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August 9, 2014
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What is Common Core?

Common Core State Standards will be used by school teachers across California this fall, in the state’s first full year of implementation since it adopted Common Core four years ago. The standards themselves, though, have been a topic of national discussion since 2010, when Kentucky became the first state in the country to adopt and implement them.

Since then, the standards have elicited a mixed response from parents, educators and politicians, some opposing the standards, and others jumping to their defense.

Claims of invasive student data collection and federal oversight have been raised by Common Core opponents, while state and local school officials, focused on implementing the standards, argue that misinformation has created a false perception of what the standards really are.

So what is Common Core? Where did it come from?

“Educational standards describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject in each grade,” California Department of Education spokesperson Giorgos Kaznis said.

“In 2010, more than 40 states adopted the same standards for English and math. These standards are called the Common Core State Standards. Having the same standards helps all students get a good education, even if they change schools or move to a different state.”

According to Kaznis, the standards were designed by teachers, parents, and education experts to prepare students for success in college and the workplace.

In California, the State Board of Education decides on the standards for all students, from kindergarten through high school, while the California Department of Education helps schools make sure that all students are meeting those standards.

Common Core State Standards, though, also affect school district budgets, as California’s new statewide Local Control Funding Formula, determines how districts receive money to operate.

One of the many qualifying factors that determine how a school district receives money is based on their implementation of the academic content and performance standards adopted by the State Board of Education, which in California’s case is Common Core.

“Our job is to see if it’s meeting the students needs in the classroom, and the teachers need,” Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen said. “And we’re seeing that it is effective in giving us a tool that will help our students be better prepared.”

Common Core origins

In December 2008, the National Governors Association, a bipartisan organization of the nation’s governors, the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nationwide nonprofit membership organization of education leaders from every state, and Achieve, a nonprofit education reform organization funded by groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, released the report “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education.”

The report recommended states “upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.”

Four months later, the three groups met in Chicago to discuss creation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and reached out to states to commit to common standards in English, language arts and math. Over the following months, the group began to develop college- and career-ready standards, addressing what students should be expected to know and understand by the time they graduate high school. The Common Core grade-by-grade K-12 standards were also developed and reviewed by formal work and feedback groups, which included some educators from the National Education Association.

In June 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers announced that 49 states and territories had committed to participate in a state-led process to develop the Common Core standards.

One month later, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that states leading the way on school reform would be eligible to compete for more than $4 billion in the administration’s Race to the Top program, which would provide competitive grants to support educational reform in classrooms around the country.

The four key areas of reform in Race to the Top included the development of rigorous standards and tests, adopting a better data system to provide student progress, support for educators to be more effective, and an increased emphasis on interventions needed to turn around a low-performing school.

Those reforms conveniently fit into the Common Core State Standards.

“But nobody was told that they had to adopt Common Core standards to get Race to the Top funding,” Superintendent of Schools Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Accountability Kathleen Kiefer said. “What they were told was they had to have college, and career-ready standards of any kind. They could use another state’s, they could use their own state’s, they could use the Common Core standards, but they did not have to be a specific set of standards.”

In June 2010, the final K-12 Common Core State Standards for English, language arts, math and college and career readiness were released. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia would eventually apply to compete for funding from Race to the Top, but only 19 states would win, some getting as much as $700 million.

All states that won grant money from Race to the Top adopted Common Core State Standards.

On Aug. 2, 2010, the California State Board of Education officially adopted Common Core. Currently, 43 states have adopted and are implementing Common Core State Standards.

This past spring, schools across the state took the first field test of Common Core’s Smarter Balanced Assessment, which will replace the state’s STAR testing, this coming school year.

“We’ve known the standards were coming and we’ve been providing training for several years,” Hermansen said. “It’s not just like it’s only this year. We have been preparing, we’ve been providing information to schools on what they are, and they’ve all implemented on different levels over recent years.”

What is Common Core?

The creators and proponents of Common Core say the standards focus on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful after high school.

“It allows teachers to go deeper into subject matter,” said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Shar Johns. “The old 1997 standards, people have said would take a K-12 curriculum, because there were too many of them and so they were a mile wide and an inch deep.”

California’s previous educational content standards were adopted in December 1997, and according to Johns, focused a lot on rote memorization in the application of passing a test.

“But now we’re taking those standards, and narrowing them to fewer standards with Common Core,” Johns said. “Teachers can go into deeper understanding and teach kids to think critically and analytically, and really dive into subject matter in a much more in-depth way.”

