario-Montclair Teachers Association, and James Norwood, Moreno Valley Educators Association, met at a CTA Common Core State Standards conference. Both are middle school language arts teachers.
Cynthia: The move to the Common Core is a double-edged sword. It is delivered through teachers, and before it gets to us it has to come through districts. Some districts are being prescriptive, while others are pretty loosey-goosey about the whole thing. There’s a lot of interpretation going on about what the standards say, and that can be a little scary.
James: If done right there will be real benefit to students who will have the opportunity to work with higher-level text to develop college and career-ready literacy. The problem is not having much of a transition. It might make sense to start fully with elementary students and transition them, rather than have middle and high school students have such a jarring shift from one year to the next.
Cynthia: There’s also a huge issue with access: Students already performing at level in schools with adequate resources will have an easier time with the transition. It’s harder for students who are already behind to catch up.
James: One of the focuses of the new standards is cross-curricular literacy. Although I meet with teachers in other disciplines once a month to talk about IEPs and things like that, we don’t get into course content or coordinate lessons. The transition may be more difficult for subjects other than English where they may have the reading content already, but they’re not used to doing the kind of writing and analysis the new standards demand.
Cynthia: Collaboration in its current form might not be all that helpful. In my district, collaboration is centered on raising test scores. I’d love the opportunity to work with colleagues and discuss curriculum and approaches geared to specific students.
James: That would be great. We’ll be dealing with computer-adapted testing. We don’t have computers for every student, so I assume the testing window is going to be wide enough that we can get to every student. And many of our students don’t have the computer skills necessary to perform well. If they have to keyboard an essay answer and don’t know how to keyboard, they’re at a disadvantage.
Cynthia: I’m not as concerned about that as I used to be. My students know the QWERTY keyboard layout from texting each other. Of course, that’s with their thumbs, so they may not know how to type, but it takes the hunt out of hunt-and-peck. I have infrastructure concerns though, not only about hardware, but about bandwidth. Many districts may not meet the requirements or have the resources to meet them without cutting somewhere else. There needs to be enough funding so that all students are on a level playing field when it comes to testing as well as learning content.
James: One challenge is getting students used to the depth of the new assessment questions. Instead of choosing A, B, C, or D, they’ll be asked how or why they came up with an answer.
Cynthia: If it’s a translation from paper to computers, I think our kids will struggle with the same issues they have now. But if the assessments are as interactive as they are supposed to be, I’m looking forward to it. I saw students working with computer-adapted problem solving as part of a science and technology pilot, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen students smiling ear to ear during a test as they worked their way through a problem. They were so engaged.
James: Districts know it’s coming, and some are on top of it. I know there are teachers who don’t know what the Common Core is, and it’s only a year away. And that’s not their fault.
Cynthia: There’s kind of a hierarchical structure. Superintendents and district office administrators may know about it, they may have a small group of teachers working on curriculum, others are getting information from CTA and coming to conferences like this, but the overwhelming majority are probably just getting a glimmer at this point, and without more information it will be a little scary.
James: Knowledge is power. That’s why I’m here, and I wish more teachers could come to a conference like this.