The first thing I noticed upon entering Supt. Fred Navarro's office was the frame on the wall containing his two UCLA diplomas next to a picture of the university's iconic Royce Hall. Newport-Mesa Unified School District's new leader immediately received extra likeability points from this former Bruin.
On the job since July, Navarro said he's "really enjoying the challenge. It's an amazing district."
The former Costa Mesa High School principal returned at a critical juncture. Education budgets have been slashed and could face deeper cuts starting next year. Meanwhile, Newport-Mesa is one of many districts straining to improve standardized test scores at underperforming schools.
Add to that the stain of embarrassment and public mistrust of district officials left by Navarro's predecessor, Jeffrey Hubbard, who was convicted last January on two counts of misappropriating public funds.
Navarro said he hasn't felt any added pressure or scrutiny due to the Hubbard fiasco and referred to his own reputation as a straight-shooting man of integrity.
Of greater concern to him is navigating the district through an age of dwindling resources.
"We've lost a lot that people don't realize," he said. "These are challenging times — unprecedented challenging times."
But the subject I was really there to discuss was the future, in particular a coming wave of educational reform that promises to be — "revolutionary" is overused, so I'll go with "a generational shift."
I refer to the Common Core State Standards. Don't be chagrined if you haven't heard the term, or if you're aware of it but don't have a clue what it means. Many educators still struggle with it.
Navarro believes Common Core "will help us elevate the performance of our students so they really are college and career ready."
The National Governors Assn. for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers developed the new framework in collaboration with teachers, administrators and education experts, and after study of effective practices from across the country and around the world.
A total of 45 states have adopted the standards and are in various phases of rollout. California Schools Chief Tom Torlakson announced an implementation plan last March, which calls for Common Core to be in place in all English and math instruction by the 2014-15 school year.
Those subjects were chosen in part because they're the focus of most standardized testing. Other groups are working on standards for a broader menu of subjects.
Exactly what the changes will look like has been difficult to discern, in large measure because much of what's been written about Common Core so far has been drenched in educational jargon and vague pronouncements about academic rigor and preparing kids for the future.
So I'm probably grossly oversimplifying here, but much of Common Core boils down to a few key points. There is a big emphasis on writing, reading comprehension, analysis and critical thinking. The standards also stress applied learning, which means coming up with solutions to real-world problems.
In English classes, for instance, that could mean students pulling from various literature and media to compose thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments. In math, it could involve more experimentation and hands-on projects to help students master not only procedures of problem solving, but also underlying concepts.
Assessment will change accordingly. A sample English test that Navarro showed me called for students to read two articles and watch three videos on a topic, then give short written answers to questions, engage in group discussion and write an argumentative essay. This would be in contrast to the multiple-choice format so common today.
Not everyone is in love with Common Core. Critics charge that it's a thinly disguised backdoor means of imposing rigid national standards, betraying our long-held tradition of local control over education. Others find the goals laudable but believe they should be a low priority at a time when schools are going bankrupt.
Some estimates put the price tag for implementing Common Core in California as high as $1.6 billion. Where that money will come from is a mystery.
But Common Core proponents say that although everyone will have the same guidelines and goals, the details of implementation will be decided locally. Schools across the country, finally working from a common framework, could more easily share ideas and feedback about what works.
"What could be bad about people getting together and deciding what kids need to learn in the 21st century?" Navarro said. "I don't see the down side to that."
He acknowledged that big questions remain about how the costs will be absorbed. For some districts — not Newport-Mesa — hurdles exist in efforts to provide computer access for all students, which will be essential. Whether the new standards will lead to changes in standardized testing is also unclear.
"We've just started the journey," he said. "There are still a lot of unanswered questions," and expectations of overnight success should be dampened.
Despite the challenges, Navarro said he's optimistic about the future and the potential for Common Core to bring profound and lasting improvement to the way students are taught.
"We've got to do something to make sure our kids can compete," he said. "I think it's purposeful, and I think it's our moral obligation to do this."