Kiefer, who is a former teacher with the Pleasant Ridge Union School District, says an example of the difference between Common Core and the state’s previous standards is not necessarily in the material used, but in the way it is analyzed and looked at.

“With the old standards, we’d open our reader that was a set of short stories that you’d read, you’d introduce it, read the story, and answer questions,” Kiefer said. “But now it’s, let’s take a look at this short passage, let’s read this letter from Abraham Lincoln, and let’s check out this piece of art work from the Civil War era. You’re using those three sources to look at what the teacher is trying to convey, and then from those pieces you’re answering questions or performing a project.”

Kiefer added, “It’s really just thinking on deeper, more connected levels.”

In Common Core jargon, a “shift” is a technique used to implement the standards. There are six instructional shifts needed to effectively implement the Common Core State Standards in English language arts, also know as ELA, and six shifts to implement them in math.

The ELA shifts include techniques that focus on giving students a balance of informational and literary texts, engaging students in evidence-based text and conversation, and allowing students to access transferable vocabulary for appropriate texts.

“Reading, writing, speaking and listening are all explored equally in Common Core, and they are all integrated into each subject across the board,” Kiefer said. “So when you’re teaching, you’re hopefully bringing the writing into what you’re reading, and then you’re also having students speak, so they have their own individual standards, but they link to each other.”

Common Core math shifts include requiring students to have speed and accuracy with simple calculations, and a deep understanding of concepts, meaning a student should be able to explain how they came to an answer, as opposed to plugging numbers into an equation.

“I’m in the classroom trying to get children to use their brains, to be able to apply what they’ve learned, to real-life situations,” Magnolia School math teacher Jim Richards said. “Common Core is centered on getting students to think and understand, as opposed to perform a procedure, and because of the success I have found with it, I am quite an advocate of that.”

Common Core standards also provide a way for teachers to measure student progress through assessments during the school year, to ensure that students are on the pathway to success in each grade level.

“It’s an assessment cycle, short assessments, medium and long,” Kiefer said. “The long-term assessments are going to be the state tests that these students will take, and that’s what the public sees the most and hears the most about.”

Kiefer added, “But every day in the classroom those short assessment cycles, kids are writing on their white boards and holding answers up and teachers are adjusting their instructions daily, minute by minute, week by week, month by month. The Smarter Balanced testing is just one piece of a much bigger assessment.”

“The test will be telling us which of the standards they have learned, by the end of the fourth grade, students should know this, this, this, and this,” Hermansen added. “But the test will also show which of those skills they need to work on, so that a teacher can go back and re-evaluate and find other ways to help that student.”

Kiefer says the Common Core standards are an end-of-the-year benchmark goal, so a teacher’s job is to work students toward that goal, so by the time they’re ready for the next grade level, they’re ready to move on to new benchmarks and standards that will continue to progress in each grade, and throughout high school.

“The new standards really give teachers a chance to be the artists that they are, in the classroom,” Johns said. “It gives them an opportunity to create their own curriculum, while still meeting the required standards of every grade level.”

Common Core controversy

University of Arkansas Professor Emerita Dr. Sandra Stotsky has been one of the leading opponents of Common Core State Standards, as she says she was part of the original Common Core validation committee, but did not sign off on the standards because she felt there was not enough input from teachers and educators.

Stotsky, who is credited with developing one of the country’s strongest sets of academic standards for K-12 students while serving as Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education, has since taken to the country, speaking in different cities about the reasons why parents and educators should resist Common Core.

“Parents must continue to complain and complain and complain, believe me, squeaky wheels eventually get some oil,” said Stotsky. “They’ve got to keep complaining because administrators do not like unhappy parents, so it’s important for parents to keep on complaining and keep on telling their local newspapers, or whoever else, wherever they can reach.”

In April, Stotsky came to Grass Valley to speak at a town hall event hosted by Common Core Concerns, a local group of residents against Common Core. Stotsky argued that Common Core was never a state-led process but a federal one, and that the standards were not created by educators but by nationally appointed experts with no experience in teaching. Stotsky also discussed the controversy around the Common Core tests’ supposed federal invasion of privacy.

“Nothing is new about the information we are gathering through the test,” Hermansen said. “Back when we were in school and took our tests we would write our name, and our birth date. Nothing has changed.”

