The sixth graders in Carlos Cabana’s math class were explaining how zeros could be cancelled out as they reduced their long equations to only positive integers and then finally to answers.
Using stacks of tiny cubes, the students built structures that represented the 2+(10-4)+1+(4-10) = ? equation so they could see the values represented and how a positive and a negative integer of the same value equalled zero. They discussed among themselves how to solve subsets and eventually get to the answer 3. Then, in small groups, they explained it to Mr. Cabana.
This was Common Core instruction at work one day at Life Academy in Oakland. The Common Core is a new set of national education standards adopted by 45 states and rolling out in classrooms across the country this fall.
The new standards ask that kids be taught more critical thinking and problem solving skills, argumentation and analysis and writing. In schools around the country, teachers are bringing out new lesson plans geared to these skills, replacing plans that answered old standards that called for memorization of facts or recall of material. The Common Core standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the National and the Council of Chief State School Officer after years of complaints that too many U.S. kids were not prepared for college and careers and were sliding compared to their peers in other countries.
In math, the standards focus on proving understanding of the concepts behind the problems and solutions; in English and the humanities the standards focus on writing and critical thinking, defending a thesis with analysis and evidence.
“A few years ago, there would not have been time to use blocks and students giving reasons for their answers would take a back seat,” Cabana said, explaining the difference between teaching math now and teaching it under the former standards in which a lot of material was covered but with little depth. A veteran teacher of 24 years, Cabana said the Common Core methods are akin to what he used to practice 12 or so years ago.
In a 10th grade English class in another building at Life Academy, teacher Annie Hatch and her students are reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel that has been in the 10th grade curriculum for years. But with the Common Core requirements in mind, Ms. Hatch has asked students to do a project that combines analysis of this book with what they are learning in health class about mental health disorders. She asked students to diagnose the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, as to whether he might be suffering from bi-polar disease, depression, schizophrenia or post traumatic stress disorder. Students will be asked to write why they chose the diagnosis they did and show evidence with passages from the novel, she said.
Teachers might have assigned such writing projects in the past, but not all teachers would have, or they might have asked students to write about their personal reactions to it, according to district officials.
“There is much bigger emphasis on writing in the Common Core,” said Maria Santos, Oakland Unified School District‘s deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Also, the standards call for instruction to include more non-fiction, she said, “Previously district English language has been focused on reading skills” she said. Also, “we now are significantly increasing the demand for using informational texts.”
The Common Core requires writing as a way to demonstrate understanding of texts, including non-fiction informational texts, like in health class.
10th graders in Ms. Hatch’s English class
The driving force behind the development of the Common Core by the nation’s governors and state education leaders was fear that U.S. students were falling behind their peers in other countries based on U.S. students’ scores on various international benchmarking measurements, as well as evidence that some U.S. kids were arriving at college not quite ready. The idea behind Common Core is to move away from the rote memorization of facts that multiple choice tests encourage and towards critical thinking and deeper understanding of fewer things, according to literature on the Common Core and education experts.
Before the Common Core, each state had its own standards. California’s education standards “were considered the best in the nation,” in terms of rigor, according to Arun Ramanathan of Education Trust West, speaking in a teleconference about the Common Core organized by New America Media. “But even though the standards were fairly strong and rigorous they were called a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said, with in-depth understanding of a topic not a requirement. Moreover, teachers were pressured to cover all the standards rather than to make sure all students understood. “We had so many standards we expected our teachers to cover, so many standards in a school year, that they would move rapidly through them and not go in depth,” he said. Educators describe the Common Core standards as fewer but requiring deeper study and understanding by students. And because there are fewer standards, teachers have time to pay more attention to individual students, to help those falling behind and add challenges to those who are ahead of others, Ramanathan said. That ability to focus on individual learning is one benefit; “a second benefit it increased academic rigor.”
“The shift to the common core comes at an important time,” when the education field is paying more attention to student learning and how it differs child to child. It’s also a time when U.S. competitiveness is waning in the scientific and engineering fields, and business is blaming it on education.
In fact the authors of the common core, a group of academics brought together by the National Governors Association, benchmarked their draft Common Core standards against what was being taught in nations with high achieving students such as Singapore and Taiwan and Finland.
But the Common Core standards also have detractors who point out potential pitfalls.
One pitfall brought out at an OUSD board of education meeting is that testing for the Common Core must be done on computers or digital devices connected to the Internet. But districts like Oakland do not have computers for every student. OUSD also does not have reliable high speed connections at all schools.
Oakland is receiving $6.9 million from the state – its share of $1.25 billion the California legislature appropriated for Common Core implementation – and Santos recommended it be spent on technology, textbooks and professional development for teachers.
Oakland Unified technology staff did a survey and found that about half of its school sites have enough computers and enough bandwidth to allow every student to have sufficient time online.
The board of education voted to spend half of the $6.9 million, or $3.5 million, on technology with a plan to buy thousands of Chromebook lap top computers for kids to use and to beef up Internet connections to schools.
The board voted to spend the other half on training teachers and supplying their classrooms with new text books and other materials. Among other things, Santos said, the district wants to make sure every classroom has a library.
Adequate teaching training on the new standards has been a second concern about the Common Core brought up at meetings in Oakland. One teacher told the board of education last month that she and many of her colleagues had received only one half day of training around the Common Core. The vote on spending the state money on training is meant to address that.
Speaking at the New America Media briefing, one expert said the need for training should not be underestimated.
“The change that the Common Core requires in teaching and learning is quite a major shift.” said Iris Taylor of the Sacramento Unified School District.
Common Core instruction will be the subject of discussion at Wednesday night’s OUSD Board of Education meeting which starts at 6 p.m. at LaEscuelita Education Center at 1050 2nd Avenue, Oakland.