No common ground for Common Core

By Peggy Spear on January 27, 2014

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in an ongoing series about Common Core, the new public school curriculum.]

 With just a semester left before California students encounter Common Core State Standards in their classrooms, educators are scrambling to develop lesson plans, opponents are organizing to stop it and parents are scratching their heads in confusion.

By now, most parents are at least familiar with the term, as local schools and the Mt. Diablo Unified School District have held informational meetings about the curriculum change. Common Core was adopted by state legislatures in most states across the country to “modernize” education and share state standards. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia will share K-12 goals, which include more relevant lessons and higher critical thinking skills, and in return receive funding from President Obama’s federal “Race to the Top” initiative.

But opponents of Common Core feel the standards are detrimental to the well-rounded education of children and serve corporate and political interests and not those of children. Many states are already asking their legislatures to hold off on or repeal Common Core entirely.

Locally, educators are full-steam ahead in planning for its 2014-15 implementation.

“We believe in the purpose and focus of the Common Core State Standards, which is to better prepare students with 21st century skills of higher level thinking and literacy,” says Clayton Valley Charter High School Executive Director David Linzey. “We want to insure that all of our students are better prepared for success in college and in their future careers.”

He says that the advantages of the new program is that students will have “a more rigorous and relevant curriculum.”

In the classroom

The previous California State Standards focused more on breadth of knowledge by testing students on a high number of standards for each content area,

Linzey says. “The new CCSS were developed to be fewer, clearer and higher. Fewer standards so the content can be taught to a greater degree of depth, utilizing more critical thinking skills, and to apply those to real-world situations.” He says that the work will be aligned with colleges and work expectations, so that “all students are prepared for success upon graduating from high school.”

In the classroom, he says that students will see increased focus on incorporating literacy skills across all content areas, such as improving vocabulary, increasing reading comprehension levels to prepare students to be more “college-ready,” and integrating “evidenced-based writing.”

He says teachers will also integrate more problem-based and project-based learning. “For example, taking a real world problem and using mathematical formulas to help justify a solution. The increased rigor and relevance should provide students with a more authentic education better aligned to the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the 21st-century workplace.”

But local mom Denise Pursche doesn’t believe that. “I’m afraid Common Core will keep kids from getting a diploma,” she says, citing a report that said only 35 percent of New York students passed the Common Core standards test. “What will that mean? Do 65 percent not get high school diplomas?”

Opposition growing

That is just one of the worries shared by the Clayton mom, who has become the voice of Common Core opposition in the district.

“I don’t have an agenda, I just don’t think it’s good for students.” She is part of a growing number of California parents who are addressing school boards, city councils and legislators with their concerns. She said she is getting contacted by many parents in the district who share her opposition.

“People fear students will not get the breadth of knowledge they need,” she says.

Karen Duggan has another perspective. They Clayton mom of four is also a sixth grade core teacher at Foothill Middle School

“I believe that Common Core is another pendulum swing in education. I don’t think it is a permanent change, because so far it is not successful in some states.”

Duggan says that she sees some merit in Common Core, such as having nationwide standards for all students, and that it is no longer a “guessing game” for what skills need to have upon leaving school to succeed in college and “the real world. .” “However, I don’t see that in sixth grade that I’m going to have a whole lot of impact on an 11-year-old’s career path, which will probably change several times,” she says. “There are very few out there who know what they want to be when they grow up, before they are 18.”

She said she also concerned that as the curriculum delves deeper into certain books, students won’t get the opportunity to study a wide range of literature. “Students need a huge variety of reading materials, especially in the younger grades.”

That is one of the question marks still being determined by local educators: specific reading lists. But if you ask Pursche, it’s just one of many.

“Common Core was not developed by educators, but by politicians,” she says. “How can they insist we change to something that no one knows is going to work?”

Duggan agrees. “Being a mom of four and a teacher, I can honestly say that I don’t know enough about common core to say I support it. We haven’t tried it with any kind of measurable results.

“The number-one thing that can be done for students in California is to reduce the class sizes in public education,” she says. “I don’t care how many ‘new’ fixes there are, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, with large, maxed-out classes, you’ll get what you’ve always got, Common Core or not. And if people say, ‘We can’t afford small class sizes,’ then they need to see how many billions of dollars are being spent on this ‘new’ Common Core program. I bet we could have smaller class sizes for a fraction of the cost that Common Core will bear.”

For now, though, Common Core is headed to local schools. And just what that means continues to be a question without a good answer.

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