Valley schools struggle to meet new Common Core academic standards

The Fresno BeeOctober 20, 2013 

Valley school districts are hustling this fall to train teachers, buy new supplies and upgrade technology to be ready for new academic standards that overhaul English and math learning goals and will be tested in the 2014-15 school year.

But just how to meet the Common Core standards — which come without a set of daily lesson plans — is puzzling some teachers.

Although California lawmakers adopted the new standards in 2010, districts hamstrung by tight budgets have been slow to start using them in the classroom. That all changed this year when lawmakers approved $1.25 billion to help districts make the shift.

In many cases, teachers union officials say, educators are juggling expectations to both write new course outlines and bring students up to speed.

"I think our teachers have a great understanding of what Common Core is," said Eva Ruiz, Fresno Teachers Association president. "What teachers don't have a great understanding of is how our district wants us to fully implement it when there's no materials, no curriculum."

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The more rigorous math and English benchmarks adopted by 45 states including California and Washington, D.C., are described as a way to help students compete globally as they move on to college and careers.

The standards are raising eyebrows and angst in some other states but have largely been welcomed by central San Joaquin Valley school administrators.

Educators say most course content that's been taught for decades is remaining. But they say the ways teachers convey information — and how students learn it — are shifting in a big way.

"If you really look at the nuts and bolts of Common Core, the content is not new, it's the adult behaviors and the way we teach in the classroom and the level of engagement and interaction that is so critically important," said Laurel Ashlock, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer at Central Unified School District.

Raising the bar

Students will be expected to be more engaged during class discussions. They'll also learn to interpret historical documents and be more thoughtful and deliberative when they write essays.

They will be pushed to develop their persuasive and story-telling skills in their essays. They'll also need to think more critically. For example, instead of filling in bubbles on math tests, students will write short paragraphs about how they arrived at their answers.

Most content will stay the same, but what students read in English class could shift.

At a meeting with parents and administrators in early October, Ellen Melocik, an English teacher at Clovis West High School, explained that books 11th- and 12th-graders used to read under the old California content standards are being introduced to ninth- and sometimes even eighth-graders.

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The goal is to get students ready for the rigor of college.

"We look at historical nonfiction; we look at current nonfiction, mostly focusing on academic nonfiction," Melocik said. In her 12th-grade English class, her students are currently reading about war, including United Nations documents defining what constitutes a "just" war.

"We're going to look at every conflict the United States has been in since its inception and decide, was it a just war according to the United Nations," she said. Those sort of comparisons, she said, get her students more engaged in what they're learning.

Some schools will upgrade their technology to help students master new skills. By the 2014-15 school year, each of Central Unified's 15,000 students will have a 10.5-inch tablet in hand when they show up for class. They'll read from screens, not textbooks, and do interactive activities that can be graded electronically.

Statewide standardized tests will also go digital.

A bill signed into law this month dumps the pencil-and-paper Standardized Testing and Reporting Program (STAR) tests, replacing them with new computerized math and English assessments.

STAR, a multiple-choice test, has been used by districts across the state since 1999.

Students in grades 3-8 and 11 will take the new Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress (CalMAPP) on computers during field tests this spring. Practice versions show the new exams include more short-answer questions that ask students to explain their answers — not just fill in the blank.

Adjusting to changes

In some ways, the new standards will be a test for both students and their teachers.

The changes will require teachers to attend lengthy training sessions and write new lesson plans, tasks they are shouldering as curriculum is developed.

Many teachers say they're turning to the Internet to find resources.

On a sunny afternoon in early September, Rhonda Reinhardt, a seventh-grade math teacher at Kings Canyon Middle School in southeast Fresno, used a lesson she found online to teach about box-and-whisker plots, a visual way to display statistical data.

Students at desks fitted with special whiteboard tops used dry-erase markers to draw their graphs along a numbered line. The colorful plots were meant to illustrate a story problem about loggerhead turtles.

After students finished their graphs, they wrote about trends they saw. Then, they explained to each other how they knew their answers were correct.

"It has been a learning experience," Reinhardt said. "For the kids, they are not used to talking (during class), so sometimes it's hard to get them to actually talk on topic."

The transition has been particularly tough for seventh-graders, said Kings Canyon Principal Edith Navarro. Some have come to school crying, she said, upset that the time they spend on math homework has doubled from previous years. But now that school is a few months in, she said, they are starting to adjust.

