Whether you’re inclined to love it or hate it, or are reserving judgment, Common Core is here.
The big experiment with new educational standards, adopted by most states, is in varying stages of roll out, with some districts further along in adapting to the changes. Ultimately, the success of Common Core will ride on how well districts prepare their teachers and continue to provide to them resources as curriculum and instructional methods are adjusted.
So how is Newport-Mesa Unified getting ready for its full-scale implementation during the upcoming school year?
The district is in the middle of a two-year program of ramped-up professional development aimed toward getting teachers invested and on board with Common Core. It’s a multi-layered approach involving the use of outside consultants; the assignment of certain teachers at each school site to participate in curriculum design efforts and help coach others, and specific training days offered to teachers this summer and throughout the school year.
All this doesn’t come cheap. Last year Newport-Mesa spent about $2 million on training and development, including some one-time funds provided by the state. An equal amount will likely be spent this year to pay for outside consultants, materials, the costs of removing teachers from their classrooms for training, and other expenses associated with Common Core preparation.
To be clear, there is no pre-scripted Common Core playbook. The new standards are just that — a set of standards designating the skills that students should have in math and English, year by year, as they progress through school. There is no mandate regarding exactly what, or how, teachers teach. However, many districts are turning to similar sources for help designing curricula aligned to the new standards.
For instance, to help with math, Newport-Mesa has hired UC Irvine’s Irvine Math Project, which provides professional development, standards-based curriculum guides and unit plans; and Swun Math, a lesson-plan design specialist started by a former math teacher and which utilizes techniques used in Singapore, a leader in math achievement.
For English, the district has employed the Rigorous Curriculum Design, a unit of textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
(Although the standards cover math and English only, related subjects such as science and history instruction are also affected, to a certain extent, by Common Core changes.)
The biggest shift in teaching, said Steve McLaughlin, Newport-Mesa’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction, is in the way Common Core expectations encourage delving deeper into specific lessons to prompt students to think about cause and effect — to go beyond rote memorization of facts, and to reason about the why and the how. Teachers, therefore, must become adept at posing probing questions.
In order to meet the standards, students must learn to write more critically, and to explain their conclusions in greater detail. In math classes, for example, in addition to performing calculations, students will be expected to articulate the theories and reasoning that led them to their answers.
Despite the reliance on outside consultants, McLaughlin said that to ensure a high level of buy-in among teachers it was vital that the district not dictate to them. He maintained that teachers have been involved at every step in designing curriculum, and have been encouraged to experiment with lesson plans. The process of simultaneously guiding teachers and trying to empower them can be difficult, he acknowledged, and some discussions along the way have been “uncomfortable.”
Indeed, I’ve heard privately from some teachers that confusion about Common Core still runs high. Some worry that more training is needed, that some teachers will be resistant to changes, and that less experienced instructors will be in over their heads when it comes to developing new lesson plans.
While McLaughlin acknowledged that such concerns are fair, he maintained that the district is addressing them in every way possible.
“What I’m confident in is we’ve provided time and development and input to be ready from day one,” he said. “We’ve given samples, models of how to do lessons. Some teachers will put their own spin and personality into it. If they do exceptionally better, they can share. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
Even so, nerves will no doubt be on edge next spring when students take the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests. A field test of the new online assessment system was run statewide this past spring largely to work out any technological kinks. The results weren’t shared with districts, but McLaughlin said the dry run helped to highlight the skills that teachers and students would need to handle the mechanics of the new testing system.
Results from the tests to be administered to grades 3 through 8 and 11 in the coming school year will be made public, and it’s only then that we’ll have a sense of where things stand. Many administrators are cautioning parents that scores will likely reflect the expected difficulty of the tests.
“It will be a baseline year,” said Kurt Suhr, Newport-Mesa’s director of elementary education. “It’s a beginning point. It takes a number of years to implement it effectively. I think we’re very well positioned. We’re going to see continued growth.”
We’ll all be watching to see if that proves to be the case.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.