According to the California Department of Education, statewide data elements collected through the Common Core State Standards test are listed in the CALPADS Data Guide. Kiefer says it is federal law that prohibits any data related to an individual or student to be shared from the tests.

“Each state chooses their own system of testing for that to happen. While the standards are national, each state has their own company,” Kiefer said.

Another issue Common Core opponents raise, is the link between Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and the Common Core State Standards. Critics say that Gates has injected himself into educational reform to benefit monetarily from the new standards computer-based testing. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss recently reported a potential link between Gates’ Microsoft programs and the Smarter Balanced Assessment, claiming that Microsoft will earn revenue from the implementation of the tests in school computers across the country, which will run on a new version of the Windows program.

The Gates Foundation has donated more than $20 million to Achieve, an educational reform organization that helped develop the Common Core State Standards. Gates also poured more than $100 million into InBloom Inc., a student data collection project that ended operations after receiving complaints from parent groups around the nation, claiming the company was invading the privacy of students and their families.

While there are many links between Gates and the nationwide Common Core implementation, Gates has gone on record saying that he is involved in Common Core because he believes the standards will raise educational quality and help students compete in the global market.

“Parents have to run for local school board elections,” Stotsky said. “Get pro bono lawyers to get rid of this malignant cancer that is being funded by Gates and his friends. Parents had no choice in the matter. They’ve got to be willing to participate in cases in Superior Court, because it’s got to go into state after state because I don’t see Congress doing anything on this issue.”

Moving forward

While Common Core State Standards continue to make headlines across the nation, on a local level, parents, educators and administrators are gearing up for this year’s full implementation.

“The standards have been adopted, and the teachers and the schools have an opportunity to figure out how they want to teach the standards, but all the controversy makes it difficult,” Bear River parent Sonia Delgadillo said. “I think just like any reform it takes time to get used to, and our teachers and schools really need to be supported right now.”

Alta Sierra Elementary School teacher Sarah Schwartz said her district has already implemented the standards, and says she has seen positive improvements from some of her students.

“We are teaching kids when something doesn’t come easily to keep at it, and we support them,” Schwartz said. “Sometimes there’s different ways to approach a problem, and I think it’s empowering to kids, it’s going to be preparing them much more for college and their career, and all of that.”

Louise McFadden, a recently retired Nevada Union High School teacher of more than 30 years, though, says she is pleased to be free of another state and federally mandated educational reform.

“I lived through my share, and saw how easily educational reform can become politicized,” McFadden said. “Common Core appears to have fallen into that as well. My opinion, it will be gone in four to five years, maybe sooner. Good teachers will glean some valuable classroom approaches from it and will abandon that which is out of touch with effective instruction. Same story, different tune.”

Longtime Pleasant Ridge Union District board member Joann Rossovich, now retired, says the Common Core State Standards mirror some of the educational standards she grew up with as a student.

“When I went to school these are the things I learned, I learned to question what I was learning, and why I was being told something,” Rossovich said. “It’s teaching the kids to be analytical and be able to address a question or a problem from more than one direction. I think it’s a good thing because that’s the way I learned.”

Nevada Union Principal Dan Frisella says the transition into Common Core has been tricky, and said the full implementation for his school is still nine years out, because the students in the younger grades are the ones that will be receiving the entirety of the Common Core State Standards.

“But the standard’s digital literacy piece is huge, and really gives our school some leverage to pursue some goals around technology that are definitely in line with the 21st century skills our students are going to need in the workforce and college,” he said. “Our infrastructure has handled it really well, and that is really big for us.”

Frisella added that Common Core’s focus on modern modes of communication gives teachers “a lot of open source materials on the Web that’s being shared,” and that NU’s recent transition into a Google campus will help teachers share teaching materials and documents about the new standards, making the implementation more of a collaboration.

“We’ve been working on it the last four years,” he said. “Some of our teachers are starting in chunks or adopting components and have been. It’s part of our WASC plan to utilize our collaboration time to plan these transitional steps, so that’s what we’ll be doing.”

For Hermansen, the effect that the new standards have on students is what matters.

“It’s about setting standards that will help them be ready for what comes after school,” she said. “Whatever that is for that student, and if these standards do that, then we’re happy with them.”

For more information on Common Core go to www.corestandards.org.

To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email inatividad@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

“It’s about setting standards that will help them be ready for what comes after school. Whatever that is for that student, and if these standards do that, then we’re happy with them.”
Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen


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The Union Updated Aug 9, 2014 01:01AM Published Aug 13, 2014 11:06AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.