Schools across the country are undergoing a major overhaul in how they teach reading, writing and mathematics. It’s a complex undertaking that will take years, but West Contra Costa schools took a big step this past week (Aug. 6 to 10) when about 400 teachers gathered at Pinole Middle School for up to four days of training in what are known as the Common Core State Standards.
“The Common Core are set up to ensure every student is college and career ready. That is the bottom line,” Assistant Superintendent Nia Rashidchi explained to Patch.
In a video shown to teachers, Sally Hampton, who helped spearhead the development of the standards, explains that the developers started by identifying the skills students need to have by the time they graduate high school. One thing they discovered, she explained, is that there is a gap between the complexity and quantity of text a high school senior and a college freshman are expected to read. In addition, college students get much less support from the instructor in understanding the text. Consequently, one of the goals of the common core standards is to prepare students to understand more complex text.
The developers also looked at practices in countries with high academic performance.
Once the developers determined what students need by graduation, Hampton said, they worked backward toward kindergarten to develop a progression to bring students to where they need to be. The new standards are meant to prepare students for careers as well as college. Hampton said in the video that developers assumed the skill set needed for the workplace will be as demanding as those needed in college.
One major change with the new standards is that they will be largely the same in almost every state. A few states have not adopted them, and states are allowed to add additional content up to 15 percent, but the bulk will be the same.
Rashidchi said that means schools across the country will be able to share materials and learn best teaching practices from one another.
West Contra Costa and other districts are in the early stages of moving toward the new standards. California adopted the new standards in August 2010 but the annual statewide tests are still based on the standards adopted in 1997 so those will still play a big role in most classrooms until tests based on the new standards are in place. Students are expected to be tested on the current standards for two more years.
The difference between the old and the new standards won’t be as glaring in California as some states because it is one of those whose old standards are most like the new ones.
“One area of significant change with the Common Core Standards is in writing,” Superintendent Bruce Harter notes in his August “Superintendent’s Message” posted on the district website. “The new standards bring a deliberate shift toward a focus on nonfiction writing with much more emphasis on persuasive and informational/explanatory text types.”
As with other skills, the Common Core standards map out a clear progression in nonfiction writing from kindergarten through high school.
“In early grades, “ Harter writes, “students begin opinion writing that gradually moves toward demonstrating command of composing arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning and relevant evidence. By the time students are in 12th grade, 80% of the writing that students do will be in argument and informational/ explanatory text, mirroring what matters most for readiness in meeting the demands of college and real-world application. “
In math, teachers will also work from a more cohesive plan for how skills will develop from kindergarten through high school, with fewer skills tackled at each grade level but more deeply. The current standards are often criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Students will still need to master basic skills like adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, but will also be expected to solve more complex, multi-step problems and explain their reasoning. Students at all levels should be working to develop eight “Standards for Mathematical Practices” that include “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them” and “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”
More information on the Common Core State Standards is available on the school district website.