Apodaca: Figuring out Common Core Standards

Newport-Mesa school officials have begun trying to explain how the Common Core State Standards will be implemented beginning in the next school year.

It's no easy job, given that they probably aren't entirely sure themselves what the new standards will look like in practice.

Even so, district administrators are practically giddy with enthusiasm over the changes, which they believe will usher in more rigor and relevance to the classroom. In a meeting I attended recently, staff members were visibly excited as they attempted to introduce Common Core concepts to a group of parents.

Common Core is an effort to create national standards for K-12 education. Sponsored by the National Governors Assn. and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core has been adopted by 45 states since 2010. California plans to use the assessment system being developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, but has left it up to each district to figure out how to implement the standards.

At its heart, Common Core is meant to achieve a few important goals: to tie what students learn to what they'll need to succeed in college and the workplace; to improve analysis and critical thinking skills; and to create a national framework that allows for states to evaluate progress and share information.

But all the excitement whipped up by the coming of Common Core must be tempered by some realistic expectations. Sorry to be a bit of a party-pooper, it's just that a little perspective and caution is in order. We've seen so-called revolutions in education before that have resulted in mixed or controversial results — remember the whole-language movement anyone? — prompting a backlash toward more traditional teaching styles.

Indeed, a chorus of Common Core critics has emerged to take issue with many of the initiative's features, including its focus on standardized testing. Most controversial is the greater emphasis on nonfiction reading, which many believe can be achieved only at the expense of exposing kids to important works of literature.

Common Core enthusiasts consider these concerns overblown, and they may be right. But for all the promise of Common Core, the devil will be in the details, and in the implementation. The district is in the process of designing units of study to be piloted next year, and future staff training will focus on teaching the teachers how to employ the new methods.

It was evident at the meeting I attended that going from the broad strokes of Common Core goals and strategies to actual classroom practices will take time, discipline and a teaching community that is fully on board with the changes.

In one telling exchange between parents and district staff, questions about whether all teachers will cooperate and be held accountable under the new system were met with vague and somewhat confusing answers having to do with development, creativity and the impression that most teachers share their excitement about Common Core.

Many questions were also raised about how Common Core will affect existing programs, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, accelerated math tracks, and tests such as the California exit exam. Most of the answers were of the "we need to figure it out" variety.

As puzzled as many parents seemed, the response to the basic ideas behind Common Core appeared positive. As they roll out the changes, it might help if district officials avoid educational jargon and acronym-heavy sentences. Speak to us in plain English.

At one point during the presentation, a Power Point image was shown of a box split into four squares and references were made to "quadrants A-D." I still have no idea what that was about.

Obviously, Common Core's success will require a lot more than just effectively communicating the concepts to parents. The real test will be in the classroom, and for that we need to give schools some time and flexibility to experiment, find out what works and what doesn't, make adjustments, and continue to refine their methods.

In Georgia last week news reports surfaced that 59% of students in a new math course tied to Common Core didn't meet the standards in a final test. Does that mean that the whole plan should be scrapped? No, but it should be obvious that no overnight miracles are forthcoming.

Another potential stumbling block also must be addressed before it becomes Common Core's fatal flaw. So far, standardized testing will only be offered in English language arts and math. Although the hope is that teachers of history, science and other subjects will adopt Common Core methods, there's no specific requirement that they do.

And given that they already have demanding curricula to get through, would biology teachers, for example, really want to take time out for students to read and analyze a government report on sustainable fishing?

Obviously, many questions remain, and we can only hope that they are answered in a clear and practical fashion. Common Core might not be the revolution that some advocates are promising. But if all goes as planned, it could represent an evolutionary movement toward better teaching. Educators deserve a chance to try.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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