Teachers preparing for Common Core

Two years ago, students in Carl Nelson's world civilizations class would have encountered this essay question: Persuade me why you feel this way.

The question as phrased appeals to emotion, said Nelson, a Thurston Middle School instructor.

In coming years, the question will be, "Analyze a source's credibility and use evidence to support the argument," Nelson said.

The shift is part of Common Core, new state testing standards for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Teachers at all four Laguna Beach Unified School District public schools are beginning to tweak curricula to adjust for Common Core, which places a greater emphasis on interpretation, critical thinking and writing.

All district instructors will teach a minimum of two units with Common Core standards next year, according to the district's website. New state tests in math and English will take full effect in 2014-15, the site said.

The California Department of Education adopted the standards in August 2010, according to the department's website. Though they focus on English and math, literacy is being threaded through every subject, said Deni Christensen, Laguna Beach Unified's assistant superintendent of instructional services.

Since 2010, 45 states have adopted the standards in English and math, which are designed to prepare students for college and the work force, the site the department's website said.

"There will be subtle differences, but it's not like turning on a light switch," Christensen said. "It's a process. California has robust standards and they have not changed that much."

Common Core encourages students to use mathematical ways of thinking to solve real-world challenges and requires student collaboration, fluency with multimedia, and problem-solving and communication skills, according to the education department's website.

As an example, third-graders will learn to add and subtract mixed numbers (whole numbers combined with fractions, such as 1 1/5) with the same denominator, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization that helped create the Common Core standards.

An English test question could be: Support the statement "A coyote's plan to get honey fails" with two details from the passage.

Middle school students will write more under the new standards, even in math classes, said Stacy Quirarte, an eighth-grade geometry and algebra teacher at Thurston.

"[Common Core] takes it to the next level," said Quirarte, who has taught at Thurston for 10 years. "[Students] will do more critical thinking and write in complete sentences, such as writing a paragraph on how to accomplish a skill."

With Common Core, sixth-grade students will learn statistics while seventh-grade students will take pre-algebra, Quirarte said.

An accelerated program that would offer algebra and geometry in seventh- and eighth-grade years will go before the school board at an upcoming meeting, according to Quirarte.

Common Core is a change and communicating the new standards to parents is critical, according to Quirarte.

"These are not the same math classes their older children took," Quirarte said.

Cross-curricular instruction is another element of Common Core, Christensen said. This strategy has teachers in different subjects coordinating material with similar themes.

An example could be an English class reading "The Grapes of Wrath" while a history class studies the Great Depression, Christensen said.

Not everyone is on board with the new standards.

Stanford University math professor James Milgram, who was on the Common Core validation committee, opposed the standards as they were written three years ago.

"They're not research-based and not up to international standards," Milgram said. "The best international measure I was able to find is that by seventh grade, students were well over a year behind (in math) and by the end of eighth grade they were more than two years behind."

The standards also do not include trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus or linear algebra, Milgram said.

"In many high-achieving countries, including Korea, Japan, Singapore and parts of China, calculus is required for graduation," Milgram said. More than 90% of those countries' populations graduate from high school, he said.

Christensen acknowledged Milgram's concerns but said there has to be a starting point.

"A lot of thought and research went into the standards and we need to give them a chance," Christensen said. "I respect his [Milgram's] point and there is certainly room for debate."

Nelson pointed out another change: Students won't take state-standards tests in social studies next year, though classroom exams will still be given. But he maintains that his students won't notice too many differences next year.

Students might read articles on why workers built Egypt's Aswan Dam and write an essay evaluating the opinions.

"My tests will be the same," Nelson said. "It's stuff we've been doing, but more fine-tuned. I already practice a lot of writing."

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