Alan Santos, 13, and Ashley Valle, 12, are table partners in Reinhardt's seventh-grade math class. They said they now spend 20 to 30 minutes daily finishing math homework — last year, they only needed about 10 minutes.

But they note they're learning more.

Unlike previous years, teachers "ask us what was different about the lesson. What did you learn? What steps make it clear? And what mistakes did you make?" Alan said.

Some teachers say they, too, have felt the stress of new expectations.

Larry Elkington, a fifth-grade teacher at Central Unified's Herndon-Barstow Elementary School, said he's using Common Core but hasn't yet written tests based on the new standards.

Others say they're simply looking for direction on how to get through new curriculum by the end of the school year.

Dionne Sommers, a kindergarten teacher at Fresno Unified's Williams Elementary School in central Fresno, said her kindergartners will have new goals, including being able to count to 100. In the past, they only needed to count to 30 by the end of the school year.

"I need to see the big picture … and see where I need to start so I can end up in the right spot by the end of the year," she said.

On the right path

Some say they're already seeing payoffs in the classroom.

At Clovis West in 2009, only a third of the school's seniors who didn't take Advanced Placement classes were deemed ready for college-level English courses. Clovis West Principal Eimear O'Farrell said the school took that number to heart: the next year, 12th-grade English classes started reading more nonfiction and writing more essays.

The school then started using the newly developed Common Core standards, which turned out to be fairly similar to the new curriculum its staff had already developed.

By the 2011-12 school year, 58% of "non-AP" Clovis West seniors were ready for college English. That number jumped to almost 68% last year, and early projections show about 81% will be ready this year.

Although not every school has collected data, some teachers say they're seeing proof in other ways.

Erin Kruse, an English language arts teacher at Kings Canyon Middle, said she's already seeing her students talking and thinking more critically during class discussions.

"I think the biggest thing is to teach the kids to not be afraid to think," she said. "It's very empowering to watch the shift."

Districts prepare

Many schools are making a big push this fall to get teachers up to speed before new state standardized tests are officially rolled out in 2015.

Over the summer, a group of 30 teachers at Central Unified began drafting new Common Core lesson plans. District Superintendent Mike Berg said that curriculum will be used starting next fall.

Wynema Campbell, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Central's Rio Vista Middle School and a member of the teacher task force, said she was reconsidering her career choice shortly before she was asked to join the Common Core planning team.

The group has worked with textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt over the past few months to develop special digital lessons intended for the district's new tablet devices. The new standards — and the technology used to teach them — have been re-energizing, Campbell said.

"I was getting very burnt-out, questioning if this is for me because of how much (teaching) relied on the a-b-c-d tests," she said. "It has really brought a passion back for me."

Over at Fresno Unified, teachers will get about 18 hours of training between now and the end of the school year, said David Christiansen, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

He said the district will get at least $11 million from the state to pay for those learning sessions, which include six days of training for K-6 teachers and certain teachers in higher grades. Those funds come from $1.25 billion set aside under Gov. Jerry Brown's most recent budget to pay for Common Core implementation.

The money can be used for training, to buy new materials and to pay — at least in part — for technology upgrades to accommodate new digital tests.

It's going to take some adjusting, Christiansen said, for everyone involved.

Under Common Core, he said, kids will study fewer topics but in greater depth, a 180-degree turn from the old methods.

Even if the curriculum is a work in progress, it's smart for districts to jump right in, said Paul Beare, dean of Fresno State's Kremen School of Education.

"It's new, but it's not rocket science. Teachers will figure it out and, hopefully, the new student teachers will be taught to teach in these terms. Pretty quickly we'll get this rolling," he said.

Barbara Murchison, administrator in the California Department of Education's Common Core Systems Implementation Office, said the state is ready to help: what teachers will need to successfully transition to Common Core is readily available on the Department of Education's website, she said. The site includes video tutorials and a recommended curriculum for each grade level.

Whether teachers know that information is there is less clear.

Several Valley teachers interviewed by The Bee expressed concern about not having easy access to Common Core lesson plans, saying they're either crafting their own or waiting for more training from their district.

Murchison said alerting teachers to the state's resources has been tricky. Less than 2% of the state's 300,000 teachers subscribe to the state's Common Core information email list, she said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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