With Torlakson in the room, Sacramento teachers and parents discuss Common Core

Clutching coffee mugs, 16 Sacramento parents and teachers sitting in a South Land Park living room Wednesday night had mixed feelings about a major shift in how students learn.

They were excited about the potential for students to improve critical thinking and problem solving under Common Core State Standards, a set of national curriculum guidelines that California is introducing into classrooms.

But many expressed worries that teachers are unprepared, schools lack computers and textbooks, and other materials remain insufficient to support the new instructional methods.

It marked one of the first opportunities to provide direct feedback to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who convened the first of his Common Core Coffee Nights with parents and teachers from some of Sacramento City Unified School District’s highest-achieving campuses.

Districts across the state are trying to incorporate Common Core techniques into their teaching as they prepare students for new tests expected to launch next year. Under the new standards, students will spend less time reading literature and more time analyzing nonfiction. Math lessons teach students multiple ways to answer problems and apply skills to real-world situations.

Torlakson encouraged the parents and teachers to attend school board meetings and encourage trustees to spend more money on technology and training.

“Being an activist is going to be important,” he said. “This is a call to action.”

Torlakson said the state made $1.25 billion available this school year for computers, bandwidth and training to install Common Core standards. Sacramento City Unified’s share was $8.8 million. The California Department of Education also offered a Common Core Summer – daylong seminars for teachers on the new standards.

Implementation so far has been inconsistent, not only from district to district but school to school, Wednesday’s conversation showed.

Lydia Hastings, a kindergarten teacher at Crocker/Riverside Elementary School in Land Park, told Torlakson she didn’t need convincing to adopt the new teaching standards.

“I’m there,” Hastings said. “That’s how I live to teach.”

But Hastings said only two or three teachers from Crocker/Riverside had been trained on Common Core so far and that she had never seen a copy of the new state standards.

“We like the ability to get creative, but we have no support,” Hastings told Torlakson. “You had a Common Core Summer, and I didn’t get to go.”

Michelle Apperson, a teacher at Sutterville Elementary, two miles away from Crocker/Riverside, said her school has offered more than adequate training.

Not every school is at the same place in terms of training and implementation, said Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross. A lack of funds to pay for training has limited the district to a “train the trainer” approach, in which key staff members receive specialized training and bring it back to their schools to share. Ross said that additional state funding will allow more individualized training soon.

“We still have a long way to go,” Ross said. “It’s a major shift for kids, parents and certainly for staff.”

State testing based on Common Core standards begins in 2014-15, and parents and teachers are nervous about its implications.

Stephanie Francis, a parent at Caleb Greenwood Elementary School, is concerned that children will have trouble taking the computerized Smarter Balanced Assessments that will replace bubble tests on paper. The exams are designed to respond to each test-taker, asking more difficult questions after correct answers and easier ones after incorrect answers.

“I can see kids getting this anxiety and not finishing the test because the platform is getting in the way,” Francis said.

Kristi Morioka told Francis that students at Genevieve F. Didion, a K-8 school, had no problem taking the computerized tests when the school piloted them last year.

“We were surprised at how well kids did on the computers,” she said. “It exceeded expectations.”

Nate Starace, a teacher at McClatchy High School, wanted assurances that the use of the test results would be “constructive and not punitive.”

Torlakson said the state’s rating system for schools – currently called the Academic Performance Index – will include “more ingredients” to broaden the definition of success beyond test scores. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2012 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, requiring the state to de-emphasize test scores and find new ways to measure school performance.

Parents and teachers said Wednesday they were hoping that new standards would mean fewer tests. Torlakson said his department is interested in embedding the California High School Exit Examination into the Smarter Balanced tests.