The new school year brings one of the biggest transitions our state’s elementary and secondary education system has ever experienced. As students settle into new classrooms, our teachers are adjusting their instruction to help students meet expectations of the new Common Core state standards. It’s our job – as parents, business leaders, students, community members and educators – to look beyond both the hype and hysteria to ensure that students benefit from thoughtful, locally driven implementation.
Part of the challenge we’re facing is a lack of clear information about what the standards are and aren’t. They emphasize critical thinking, problem solving and inquiry-based learning – what students need to thrive in college and in today’s global economy. Far from prescribing what should be taught or how, the new standards outline what students should know while giving teachers the flexibility to decide how to help each student get there. Under Common Core, there are actually fewer standards, allowing teachers to slow down and students to explore each topic in depth.
Kathy Harris, who is a teacher in the Piner-Olivet Union School District, serves on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and helped develop the standards as a member of the National Council of Teachers of English review panel. She has been in the classroom for 25 years and has already seen the impact of Common Core.
“The curriculum supports the standards instead of driving instruction,” she says. “We are moving from having the teacher do most of the talking to having students talk more to each other, which gives students much, much more time to express and listen to ideas and concepts. As students take more of an active role in their own learning, they stay engaged and motivated.”
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Some school districts such as Piner-Olivet are already starting to reap the benefits of a thoughtful approach to Common Core implementation. They have included teachers in decision-making to align professional development, collaboration and curriculum planning to the new standards. In Los Angeles, county teacher of the year Jésus Gutiérrez works at Baldwin Park High School and meets biweekly with his colleagues to discuss and plan teaching strategies and activities.
“Prior to Common Core, we were water-skiing,” says Gutiérrez. “There was so much to cover that it was frankly superficial learning. Now the students are scuba diving. The Common Core standards are not just about the correct answer. They are about thinking.”
California has taken critical steps to support an effective transition to the new standards. Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval of $1.25 billion in additional funding for professional development, curricular resources and other support was a good first step. In tandem with the changes the state made to the local school funding formula, parents and educators now have a say in determining what works best for local students. Finally, delaying new assessments is helping districts and teachers focus on giving kids what they need to learn. We must give students and teachers time to work with the new standards before jumping to more testing.
But too many districts are not yet taking advantage of these resources and our collective wisdom about what we know works for teachers, students and schools in this transition to higher standards. Teachers aren’t getting enough professional development, and they aren’t getting enough time to collaborate with each other. Some districts are purchasing and distributing Common Core-branded curricula without evaluating the quality and fit of these materials. Top-down decision-making is leaving teachers out of the conversation until it’s too late. As a result, more than half of teachers surveyed by the California Teachers Association this spring give failing grades to their district on Common Core implementation.
We need to use this school year to make sure that our students get what they deserve from the new standards. Let’s fulfill the promise we made with the adoption of Common Core. Let’s get it right – for teachers, parents and, most importantly, for the new generation of students depending on all of us.