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 English class at Life Academy
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.

5 Responses

  1. Douglas MacLellan

    “In math, the standards focus on proving understanding of the concepts behind the problems and solutions.”

    According to a renowned Harvard mathematician, “in the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer.”

    The mathematician is Tom Lehrer. He is less renowned for his mathematical career than his musical career. This includes the “Silent E” song from the Electric Company, although I first knew him through a 10″ record my parents had with such weightier topics as “The Old Dope Peddler.”

    The quote is fifty years old, and was referring to “new math”. The new math was invented after the Soviets launched Sputnik, and was going to help us “catch up.” I remember my elementary school teachers saying they were confused by new math, in those long ago days before it was obsolete.

    It looks like it’s been re-manufactured as “Common Core.” There’s no one more adept at selling the same old wine in new bottles than the Ed Biz. Where “benchmark” is a verb.

  2. Jill Thomas

    The students in Mr. Cabana’s classroom are sixth graders, not fifth graders. Life Academy is a 6-12 school.

  3. Jim Mordecai

    There are a number of problems with “Common Core”. I recommend that those that want to understand teacher opposition to the Common Core goggle Common Core Standards: Ten Colossal Errors.

    Many teachers like Carlos Cabana will at first be excited by Common Core because as he states: “the Common Core methods are akin to what he use to practice many years ago.” He was referring to teaching for understanding and using teaching technique such as math manipulatives. But, in referencing back in the day teacher Cabana was teaching children before NCLB and teaching to pass the annual standardized test. Whereas before teacher Cabana, to meet the needs of the children, assessed each individual child, now all children under Common Core have the need to pass the test in math and reading. The balanced curriculum was destroyed and time robbed from all other subjects as the curriculum was narrowed. But, within the teaching of the subject of math there was instituted pacing guides that required all tested concepts be covered by all students. There was no longer time to teach for understanding, as teaching to pass the test meant there was no time in the day to slow down to teach for understanding. And, using manipulates slows down instruction. Sure the aim of most teachers is to teach for understanding but teaching to the test and large class size work against the value that teachers hold dear.

    The money behind the change; and the districts taking the money and providing the propaganda that this change is a new and improved change, like a new and improved lipstick, won’t cover up the fact that high stakes testing prevents teachers from teaching for understanding.

    Testing is not teaching. Of course standards are needed and teachers need to be able to test to know if what is being taught is learned; but the Common Core will suck. It will suck out of the school day time for teachers to teach for understanding.

    But, Carlos Cabana enjoys the change. He is going back to the old way he taught using manipulatives. Come spring the students will be tested. Will the Common Core test be available for teacher Cabana to learn areas each student was weak? No.

    And, then the experts will direct teacher Cabana on how to increase the class test scores. Want to bet he will be pressured to change his teaching and use publisher’s expert’s idea of doing x, y, z that will mean less time for using manipulatives?

    If computers are used, and the system works to give teacher Cabana testing results before schools end, the results will be given as data and teacher Cabana will not know what each student missed on the Common Core test. Testing will not increase teacher Cabana’s knowledge of which problems each student had with the test. One of the problems with Common Core testing, beyond teachers in reality will not be allowed time to teach for meaning.

  4. Joy Pullmann

    Playing with blocks in math class sounds like fun, and a heck of a lot more easy than repeated practice, but if “conceptual learning” hinders repeated practice with math basics, then kids in Oakland schools will suffer in the long run.

    It has been well documented that students must learn basic math operations (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division) backwards and forwards to be able to perform higher-level math such as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. Any student who does not complete calculus by the end of high school cannot enter a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, or math) in college without remediation. Further, the Common Core sequence of math that is pushing Oakland schools to spend less time on math practice and more on group discussion also offers no pathway to calculus by the end of high school. Common Core tops out at most of an Algebra II class.

    In short, no one is against exploring math conceptually, which is a great way to add interest to the classroom, but if it comes at the expense of what’s necessary to learn serious math then Oakland students will be at a disadvantage in attempting to pursue their full mathematic potential.

    Joy Pullmann
    Education research fellow, Heartland Institute

  5. Jim Mordecai

    Joy Pullmann: The requirement to enter a UC is not passing calculus as you asserted. Here are the requirements for a high school student:
    C) Mathematics
    UC-approved high school courses

    Three years (four years recommended) of college-preparatory mathematics that include the topics covered in elementary and advanced algebra and two- and three-dimensional geometry. Approved integrated math courses may be used to fulfill part or all of this requirement, as may math courses taken in the seventh and eighth grades if the high school accepts them as equivalent to its own courses.
    SAT Subject Test

    Mathematics 1C: Score of 570 satisfies entire requirement.

    Mathematics Level 2: Score of 480 satisfies entire requirement.

    NOTE: Effective for fall 2015 applicants (students applying to UC in November 2014), all students must complete a geometry course; SAT Math exam will not satisfy a year of geometry.
    AP or IB examination

    Score of 3, 4 or 5 on the AP Statistics Exam satisfies elementary and intermediate algebra.

    Score of 3, 4 or 5 on the AP Calculus AB or Calculus BC Exam satisfies three years.

    Score of 5, 6, or 7 on the IB Mathematics HL exam.

    NOTE: Effective for fall 2015 applicants (students applying to UC in November 2014), all students must complete a geometry course; neither AP Calculus AB/BC nor IB HL Mathematics exam will satisfy a year of geometry.
    College courses

    Grade of C or better in a non UC-transferable course of 3 semester (or 4 quarter units) in elementary algebra, geometry, or intermediate/advanced algebra can satisfy the requirement as follows:

    elementary algebra and/or geometry each satisfy one year of the math requirement;
    intermediate algebra satisfies the two years of algebra requirement;
    trigonometry satisfies the geometry requirement; and
    algebra 2/trigonometry satisfies the full three-year requirement.

    Grade of C or better in a UC-transferable mathematics course of 3 semester (or 4 quarter) units that has intermediate algebra as a prerequisite satisfies the entire requirement. Freshman applicants cannot satisfy this requirement with statistics.

    NOTE: Effective for fall 2015 applicants (students applying to UC in November 2014), all students must complete a geometry course; one transferable college course will not satisfy the full three-year math requirement.

    I believe once a student is admitted, the student can take the undergraduate math courses for the major. But, I believe the above makes clear that calculus is not a course that must be passed in high school to become a STEM major in the UC system.

    I find it interesting that a right winger such as yourself, a member of the Chicago Heartland Institute, and a Oakland teacher, and left winger such as myself, both agree on opposition to the Common Core State Standards.

    Jim Mordecai – Oakland teacher


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