BY JORGE BARRIENTOS Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Teachers and school administrators across the country -- including thousands in Kern County -- are gearing up for massive changes in the classroom designed to improve math and English instruction.
They're preparing for Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by all but four states and are scheduled to be implemented Kern County-wide by 2014. It'll be started in some local classrooms this coming school year.
COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS -- TIMELINE
Aug. 2, 2010: California adopts Common Core State Standards
November 2012: Revised English language development standards available to schools
Spring 2013: Pilot testing
November 2013: Revised math framework available
Spring 2014: Field testing
May 2014: Revised English language arts frameworks available to schools
2016: Possible new math textbook adoption
2018: Possible new English language arts textbook adoption
Source: California Department of Education
School districts must adopt the new curriculum, train their teachers and staffers in it and implement a new testing system -- an expensive task.
The complexity of implementation is also daunting and mysterious to many, which is why schools are ramping up now or soon will. By most accounts, the work will be worth it -- resulting in students better prepared for college and careers.
"This is the most exciting project we've had in education," said Kathy Hill, director of curriculum, instruction and accountability at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office. "When you see what we have and where we're going to, this is the way we should be teaching."
The new Common Core Standards strive to make students critical thinkers, not just memorizers. They're an attempt to catch up U.S. education levels to those of other countries and tackle business leaders' long-held belief that graduates lack problem-solving skills.
The standards describe what students should know and be able to do in each grade. They're designed to allow students to change schools -- even schools in different states -- without missing a beat in English and math.
Among the changes:
* Math instruction is shifting from the memorization of facts toward an understanding of how math works and how to solve problems multiple ways. Instead of having students memorize what two plus three equals, they'll learn the different ways to add up to five, such as one plus one plus three.
"It's not always about the right answer that's important, but the process is important," Hill said.
That approach pleases math instructors who see the new standards as steering away from multiple choice testing to exams that challenge students to think more and wrestle with problems, said Frank Meyer, co-chairman of the math department at Liberty High School.
"Curriculum in math has been a mile wide and an inch deep," Meyer said. "We needed to narrow the concepts and teach students to a deeper level."
* In English, teachers and students will focus more on speaking and listening and on nonfiction, with a lesser focus on fiction. There will also be more writing, especially the "cross-curricular" kind -- more writing in science and history.
At the end of it all, students are not only supposed to be able to read more closely and critically, but employ effective speaking and listening skills and work effectively alone or in groups in research.
The new standards aren't necessarily superior to what California requires now, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education policy think tank that in 2010 graded each state's current standards to the Common Core.
California received "A" grades in both math and English -- for content, clarity, rigor and specificity -- calling our standards here similar, and in some cases, "clearly superior to those of the Common Core." However, the study said, aspects of the Common Core, like more group work and more writing exercises, could supplement California's curriculum.
English courses here, for example, have embraced nonfiction reading and writing for years.
"This is nothing new to us. We're not freaking out because it's stuff we've all been doing," said Sandy Magley, English department chairwoman at Independence High. "What is changing, it's going to be a change for the better, absolutely."
PREPARING FOR RIGOR
Since late last school year and through this summer, thousands of educators have gotten at least some training in what to expect from the new standards and how to approach them for the classroom. The trainings aren't cheap, as schools pay teachers to attend those meetings.
Kern High School District spent about $60,000 this summer. KCSOS has trained about 1,000 teachers -- from about 60 percent of Kern's 50 school districts. While it couldn't immediately tally up the total cost, KCSOS did say it spends about $100 per day to cover substitute teachers during trainings.
Greenfield Union and Rosedale Union school districts project their training will cost more than $300,000 combined.
Many school districts are using federal funding meant for "professional development." The California Department of Education gave districts additional funding for training based on student enrollment, said Tina Jung, a department spokeswoman.
But the department has given no funding specifically for Common Core transitions.
"We are very sensitive to the fact that the school districts have faced a lot of cuts because of the state budget crisis and this will make it more difficult," Jung said. "That's why we've been working so hard to provide online common core professional development for the teachers at no cost to the schools."
Still unknown is how much technology components or potential future textbook purchases will cost.
New kindergartners and first-graders will be the first to test under the new standards. And new freshmen will also be the first tested in their junior year.
Educators will expose the new standards to students in those grades starting this fall, school officials said.
Schools will also begin to educate parents on the new standards. Parents can expect to get information during back-to-school, or meet-the-teacher nights.
Reaction among those who've learned about the new standards has been mostly positive, administrators and teachers said.
"There's been a lot of energy and excitement," said Mark Balch, KHSD director of instructional services. "We think Common Core really hits the mark."
Among those still not exposed to the details of Common Core, there are questions and concerns.
"Where's the money coming from for all these new requirements being placed on students and educators?" said Michelle Johnson, president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association. "I think it's good because it will bring consistency among the states. But it will be another curriculum, another test and another format that students and educators will have to adjust to."
In California, the new testing will likely replace current standardized tests.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic Research and Communication with the GE Foundation found that parents almost universally knew nothing about the Common Core reform. But when they learned more, they overwhelmingly approved.
"Parents and the community should be excited," said Mike Zulfa, KHSD assistant superintendent of instruction. "Common Core will produce students who are better able to analyze, think critically and problem-solve in this 21st Century."
Another unknown causing angst involves the testing and technology aspect of Common Core. It's unclear how schools will pay for the technology to do assessments, how students will be expected to use it and how assessments will work exactly. Educators are awaiting details.
Overall, Liberty High teacher Meyer said, teachers appreciate the changes.
"Teachers who want the best for their kids, who want to see them grow, are all for it." WANT TO KNOW MORE?
For a look at what your kindergarten through eighth-grader may soon learn, go to www.bcsd.com/cipd, and click on the Common Core icon. To see what your high-schooler may soon learn, go to www.kernhigh.org/instruction/commoncore/.